Shortlist Digest (August 2023): What’s Generative AI going to do to jobs?

Shortlist
3 min readAug 16, 2023

A hot question in the jobtech and workforce worlds has been: “what is AI going to do to jobs?” Specifically, will advances in generative AI (i.e., ChatGPT and other large language models) cause a new wave of skill and labor demand as companies and economies respond to new opportunities? Or will this innovation be a job killer, chilling demand for entry-level digital workers? As a firm obsessed with providing career on-ramps to a generation of Africans entering the workforce, this is a big question with no easy answers.

The case for optimism: throughout history, new technologies have emerged threatening large scale unemployment, only to create entire new economies and new job types for people to fill. The shift from handmade to factory production; from handwriting to printing press; from human computers to computers (as we now know them); from financial analysis by hand to Excel. All of these innovations have turned out to be net job creators, despite fears of the “end of work”. (Of course, there are certainly workers displaced by these innovations as it’s not always the same people filling new jobs, but that’s another story…)

The case for pessimism: is this time different? This paper (from OpenAI in fact) reveals a scary new dimension: While the above technological innovations have disrupted starting from lower-skilled and/or lower-wage work, theoretically enabling humans to move up the skills and complexity ladder, gen AI is the first technological disruption where a profession’s exposure to AI replacement is positively correlated with income — i.e., gen AI is coming for the higher paid job categories first. In this new world, manual skills like bricklaying, construction, and plumbing seem safe. Jobs like data analysis, blockchain engineering, mathematics, financial analysts, and lawyers, particularly at the junior end of the spectrum, might be quite exposed and disrupted in the coming years. This is part of why we’re focused so heavily on leaning into the “IRL” jobs emerging by the thousands in the clean energy sector and green economy.

If you’ve been working in one of these “exposed” professions for 10+ years, you’ll probably be fine. In fact, you may be already experiencing the ways these new technologies can turbocharge your personal productivity. But if you’re just starting your career in one of these areas, it’s not clear that employers will need folks like you in the same way and in growing numbers. Where an employer may have hired 20 software engineers in the past, in the coming years they may just hire 5 or 10 and let AI tools help senior engineers fill the gap. Same with lawyers, accountants, and more. And if large numbers of young people aren’t given the chance to learn these skills on the job, how will they ever close the experience gap needed to find success in the modern workplace? We may see the starkest divides by seniority, with more senior professionals “grandfathered” into certain professions, whereas entry-level and more junior employees are left with fewer options.

Or, on a positive note, imagine the emerging global demand for people to help make sense of the new array of AI tools entering the market — youth will be very well suited to be the future economy’s prompt engineers, automation engineers, systems integrators, and more…

How this plays out will dramatically impact whether the rise of “anywhere jobs” in the global digital economy will create career opportunities at scale for African youth.

Have any data or insights on where all this is headed? We’d love to hear from you as we do our best to prepare and connect young people to the jobs of the future, whatever those might be.

Happy hiring,

Paul

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Shortlist

Shortlist provides Executive Search services and workforce development programming to impact-focused companies in Africa and beyond.