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Can Kiwis be better chameleons?

25 February 2020

To succeed in an unpredictable and changing world, adaptability is the key. Let’s be chameleons.

Technology continues to change people’s jobs and work environments. But change so far is not as fast and extensive as some pundits claim. Nor is it as fast and extensive as it needs to be if New Zealand is to realise the opportunities technology offers to improve our productivity, incomes and wellbeing.

It's hard (impossible?) to predict exactly how tech change will change work for New Zealanders. The uncertainty comes with some inbuilt biases – a tendency to overstate risks, costs and disruption to what we know (today’s jobs), and to underestimate potential benefits (creating as-yet unknown new jobs, goods and services, productivity gains and options) and people’s capacity to adjust.

But there are things that Kiwis can do better to anticipate and adapt – chameleon-like – so we can prosper in a changing tech environment.

Kiwis are already pretty good at adapting to change…

New Zealand has a flexible, dynamic labour market and workers are relatively mobile. Around one in five workers switch jobs each year, with over half those who switch moving to a different industry.

Many Kiwis score highly on the key skills they’ll need to adapt to tech-driven change. Kiwi teens score near the top of the OECD in collaborative problem solving (PISA 2015), and Kiwi adults top the OECD for the proportion with high problem-solving skills in technology-rich environments (PIAAC 2015).

New Zealand workers have high rates of participation in ongoing education and training (PIAAC 2015).

… but Kiwis could be better chameleons

To adapt more quickly and successfully to a changing environment, New Zealand needs to:

  • move resources (including people and capital) more quickly to new, more productive opportunities
  • ensure change includes everyone, by tackling persistent disparities in educational achievement, and not leaving some people exposed and vulnerable as technology changes the context of work.

The Commission’s five draft reports from its inquiry into technological change and the future of work have sought to clarify the nature of the challenges New Zealanders face, and to offer options for how we can best respond.

The inquiry team has carefully reviewed evidence on how new tech affects people’s work, and whether the pace of change is accelerating. From this, we recast New Zealand’s technology and work challenge:

  • the problem is not that new tech is changing New Zealand’s economy and workplaces too fast, but too slowly
  • New Zealand needs to adopt new tech more quickly – to boost productivity, raise incomes, and improve the wellbeing of New Zealanders, and their families and communities.

The draft reports made proposals to accelerate the rate of tech adoption by New Zealand firms and workplaces. The proposed policy responses include steps to:

  • create a business environment that promotes innovation, technology adoption, and the mobility of resources (people and capital) towards new, more productive activities
  • make sure we continue to have a dynamic labour market with lots of job options, so people have plenty of employment opportunities available and don’t face unnecessary adjustment costs to take them up (which includes reducing the costs and risks for firms of taking on staff, enabling flexible work arrangements…)
  • improve income security through income smoothing mechanisms for displaced workers
  • promote lifelong learning with tertiary education and training options that are more accessible for everyone (regardless of their employment status) and that are more flexible, responsive and connected to the world of work
  • provide better careers information, advice and guidance, and more flexible pathways through education and into employment, and
  • give all young people the best early childhood education and schooling opportunities to gain the skills, knowledge, and competencies needed to be successful, adaptable chameleons.

Let’s not be gloomy – there are great opportunities and Kiwis have strengths

Tech change need not decrease the number of good jobs available to Kiwis. Some tasks and jobs will be automated or displaced. Tech change will directly create new jobs, and increased spending power from higher productivity will boost demand for other things (again creating jobs). Tech can also improve people’s work options and flexibility (while raising some tricky issues with workplace relationships and employment conditions to address).

As with previous waves of change, the benefits, costs, opportunities and risks of future technological change will not be spread evenly across society. Some people will bear greater costs and risks than others. As it is unclear just which technologies will affect work and in what ways, it is even less clear (and probably pointless to predict) which industries or occupations will be most affected. The challenge for policy makers is to build systems to support those negatively affected, and help them adapt to and share in the benefits of new tech.

New Zealand’s business environment, labour market, income support and education systems have some real strengths that will help people to adapt to change. And we can learn both from history and from other countries’ experiences.

So long for now

Thank you to the many people and organisations who made submissions on our five draft reports. We really appreciate your time, effort and interest. We will do our best to make good use of your feedback.

Some of you have challenged the inquiry team’s analysis and findings on the nature, pace and impact of recent and future technological change. Others have identified gaps in our analysis, pushed us to provide more detailed and ambitious proposals, or asked us to give more attention to specific issues.

Over the next few weeks the inquiry team will be preparing the Commission’s final report to the Government. That will keep us too busy to blog, so this is the last FutureWorkNZ blog post until the final report is published. We expect that to be in April, once the report (due with Ministers at the end of March) is tabled in Parliament.

Ministry of Education (2017) PISA 2015 collaborate problem solving report,
OECD (2016), Skills matter- further results from the survey of adult skills (PIAAC): New Zealand country note,
OECD (2017), Education at a glance 2017, fig C6.1 p316,

Jack MacCormick

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