With artificial intelligence, robotics, the internet of things, big data and other fourth revolution technologies significantly impacting on trajectories of employment, it is little wonder that the future of work is a topic receiving much attention from organisations and institutions around the world.
Leading universities, in particular, need to be informed on how to transform curriculums and which skills will be necessary for graduates to thrive in an ever-changing information society. Many have already put a rich educational programme in place emphasising fundamental and foundational skills in mathematics, stochastics, programming, electronics, and other STEM-based disciplines, while ensuring that the arts and humanities have an equally important role to play. Essential as well is the ability to think critically and solve problems; creative thinking, along with entrepreneurship and marketing skills, negotiation, appreciating cultural diversity and emotional intelligence, given the increasing dominance of the “gig” economy, where freelance and flexible work opportunities exceed permanent employment positions. Given that rapidly advancing technologies will displace certain roles, there is also the need to imbue the philosophy of life-long learning and its practical expression in being able to learn, unlearn, and relearn – which will enable individuals to reskill when necessary through what might become multiple careers in a lifetime.
In addition to the disruptions caused by rapidly advancing technologies, the intensifying complex crises and challenges which we face on a local, continental and global level require solutions which do not come neatly packaged into university disciplinary silos, boundaries and borders. Instead, transdisciplinary and interdisciplinary research offers the best opportunity to devise innovative strategies for solving complex problems including driving social and environmental sustainability. Further adopting interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary approaches opens the possibility for co-creation of knowledge that can be used to shape and not simply react to the future.
In May last year, the first Nobel Prize Dialogue was held on African soil, at the University of Pretoria’s Future Africa Institute and Campus in South Africa. This discussion on the topic of the future of work, which brought together a gathering of Nobel laureates, key opinion leaders, policymakers, students, researchers, and citizens, was of enormous importance, as it marked Africa’s entry into critical conversations on current major issues that are both local and global, and meant that Africa’s voices are now part of the discourses shaping the choices that will influence the future of work.
This is critical, given that the future of the world depends on the future of Africa, with its rapid population growth, as well as natural resources that are central to its own economy and the world’s. With the youngest global population, there is a unique opportunity to upskill a generation that can, apart from Africa’s own needs, contribute high-quality human resources to those regions of the world which have an ageing population.
As path-breakers of the African knowledge society, our youth will contribute significantly to innovation, entrepreneurship, and the future workplace, if the necessary resources are mobilised to allow them to reach their full potential. Through a collaborative effort, including the private and educational sectors, it would be possible for young people to gain the competencies needed to harness the full potential of Society 5.0, and, together with focused and decisive leadership across the continent, leverage this revolution to leapfrog our digital transformation agenda and turn Africa into a global powerhouse.
Of course, there are considerable obstacles to be overcome in order to unlock the potential of Africa, and achieve the African Union Agenda 2063 vision of “a prosperous Africa based on inclusive growth and sustainable development … where poverty is eradicated in one generation”. Access to technology and the digital divide need to be urgently addressed to avoid widening inequalities. Then there is the issue of employment, and unemployment, which is of critical importance, particularly to higher education institutions who have a key role to play in improving young people’s prospects of finding work.
In Africa, investments in higher education yield the highest returns in the world; up to 21%. Higher education and knowledge creation both directly and indirectly drive innovation, which is critical for economic growth. It is also widely recognised that graduates who are active in the world of work (either as employees, employers or self-employed entrepreneurs) can play a significant role in the creation of employment opportunities for others.
The Centre for the Future of Work, launched recently at the University of Pretoria, aims to become a cornerstone for the future of work in Africa, advancing the knowledge of the field through research and through ongoing engagement with industry and government stakeholders in order to influence public debate and inform public policy. In due course, the vision is of a vibrant centre offering symposia, working with non-university audiences (for example, unemployed youth, employers, and non-governmental organisations), working on university curricula, and developing artificial intelligence applications related to the future of work. It will be a Centre contributing to the development of new generation of human resource policies and practices that seek to strike a balance between employer needs and employees work life balance.
It is an opportunity to shape the field from an African perspective. For example, incorporating Africanism or Ubuntu, the ethic that says that a person is a person because of other people or the interdependency as integral to our humanity. As we consider the future of work, we can remember that success in life may be personal, as a result of proactivity and hard work, but let us be moved to ensure that others also benefit from our achievements. One of the great South African icons – Charlotte Maxeke – a social and political activist who became South Africa’s first black woman university graduate, famously said: “This work is not for yourselves; kill the spirit of self and do not live lives above your people but live with them, and if you can rise, bring someone with you.” These words embody the very spirit of Ubuntu, and can be applied to every circumstance. Incorporating the concept of selfless contributions to the discourse on the workplace to come will not only produce well-rounded, socially responsible citizens fully prepared for the world beyond tertiary education, but will bring about the positive impact society and our future generations so desperately need.
Professor Tawana Kupe is the Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Pretoria.
This article is adapted from a speech Prof Kupe gave at the launch of the Centre for the Future of Work at UP’s Javett Art Centre on 17 May 2022.