Public Square

These Are the Most Pressing Challenges Today’s Technological Advances Are Posing for Christian Leaders

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Every business leader, educator, and government official will need to think about the positive ways to leverage new technologies and adjust as more become available. There are many potential downsides to technological advances, but I call your attention to three in particular which will need wise leadership:

  1. Working through massive job changes in a single generation.
  2. The changing nature of privacy.
  3. The balance of large corporations, small businesses, and self-employment.

Our biggest challenge will be working through the massive transformation of available jobs.   

Massive Job Transformation

The economic transitions and new business models created by technological advances will eliminate many of the jobs that exist today. Algorithms, robotics and automation, an additional billion workers competing over a digital network, and industrial scale 3D printing all pressure the human job market. There are overly-optimistic, almost romantic ideas about how this will free up billions of people to write novels, create art, and do scientific research.  The much more likely outcome is social upheaval as millions of people can’t earn a living wage with the skills they have today. Yes, there will be new kinds of work, different types of jobs – but mostly on the high skill end.

Over 80 percent of the population of the US and Western Europe worked on farms before the advent of modern farming with fertilizer, machinery, superior seeds, and chemicals designed to kill insects and prevent diseases. In the last hundred years we’ve moved 98 percent of those jobs off the farm and into other roles. Social economists point out that this is the largest work demographic shift in human history. Imagine going through the same scale of work demographic shift in twenty years instead of one hundred years. Imagine the portfolio of viable jobs changing almost completely in one generation instead of five generations.

We need to remember that the 1950-1990 period of high-paying manufacturing jobs was a two-generation outlier, not the historical norm. We tied much of our social stability to those paradigms, but that is unlikely to be our working reality in the future. Business and government leaders will need to explore creative ideas for social support systems that aren’t tied to long-term jobs in a single company (e.g., portable health insurance and retirement savings).

How Can Leaders Respond to this Generational Job Transformation?

This next generational shift in job destruction and new kinds of job reaction will require significant, wise leadership on many fronts. In practical terms, a large portion of a person’s identity – especially for men – is tied to the work they do. Unemployment can be devastating. Mass underemployment can lead to many problems for families and communities. Business leaders, our education leaders, and the church all have a large role to play if we are to avoid wide-scale anger, depression, and even violence.

Leaders have fewer concerns about the “best and brightest” individuals. There are always jobs and roles for the people who start well-positioned and have high-value skills. They will adapt quickly to both using new technologies and amplifying them for economic gain. We need to enroll them in helping others make necessary adjustments.

Technological improvements will mean fewer positions for lower-skill workers, or entry-level work for young people starting out. We may need to revive the idea of apprenticeships and guilds for helping people learn new skills.  Parents and educators likely need to abandon the idea that a high school or college degree is a guaranteed ticket to living-wage jobs. Since technological advances democratize access to sophisticated tools and potential customers and create global customer groups, we should foster the growth of family businesses and small businesses which can usefully employ a mix of lower-skill people in ways that large “efficient” corporations will not.

Business leaders must pay attention to cash flow and profits. It’s not going to help anyone long term to say, “Even though it costs me more money and I’m not competitive, I’m going to keep paying people $X/hour to do these low-skill jobs.” Business leaders can use a portion of profits to help with skills-development. Give people in your workforce the skills they need to be competitive, even if it means they could leave your organization. Treat them well enough so they want to stay.

Churches can be linchpin actors in many communities and could help with skills training and developing people with potential. Churches can connect members with technical and business skills with people who need help in a context outside of a regular business. Let us never forget that the family and church environments are the two best places to learn to work and to serve others.

New skills will be required of every level of human work in the future every few years. It’s highly likely that more people will have multiple successive roles in the future. We should foster intrapreneurship and entrepreneurship, experimentation, and risk-taking.

Certain politicians will push for a non-business solution: increased reliance on government systems, and regulations which throttle technological advances to “protect” jobs. A short study of the economic history of these efforts should tell us that we’re all better off leaning into technological changes and adapting faster. Far too often these efforts have led to tyranny, suppression of freedoms, and even more difficult adaptations to global competitiveness later on.

Whether an individual is at the top of adapt-and-adjust group, someone in the middle, or in the low-skill-poorly-positioned to adjust, they are all imageo dei.  We cannot forget that every person is significant in a biblical view of the economy. We can lean into economic and social changes created by new technologies without losing sight of the inestimable value of people.

Another source of social upheaval will be the changing nature of privacy.

The Changing Nature of Privacy

Even Christians who are comforted by the omnipresent, omnipotent loving God who knows their thoughts before they think them (Ps. 139:2) are discomforted with other people, businesses, and governments having access to so much information about where we are, what we’re doing, what we watch and read and say. The proliferation of computing power, video cameras, and sensors will outstrip our ability to create new standards for privacy. We will increasingly hear more police and government pleas to use these tools to prevent crime and terrorism, asking for a trade-off between security and privacy.

We need leaders who understand both the importance of living ethically (“Let your yes be yes and your no be no” – Matt. 5:37) and respecting the dignity of individuals by preserving their privacy. This calls for wisdom and periodic adjustments as new technological capabilities become widespread. Business leaders need to wisely determine where to draw lines on how to use information available to them – not everything which is legal is wise. Government leaders must resist the temptations that come with additional information about its citizens, to protect and serve them. The church must be prepared to teach and counsel about protecting spiritual freedom and identity.

In addition to job transformations and privacy concerns, new technologies shape the balance of large corporations, small businesses, and self-employment.

The Changing Nature of Employment

Before the digital era and post-2000 manufacturing capability, a business needed large amounts of capital over many years to become a billion-dollar revenue business or reach the Fortune 500. The democratization of access to technology and emphasis on digital tools has created situations where business with few employees and owning almost nothing become multi-billion dollar firms within five years. Business economics based on exchange of value has not changed – but the tools to run large businesses no longer need to be owned or managed in-house.

Is the era of massive companies employing many thousands of people for “lifetime” jobs over?  Maybe not completely, but even large revenue companies will likely have fewer employees in the future.  Technology is powerful leverage for fewer people.  The rapid evolution of business models also means that all companies must adapt to new opportunities sooner.

We’ve now seen the rise of the so-called “gig economy,” where more people are doing freelance work rather than getting part-time or full-time positions. Many people do freelance work or run side-businesses in addition to working at a “regular” job. The digital era opens up new kinds of small business opportunities because you can satisfy particular types of customer interests even if they never meet you in person. Also, there are new software platforms which make it easier to connect buyers and sellers of gig skills (e.g., UpWork, Fiverr). Even here algorithms and automation shift which freelance work is most valuable. Someone skilled with Photoshop could make a livable wage doing photo corrections a few years ago; free apps for mobile devices do this work now. Therefore, many “gig” skills have a short half-life compared to an individual’s working lifetime.

Is everything going to the gig economy model? Doubtful. Most businesses have needs for people to stay with a business for longer periods, but most businesses can also farm out certain kinds of work to freelancers.

Fortunately, in most countries it is relatively easy to start businesses. Individuals and small businesses have access to cloud computing, advanced software, and 3D printing as easily as a large corporation. The digital network makes it possible to access specialized talent working from anywhere. Before the Industrial Revolution made large corporations possible, nearly everyone worked in a small (often, a family) business. The democratization of access to technology may shift us back to that general pattern.

The overall trend is that most businesses will need fewer employees to execute the work and still continue to grow.  Gig work and small businesses will become a larger fraction of income providers. Everyone must learn to adapt faster to new technologies.

The Church has an important role to play in all these transitions.

The Role of the Church in Dealing with Technological Change

Congregations serve individuals and families during difficult transitions and create stabilizing identity for people who otherwise feel untethered and lost. The church functions to remind us of bedrock spiritual truths that we can trust when so many other things are changing. The Christian worldview is the foundation of western civilization – imageo dei, the rule of law, the balance of privacy and community, order in the universe, and the goodness of work without exploiting workers.

The church has the uniquely valuable position of celebrating the beauty of creation and people while recognizing the corruption of sin and fighting against evil. The church is the most important institution for protecting the family. We have hope in Christ, who remains our constant Savior, Lord, Teacher, and Friend through every technological change. The Church has a powerful role in developing future leaders and shaping current leaders and government policies.

Leaders should be optimistic about the future benefits of technological change. We can improve the lives of billions of people. We also need to be prepared to repeatedly adapt to the disruptive changes to jobs and social structures.

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  • Chuck

    Great article and very timely!

    I would just add that many white-collar jobs like doctors and accountants are not immune from algorithms reducing the demand for such positions. Also, some “blue-collar” jobs like electricians, mechanics, and welders are in high demand b/c fewer and fewer people want to do that type of work. Those blue-collar jobs also require a high degree of training (including computer savy) and they are harder for algorithms to duplicate as compared to the tasks of a family doctor or accountant (see the book “The Second Machine Age by Brynjolfsson & McAfee). So if young people are good with their hands and they enjoy that type of work, it might be worth looking into careers like electricians, mechanics, welders, etc–i.e. “skilled blue-collar” jobs.

    It also would seem that the men’s ministries in churches will play a key role in maintaining strong families since men’s identity tend to tied to what we do more so than for women who tend to have their identities tied more to the family.

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