Is the impact of tech giants on individuals empowering or debilitating?

Are tech behemoths such as Google and Amazon more likely to spell the end for our career paths or offer us exciting, new ways of finding employment that are actually in tune with our genuine interests?

47 per cent of the jobs in America are currently under threat of being automated in the next 10 years. The employment prospects of almost half of the US population, gone, as computer programmes and artificial intelligence offer employers a smarter, cheaper and more reliable workforce. While the social implications and moral reasoning behind this shift are up for debate, the fact that it’s looming over the horizon is not according to Dr Michael Osborne, Oxford University’s Associate Professor in Machine Learning, who presented the alarming findings at the recent Future Work conference hosted by The World Post.

Depending on your current predicament, it might be time to start reskilling yourself, with Dr Osborne pointing out that some professions will be under a far greater threat than others. "At one end of the scale we have those jobs that revolve around data entry, these are under the greatest risk. While in terms of low risk, our research found that members of the clergy were in perhaps the ‘safest’ of all professions." Food for thought for the world’s atheist admin assistants.

A consequence of technological advancements will always be the extinction of certain professions.

However as the agricultural and industrial revolutions proved, this usually opens up other doors. While this third, digital, revolution can draw some parallels with the previous two turning points for mankind’s employment prospects, there is one very stark difference.

The net worth of General Motors is currently in the region of $38 billion, for this princely sum they provide jobs and a source of income for over 205,000 people in 157 countries. Now you don’t need to be a Barack Obama bailout to realise that General Motors is a rather old school company, the likes of which probably won’t be coming around again anytime soon. In place of these giant corporations built around industrial scale manufacturing, we have a new wave digital businesses, operating in areas such as new media and communication. Let us take a look at one such business, WhatsApp.

WhatsApp, naturally, began its life as a seed of an idea inside the head of a young man – Jan Koum - sitting in an open plan Silicon Valley office. After leaving his job at Yahoo!, Koum and his co-founder, Brian Acton, were quickly able to scale their idea from start-up phase to the positon of the world’s most popular messaging app, boasting a mighty 600 million active users. But how does this compare to General Motors?

There have been 627,000 jobs created by people being able to sell on Apple's App Store

Just over one year ago Facebook agreed to purchase WhatsApp for $19 billion, at the point of announcing the acquisition WhatsApp had 55 employees. What’s really scary is that WhatsApp is by no means an anomaly, the likes of Instagram and Airbnb also operate on similarly modest workforces, especially when you consider the number of roles in the photography and hotel industries that their disruptive services will mean the end for. Even Facebook runs on a staff of under 10,000, a number that would have previously been unthinkable given the size and power of the company.

So where are all the jobs going to come from in this new digital economy, I hear you ask? It turns out you’re not the only person asking the question, with Walter Isaacson – President of the Aspen Institute – taking his time on stage at the Future Work conference to tackle the issue.

"Research shows that there are currently 600,000 people who are making a living from creating and selling products on digital platforms such as Amazon and Etsy," noted Isaacson. "Not only that, think of the numbers of people who are able to make a living through Apple’s App Store, there have been 627,000 jobs created by people being able to make and sell apps."

The age of careers being defined by working for a single company, or even in a single industry, has come to an end. While the world’s biggest businesses may no longer directly employ much of the workforce, they can provide opportunities for many more to become their own boss.

There are now a myriad ways to turn entrepreneur – crowdfunding, social media and the many free-to-use platforms served up by a handful of giant tech companies, mean that it’s never been easier to find something that you enjoy doing and make it your main source of income. Just as well, as according to research released by digital agency Deep Focus, 76 per cent of teenagers in Generation Z wish to turn a hobby into a job. This is up from the 50 per cent of Generation Y teenagers who had ambitions of doing the same thing.

And while some are clearly accepting the pitfalls and running with the opportunity to start their own company, there are many who may struggle to align with the new, uncertain way of finding work.

"Inequality breeds education inequality. You are far less likely to learn the skills required to become an entrepreneur if you are from a low income family," argues Philip J. Jennings, General Secretary of the UNI Global Union, who represent more than 10 million workers around the world. "People need a safety net. If you give them a harness they will climb the mountain, but without it many people will not stand a chance."

This, it would seem, is the challenge many face in the new digital economy, especially the non-believers among us.

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