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Industrial Revolutions, Youth and Inequality

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Picture: Henk Kruger/African News Agency (ANA) Cloud Support Engineer Tebogo Mpati with grade 9 learner Sibongile Khotseng during a Python Bootcamp facilitated by local NGO, International Certification in Digital Literacy (ICDL). Curro Foreshore, an independent high-school within Curro’s DigiEd model that delivers education in a technology-rich format, held an intensive Python Coding Bootcamp at their campus between February 19 and 21, 2020.

By Tamia Adolph and Saurabh Sinha

Recently, the government faced a public backlash after it emerged that government ministers and deputy ministers did not have to pay for municipal services such as water and electricity at their official residences. The news cast a sharp spotlight the enduring problem of inequality, bedevilling South Africa.

That South Africa is, and remains one of the most unequal countries in the world, is well documented, and to repeat this fact is like re-inflicting the pain on people at the bottom of the strata.

Inequality is not just a buzzword, it is personal. It cuts deep, right into people’s livelihood and wellbeing. Inequality and its concomitant problems of poverty and deprivation are so ubiquitous that it is easy to stop noticing it. It is a reality that confronts us daily at the road intersections and other public spaces. People in desperate need for food to feed themselves and their families but without the means and proper resources to do so, is a real-life problem.

The reality is that these families show only a fraction of the inequality that burdens South African society. With the advancement of modern technologies propelled by the fourth industrial revolution (4IR), it could get worse.

As the 4IR grows in its impacts and popularity, we need to consider how previous industrial revolutions have influenced inequality and if we can move towards a more equal society. It can be argued that the catalyst for most inequalities in our modern society was the third industrial revolution with its focus on technological efficiencies which replaced low skilled labour.

The invention of the internet and the increasing digitisation of different spheres in society led to digital divides across the globe. There were those without internet access, digital literacy, and available digital devices who struggled during this period. Whereas others thrived with the technological advancements thanks to readily available education and resources. Inequality now became an issue in the digital sphere.

Ever since the third industrial revolution’s move to digital solutions and digital growth, there have been concerns about job creation and automation. The third industrial revolution both displaced certain jobs and created new types of jobs. Not much has changed today. While the Covid-19 pandemic has contributed to a worsening income inequality worldwide over the past two years, the cause of most inequalities can be traced back to the industrial revolutions of the past two centuries.

As the 4IR grows rapidly in stature and prominence, this raises the question as to whether 4IR, too, will amplify or lessen inequalities. 4IR is likely to have the same impact, if not the worse. Automation makes repetitive, monotonous jobs more efficient through machine and artificial intelligence technology.

This impacts on workers doing certain types of jobs, and they are increasingly exposed to the risk of losing their livelihoods. In South Africa, for instance, automation has had a real impact on the banking and financial sectors in recent years. There have been extreme cases of job bloodbaths as automation and technology replace human skills and capabilities.

However, automation can at the same time bring about job creation by generating new opportunities within technological industries. Technology needs people to program, design, support, engineer, and fix. Therefore, within digital and technological fields, more jobs are created. Given the high youth population in South Africa and the continent, these new job types could be significant and create a move towards more equality.

Conversely, this can create a division between what might be considered “lower-level” skills and “higher-level” skills. People without access to the necessary education to develop higher-level technological skills might still rely on lower-skilled labour as work. But due to the increase in technology, these lower-level skilled jobs are being replaced by automation.

In South Africa, for instance, even the third industrial revolution brought on more inequalities. One example of digital inequality in South Africa is the issue of internet access. The 7.5 million lower income earners in this country pay 80 times more for internet access than higher income earners.

Picture: Masi Losi (file) – Of South Africa’s 53 million people, 16.9 million receive welfare payments as part of the post-apartheid government’s attempt to reduce poverty and narrow inequality in a nation with one of the world’s biggest gaps between rich and poor.

Covid-19 has only worsened the problem due to job losses and pay cuts. Education and job opportunities are increasingly moving online, which will be likely to isolate those without access to steady and affordable internet access.

In South Africa, significant digital divides and educational gaps, can 4IR alleviate such conditions and move us towards a more equal society? Or will it exacerbate an already precarious state?

The plans to build smart townships may be a possible band aid to these issues. Smart townships seek to connect townships by means of ICT systems. These townships plan to have their own digital platforms, and to invest in equipping young people with technological skills. By these means, smart townships could have a positive impact on youth development. By investing in digital opportunities, skills, and education, more opportunities could become available to young people from backgrounds that are usually overlooked. Especially in South Africa, where the youth unemployment rate is high.

Smart townships are still under development and so it is too early to predict their effects. But it is telling that the solutions to address inequality have become increasingly more digital. This shows that the digital landscape that we are in has the opportunity to address social justice issues such as inequality if more focus is placed on these areas.

What then are the active solutions we can do presently? This brings us back to the earlier question as to whether 4IR will lessen or increase inequality. If 4IR were to focus on digital progress for the near future, as well as on solving the social justice issues that are already present in our society, it could contribute to lessening inequality.

It remains essential to think about these trade-offs – for example, 4IR can create a new terrain of digital privacy issues and, by thinking upfront, one can reduce personal infringement. The thought paradigm that goes with such trade-offs is illustrative of additional employment opportunities.

Sustainable development goals (SDGs)

SDGs such as quality education, gender equality, innovation, and decent work possibly can alleviate the grip of inequality. Of course, to bind all of these together, sustainable partnerships (SDG 17) remain key. SDG 4, focusing on quality education, can transform youth development.

As 4IR grows, education is moving increasingly to more online or hybrid models that do not accommodate many learners from rural areas. The need to improve the quality of education must also include the development of digital literacy for younger generations. By investing in in-demand digital skills, the range of opportunities for the youth will be widened.

In terms of education 13.4 percent of girls drop out of school due to family commitments. A statistic like this exposes the disparity between the genders, which is a concern of SDG 5. Women and young girls are often burdened by unfair social expectations such as being the sole caretakers of their household. These social expectations and norms can hold women back from educational and career opportunities or overly burden women who are both household caretakers and career women.

Although 4IR may help many women by automating domestic tasks, it is crucial that companies do not neglect to actively tap into the female talent pool for technological skills. Furthermore, young girls require support to engage in STEM subjects and develop digital skills in their schooling.

Young people often have a greater capacity to visualise and provide new solutions and problem- solving ideas to challenges. The innovation called for by SDG 9 can be amplified by the fresh ideas and new ways of thinking which younger generations can offer. However, most of today’s youth are not given the chance to prove themselves. In a country where the youth unemployment rate is high, younger people feel discouraged and lack confidence in their abilities. Investing in youth education is an invaluable contribution towards lessening inequalities as 4IR develops.

Some ideas for building confidence and skills in young people are training opportunities, competitions, job-shadowing initiatives, or having companies and organisations visit and teach skills in particular schools and to their learners. A combination of the education and private sectors is necessary to combat inequalities and advance the untapped potential of the younger generations.

Of course, appropriate combinations between young or emerging and established employers could create a gymnasium for innovation.

A growing concern for South African youth is the unemployment rate. SDG 8, focusing on decent work and economic work, aims to address the issue of unemployment. More employment opportunities aimed at inexperienced but motivated young people are needed. The youth must also be taught skills such as how to search for job opportunities, write cover letters, interview etiquette and adaptability for an ever-changing world of work. Therefore, to achieve more decent work, the SDG goals of education, innovation and partnerships need to work collectively. Partnerships also assist, at a global level, to deal with systemic inequalities.

As 4IR continues to reach new heights, it is crucial that the actors in this digital revolution also focus on addressing the problems of today. Inequality left unaddressed and ignored will negatively impact the envisaged technologically-driven society we are increasingly turning towards. The strive toward equality should be a concern for 4IR leaders and innovators. If 4IR is to realise its potential, the digital revolution should strive for solutions for today’s problems before developing innovative technologies that focus on the future.

Tamia Adolph is an Assistant Lecturer at the University of Johannesburg in the English department.

Prof Saurabh Sinha is an electronic engineer and the Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Internationalisation, University of Johannesburg, South Africa. Both write in a personal capacity.