19th Asia-Europe Think Tank Dialogue, ‘Addressing Digitalisation: What Role for ASEM?’

Diplomatic uncertainty presents opportunities as well as challenges. As Asian countries adapt to intensifying rivalry between the region’s great powers, Australia can benefit from engaging with a wider range of stakeholders in our neighbourhood. This is the value of the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM), a forum which experiments with new ideas and identifies common ground on major issues in public policy.

What role is there for our shared experience in Asia and Europe to capture the opportunities and address challenges resulting from digital disruption? This was the central question of the 19th Asia-Europe Think Tank Dialogue from 14 to 16 November in Yangon, Myanmar. Asialink Diplomacy Director, Erin Watson-Lynn, was invited as a guest of the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung Political Dialogue Asia to contribute to the dialogue which sought to exchange ideas and insights on how digital is impacting education, the economy, state-society relations, and governance. The Dialogue was attended by think tanks from member states of the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM).

In the session on digital opportunities and transformation in the economy, Erin outlined to dialogue participants Australia’s macro policy and labour market trends, and explored the new ways digital tools are changing the national workforce.

Australia has seen a decisive policy shift to entrepreneurship and innovation with the National Innovation and Science Agenda. This comes against the backdrop of a transformed labour market over the last three decades. While generally a positive story, especially along the lines of gender and age, deteriorating circumstances are now a defining challenge for young men looking to enter the labour market. The labour market participation rates of women have increased while those of men have decreased. Unemployment trends indicate that men are withdrawing from the labour market. With digital technology set to reshape the nature of employment, Australia will need to avoid the growth of an under-employed generation with few opportunities for meaningful work.

Driving some of these changes are automation, artificial intelligence, advanced manufacturing, and globalisation. Recent studies suggest that up to 40 per cent of jobs in Australia will be susceptible to automation and artificial intelligence over the next 10 to 15 years. The workforce will also continue to experience offshoring through digital technology. Already, an estimated 11 per cent of service industry jobs in Australia could be provided remotely. Digital disruption is projected to have the largest impact in the mining/resources industry, from human operators of machinery to basic services like surveyors and geologists. Associated industries like agriculture and cargo-handling may also suffer.

Geographically, this disruption will be a major challenge in regional cities, which are not projected to enjoy the high rate of job creation in other industries to absorb the job losses. Another likely area of the workforce susceptible to automation is office administration, particularly among roles that involve data collection like legal clerks, market researchers, digital advertising, and credit risk assessors.

Beyond these sectors and industries, other segments in the workforce will be transformed by productivity but not necessarily experience large-scale job losses. In these industries, there will be the need for upskilled professionals who can liaise with customers. This includes health services in hospital logistics and diagnostics; as well as banking and legal advice, where some but not all functions are routine and therefore capable of being replaced by predictive analytics.

At the Asia-Europe Think Tank Dialogue, digitalisation and the sharing economy were identified as opportunities for disadvantaged groups and young people who are overwhelmingly represented in global unemployment statistics. Whilst a significant opportunity, it was also identified that there is a need for governments to establish overarching policy frameworks that protect employment prospects, 21st century skill development to enable entrepreneurship and adaptation to jobs of the future, and ensure social protections for increasingly precarious workers.

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Erin Watson-Lynn

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