I asked LinkedIn members what they wanted to know about how automation may change their careers. After speaking to hundreds of people while researching my book You Can Do Anything: The Surprising Power of a "Useless" Liberal Arts Education, this is what I found.
Asked by Jeff Bailey
That’s a sharp-edged dichotomy! Historically, 90% of automation has delivered much-needed drudgery relief. Victorian England nearly collapsed under the burden of providing labor-intensive laundry services to rich people. No one today would want to abandon washing machines and dryers to go back to the old ways. By and large, we accept the long, automation-driven migration from farm to factory to office as beneficial, even if each transition had jarring moments in families’ lives.
Today’s anxieties largely reflect a fear that if software keeps automating routine white-collar work, there won’t be any new, higher destinations for displaced workers. That would be grim news if true. Fortunately, automation has a way of creating unexpected new jobs. The rise of motor cars in the 1920s, for example, was bad news for horse breeders, but it created amazing new demand for driving instructors, service stations, repair shops, travel planners, car dealers, and so on.
Can we create the same roster of unexpected new jobs for today’s tech? Everything’s still murky, but I’m already starting to see some interesting lists of the ways people will be needed to shape and evaluate artificial-intelligence systems. Instead of becoming long-haul truckers, today’s teenagers might find work in a future society full of self-driving vehicles by choosing to be “automation ethicists” or “machine-relations managers.”
Asked by Rebeca Robboy
If you’re anxious about your job’s future, start by shoring up your self-esteem and your social circles. Your best new job prospects are likely to have a big component of person-to-person interaction. If you can establish yourself as a “people person,” you can find opportunities in training, counseling, teaching, health-care, elder care, sales, marketing and many other growing fields. Spend time with connectors. Become a connector yourself. Get involved in civic groups. Take classes. Teach a class. Volunteer.
More broadly, build a network of people who are looking out for your interests and will alert you to new opportunities before such jobs are posted. When I researched You Can Do Anything I was struck by how much hiring for good jobs happens informally, without the usual rituals of job ads and resume exchanges. Turn that fact to your advantage.
Bear in mind, also, that it’s almost impossible to automate empathy, creativity or curiosity. Look for jobs in which those deeply human strengths are prized. Do get comfortable with the idea that the safest jobs are the ones where each day is a bit different, and where you need to solve fresh problems all the time, often in not-so-obvious ways. Avoid the sorts of routine-filled jobs that might have epitomized safety 30 years ago; they're among the most vulnerable today.
Asked by James R. (Bob) Hagerty
A few years ago, I would have contended that brisk automation is the inevitable path of progress, and that resisting it is futile. I still think that’s true in most cases. But in the same way that organic farming (with its inefficiencies but high-touch appeal) has gained traction in the supermarket, I think there’s room, at least on the margin, for a more artisanal, labor-intensive approach at times. It wouldn’t surprise me to see more governments setting aside shelf space or informal market-share allotments for such labor-intensive alternatives. We won’t eat all our meals off hand-painted earthenware, but we will sometimes patronize restaurants that make such homey touches part of their story.
Asked by Joe Phillips, IDSA
We’re still expanding the number of office workers in the United States, but the nature of work is changing. Routine-centered jobs such as payroll clerks and travel agents are waning. Meanwhile, more complex, judgment-centered jobs in those same basic areas are increasing. As payroll gets automated, there’s been a boom in the number of benefits managers, who help companies figure out how to handle parental leave, tuition-reimbursement programs, etc.
Looking at Bureau of Labor Statistics projections recently, I was struck by the fact that bookkeeping is being tagged as a job in decline – but accounting is on the rise! If you’re only adding up the columns of numbers, a machine can take your place. But if you’re a higher-level decision maker – deciding what deductions are allowable, or what kinds of reports top management should see – you’re practically indispensable.
In general, if you’re working in an office, look for ways to spend more time optimizing the human part of the picture, and less time moving paper around for its own sake. We can outwit the machines. We just need to keep thinking, and paying attention to our ever-changing environment, to do so.
Asked by Josh Stephens
Great question. Adam Falk, the president of Williams College, came at this issue in a really interesting way when we spoke last year. He made the case that work – in almost any field – is becoming much more collaborative. We exchange ideas back and forth. We sharpen up one another’s thinking. And yet, much of high school and college still centers around solo efforts. We administer a lot of multiple choice tests because they are easy to grade, not because they approximate the actual nature of adult work.
Even worse, we act outraged when students share ideas before an assignment is due – calling it cheating – without thinking about the real world’s very different norms. As GE executives told me a few years ago, it’s much better to have employees who will lean over to the next cubicle and ask for advice when they get stuck. The right place to teach those habits is in high school and college, even if it means dismantling some of the old grading systems in favor of a more supportive credentialing model.
Asked by John Taratuta
Capital markets are pretty good at allocating money toward projects that will pay off. By one tally, software startups attracted 36% of all venture capital funding in 2016. Take a business trip now, and Google Maps will save the nice rental car clerk the tedium of having to tell you how to exit the airport. Check into your hotel and Amazon’s Alexa will save front-desk personnel the annoyance of having to give you a wake-up call. Lots more examples are already in place. I’m not sure what all these new software companies will create, but I’m willing to bet that within the first three slides of their pitch decks, these new companies’ founders have identified more mind-numbing tasks that will be stricken from the face of the earth, once they get enough funding.
Asked by John Sumser & Majken Sander
Yes. Automation is a big step, and we’re right to be stressed about it. But automation has a funny way of creating a lot of jobs, too – often in ways we didn’t expect. Tim O’Reilly, the brilliant technology seer who founded O’Reilly Media, has a new book coming out that’s packed full of ideas about how to manage our destiny going forward. I haven’t seen a copy yet, but I’ve heard him speak on it, and it’s one to watch for. The title is: WTF: What’s the Future, and Why It’s Up to Us. It’s due out in October.
Asked by Joel Spiegel
I hope so! My father-in-law has a favorite saying: “You can love your job, but your job won’t love you back.” His point, which is subtle and important, is that even when we’re experiencing great professional delight from our work projects, that euphoria doesn’t address our entire psyche. We’ve somehow got worse, in the U.S., at savoring family time. We’re doing a much poorer job of taking true vacations that clear our minds and refresh us. Fortunately, these are fixable problems. We just need to widen our field of view, so that we spend waking hours in contact with the people, places and activities that energize us in ways that even the best job can’t touch.
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