Pretoria – The University of Pretoria this week hosted the Nobel Prize Dialogue with a number of former laureates discussing the future of work.
The dialogue brings together thought leaders across disciplines to discuss global issues and this is the first time it has been hosted in Africa.
The event was held virtually but still presented an opportunity to showcase the university and highlight South African Nobel Prize winners to a world audience.
In his opening address, vice-chancellor Professor Tawana Kupe said it was important for Africa to be part of the discussions on the future of work as megatrends sweep across the world, accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic.
Technology, he said, could be an equaliser, facilitating online meetings and global communication in home-office work, but care should be taken that it does not lead to deeper discrimination.
Universities had an important role researching the changes to work models and the culture of work, and in preparing students with the skills needed for the future of work, he said.
Lara Sprechamann, who heads the Nobel Prize outreach, said the discussion was key to building resilient and inclusive societies and solving the big challenges such as inequality, health and climate change.
In his presentation, Professor Chris Pissarides, Economic Sciences laureate of 2010 and Regius chair of Economics at the London School of Economics, spoke of the very different market that students face in future, but said education remained a differentiator in finding meaningful work.
Teaching of language and the Stem subjects – science, technology, engineering and maths – as well as entrepreneurship would be important for work of the future as much would centre around the application of science to industry and service.
Remote work was here to stay, as was work-leisure flexibility, and robots and artificial intelligence would play an increasingly important role in the future of work.
While technology facilitated remote work, the pandemic had also accelerated the trend to autonomous contract work such as Uber drivers and delivery services, which would support services of the future.
For Brain Schmidt, vice-chancellor of the Australian National University, who shared the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics, Covid-19 showed that higher education can change quickly, and for the better.
The digital world made it possible to deliver education on almost any topic to anyone with an internet connection and this could serve as a great equaliser.
He cited the example of Chinese company Alibaba which had allowed people anywhere to create companies and sell products “in a way that defied the constraints of our economy”.
What one learnt as a young adult was no longer sufficient, as the future of work required a lifetime of education.
Higher education could provide the full gamut from short courses and digital courses to research PhDs.
“If you only learn what you need to do, you will not learn the skills needed to do a job that is more complex,” he said.
Economic Sciences laureate Joseph Stiglitz spoke of the divide between those who could “comfortably work on Zoom” and those engaged in face-to-face work, for whom the pandemic had proved very difficult.
Those who could participate in remote work had, in cases, been more productive working from home and found work better without the time taken for commuting and travel.
But it was different in other parts of the labour force where there was a level of precariousness that he described as disturbing. A progressive agenda was not just about equality of income and wealth, but standards of living. “To make work more attractive and less onerous should be high on our agenda,” Stiglitz said.
Peace Prize laureate of 2006, Professor Muhammad Yunus spoke of the social impact of work, and called on educators to focus on preparing “life-ready” rather than “job-ready graduates”.