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There is no doubt that history is one of our greatest teachers, and the big question at this stage is whether history will, in fact, repeat itself. We’ll compare workforce trends from the 1920s to the 2020s in this article.

1920 to 2020 retrospective - Innovation Management

In the 1920s the only form of social media was the ‘wireless’ radio against the backdrop of the Charleston Dance

In 2020 we live in a world populated by more iPhones than people. But, 100 years ago, after World War 1, the economic boom brought about by innovative technologies that led the Second Industrial Revolution during the 1920s saw people working in factories and on farms where the only form of social media was the ‘wireless’ radio against a backdrop of the Charleston Dance, Jazz music and women wearing Flapper dresses. Such was the culture of the Roaring Twenties.

1920 to 2020 retrospective - Innovation Management

The 1920s also marked an era of prosperity. Manufacturing jobs were common, most notably in the automotive industry with companies like Chrysler, General Motors and Ford in the driving seat. As the automobile industry gained traction this had a spillover effect that inspired growth in other industries such as steel production and the building of highways.

1920 to 2020 retrospective - Innovation Management

Manufacturing jobs started to become the norm with the roll out of the decade of the 1920s

Many women worked as nurses, teachers, maids and librarians. Many men held jobs as doctors, lawyers, bankers and farmers but as the decade of the 1920s started to roll out jobs in the manufacturing industry became the norm as demand for electrical appliances increased.

The manufacturing boom of the 1920s was responsible for redefining the world of work in the modern era

As well as affording a platform for the creation of new jobs, the motor industry was also responsible for changing the way people worked when Ford’s assembly-line production model became the industry standard. Using Ford’s model, manufacturing companies were able to employ unskilled labour at cheaper rates in order to cut down on costs. It was in this manner that women started to establish themselves as part of the workforce in that up until that time they had never been hired en masse, especially where it concerns taking on job roles that were traditionally previously held by men only. Hence, the manufacturing boom of the 1920s was responsible for redefining the world of work in the modern era.

Does history repeat itself?

There is no doubt that history is one of our greatest teachers and the big question at this stage is whether history will, in fact, repeat itself. The first half of the 20th Century was radically shaken by the devastating consequences of World War 1 and World War 2, both of which changed the world so radically that any sense of normal was hard to find as people were on a global mission to navigate to a place of safety, that is the establishment of world peace. In this regard, the formation of The United Nations (UN) on 24 October 1945 undertook a very serious mission to incite international cooperation and prevent another world war.

World Peace through the Hippie Movement?

World War 1 ended in 1918 and was followed twenty years later by World War 2, which began on 1 September 1939. This timeframe marked a twenty-year gap between both world wars. It was twenty years after that that the Hippie Movement began and much of Hippie philosophy involved anti-war protests. The youth had risen against the establishment to say that they had had enough. In amongst everything that the Hippie Movement stood for, world peace was high on the agenda. In hindsight, can we be so bold to assume that the Hippie Movement of the 1960s broke the trend of having a world war every twenty years and was perhaps even instrumental in preventing a third world war twenty years after the second?

1920 to 2020 retrospective - Innovation Management

1920s – Human workers fearful of becoming obsolete in the face of mass production and new technologies

While the economy was booming, during the decade of the 1920s many individuals were in fear of losing their jobs in the face of increased mass production and new technologies. Yet, streamlining production and increased efficiencies also meant higher wages for workers even though workers carried out tasks that were more monotonous.

1920 to 2020 retrospective - Innovation Management

2020s – Human workers fearful of becoming obsolete in the face of automation and Artificial Intelligence (AI)

One hundred years have passed since the advent of 20th Century new technologies and mass production models that led to the streamlining of efficiencies that we have today. But, by and large, people are faced with the very same new fears of human obsolescence in the workplace. This time, in the form of 4th Industrial Revolution technologies.

1920 to 2020 retrospective - Innovation Management

Many tasks that once depended on middle-skill occupational workers are being taken over by automation and artificial intelligence (AI).

Today, while we still listen to Jazz, we no longer dance the Charleston. But there is a lot more to the job market than factories and farming, and with technology leading the way we need to firstly understand then embrace and ultimately adopt the ways and means of the new trends in terms of how we work. Some of these trends include:

  • Embracing the ‘gig’ economy

Today’s workforce is composed of more contractors and freelancers than ever before. This is known as the ‘gig’ economy. Rather than keeping a large workforce of permanent staff, companies are now hiring individuals to do work that is project based. While this means that workers no longer have the ‘security blanket’ of a permanent job, the upside to this trend is that it affords individuals a great deal more exposure to learn and grow in their careers and more freedom of choice.

  • Working remotely

Thanks to mobile technology, more and more people are working remotely. Nowadays, the common trend is to hold meetings in coffee shops and restaurants as opposed to boardrooms in a traditional office. Most of these venues are equipped with Wi-Fi connectivity and people can work online anytime, anywhere.

  • Humans working alongside machines

Artificial Intelligence (AI) algorithms and intelligent machines are coming into the workforce as co-workers alongside humans. AI is moving in fast with AI assistants such as Microsoft’s Cortana and Amazon’s Alexa taking up residence in our homes and organising our lives. This trend is about to hit the workplace and we will need to get used to the idea that not only will we have human colleagues to work with but AI ones too.

  • Developing a culture of lifelong learning

As technology continues to evolve, humans will need to evolve. This is where everyone is required to adapt their skills throughout their working lives. The World Economic Forum Future of Jobs Report 2018 is abundantly clear on one thing and that is that continuous professional development, particularly in soft skills training such as critical thinking and creative problem solving, are vital in being able to adapt to the roll out of the impact of 4th Industrial Revolution technologies.

“It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing” -Tony Bennett

The key to adapting to the changing workplace lies in ‘getting into the swing of things’ and embracing the changing rhythms of the world we live in. Fashions and trends may come and go but human nature remains the same. It might have been the fashion 100 years ago, but, who says we can’t still dance the Charleston as we embrace our humanness to grow into a brave new world run by machines?

1920 to 2020 retrospective - Innovation Management

About the author

Helen Fenton, Senior Analyst, Business Optimization Training Institute

Business Optimization Training Institute (BOTI) is a Johannesburg based, Level 1 BBBEE business. As a Services and MICT SETA accredited company, we have trained thousands of individuals from over 650 companies and our extensive course offering consists of Short Courses, Soft Skills Training and Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL) Learnership Programs. In addition, we offer bespoke training programs designed to cater to specific business needs. Our training courses are focused on knowledge and skills transfer and we pride ourselves in being able to provide training anytime, anywhere across South Africa.

Reference sources: Forbes, University of Virginia, World Economic Forum Future of Jobs Report 2018