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A Work Landscape in Flux for Young People

Forging Common Ground – Series of Oxford Student Insights to the Skoll World Forum 2017 MBA candidate 2017, Ahmed Abu Bakr gives his perspective on the Skoll World Forum session ‘A Work Landscape in Flux for Young People’

We all know that the world is changing at an unprecedented rate, but I regularly feel that we forget, often far too easily, that these changes aren’t entirely new. Marina Gorbis, executive director at the Institute for the future, reminds us that the technological disruptions we are witnessing today, aren’t really as rapid as we make them out to be.

The internet, the proliferation of mobile technology and sensors, and the big data revolution are a result of over thirty years of consistent investment and prioritisation in the space of communication technologies. She refers to the outcome of these technologies as greater “digital coordination”; and through this, she provides a broader definition for technology. If the internet and big data allow for coordination, then institutions and organised systems (for business, government, and otherwise) are also technologies in their own right- technologies for the coordination and allocation of resources.

'A Work Landscape in Flux for Young People' panel.

‘A Work Landscape in Flux for Young People’ panel.

And it is important to keep in mind that organised systems that are being disrupted today- financial markets, healthcare systems, the transportation sector, etc.- were actually major innovations in their own time that disrupted the status quo back in their day.

There is no doubt that the nature of work is being radically transformed by what Marina calls “digital coordination” technologies. But is it really a source of disruption for the nature of work?

The remaining panellists attested that young people in Egypt and Africa were choosing to delve into entrepreneurship and the growing start up culture because of two primary reasons. Firstly, there is an undoubted frustration within the youth populations where they are dissatisfied with the available economic opportunities. Fhazhil Wamalwa, managing director at Disa Energy Management, recalled how he was led to believe that a good education would result in a decent job, and how his inability to get on after his master’s degrees was a painful but necessary disillusionment.

The second factor is a deliberate and concerted effort by many to promote entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial activities as a response to the failure of the existing systems. Dina El Mofty (Injaz Egypt), and Marwa Moaz (Bamyan Media) both talked about their sustained efforts within Egypt to inspire and develop an entrepreneurial mind set.

With this context, it becomes evident that the changing nature of work, the rise of gig jobs, and the proliferation of self-employment and entrepreneurship is a response to the failure of the existing econo-political system where digital technology is less of a cause and more of an enabler.

One thing remains uncontested- the old institutions have to be reformed, and in some cases completely revised. For me personally, the key question is around the evolution of these new systems. The topic of the day seems to be around growing wealth inequality. But wealth inequality is a result of inequalities in the distribution of power- social and politcal. What’s even more troubling is the feedback effect on power from the accumulation of wealth. The 21st century has seen tremendous concentration of wealth because of a tremendous concentration in power. What can we learn from history to design new social and political institutions that distribute power rather than concentrate it?

Ahmed Abu Bakr is an MBA 2016-17, Skoll Scholar at the Saïd Business School, University of Oxford, and Co-founder of Jeeon