The Future of Work

“The early Greeks had to look back centuries to study ancient culture, but we only need to look back a single generation to find those who lived without technologies we take for granted today. The timeline of human development is compressing; the space that separates ‘ancient’ and ‘modern’ is shrinking to nothing at all,” (Brown, 2017).

Technological advances are happening so rapidly that some experts predict up to 47 percent of today’s jobs could be accomplished by machines within a couple of decades leaving millions of workers displaced (EdWeek, 2017). This is referred to as the Doomsday Scenario.

Others say these advances will create more jobs, just like when the U.S. transitioned from an agricultural to an industrial economy. More than 90% of farm jobs were lost, but new technologies created new jobs and consumer demand that hadn’t previously been imagined (Herold, 2017). We refer to this as the Pivot scenario.

No one can predict what will ultimately play out, but one conclusion seems to have been drawn across the board: change is coming. This begs the question, “How do we prepare today’s students for an uncertain tomorrow?”

 

Understanding Automation

Many people believe the peril of automation or artificial intelligence (AI) is the loss of low wage jobs; those that are repetitive and require little creativity, such as assembly line work or possibly even service jobs like waiters or customer service representatives. It’s true these careers are most likely to be the hardest hit, but the scope of jobs that could be replaced by robots might surprise you.

AI-powered digital agents already rival humans at translating languages and playing strategy games, but they’ve also started driving cars and diagnosing cancer, says futurist Martin Ford (Herold, 2017). Lawyers, diagnosticians and financial analysts could also find their careers threatened by computers, which can analyze data faster and more accurately.

According to Osande Osoba, Engineer/Researcher with RAND, Corp., “Artificial intelligence isn’t just changing work. It’s being used to automate important governmental and policy decisions, control the flow of information we receive, and reshape how we buy and consume products and services.” Given that Elon Musk has famously said, “There will be fewer jobs that a robot cannot do better,” it’s no wonder people fear the changes automation will bring.

However, just as the industrial revolution ultimately resulted in more jobs with better wages the automated age could have similar results (KEssler, 2017). Amazon is a great example.

Over the last three years, Amazon has increased the number of robots from 1,400 to 45,000, but over the same period the rate at which they hire human workers hasn’t changed (Kessler, 2017). How is this possible? Optimists say automating the repetitive functions of a job frees workers to do other parts of the job, thus efficiencies are increased. Another optimist viewpoint; factories that save money through automation will either lower prices (thus increasing demand for product and workers), or generate more profit leading to increased wages (Kessler, 2017).

It’s true that many jobs will be threatened by automation, and some may be eliminated. However, few jobs can be entirely eliminated. According to McKinsey’s researchers, “more occupations will change than will be automated away.” Using the Amazon example above, automating certain functions of the job like locating packages frees up workers to focus on other tasks, perhaps those that require more critical thinking or creativity, such as operating the machines or packing boxes better so shipping is more cost effective.

 

Preparing for the Unknown

Both low and high wage jobs will feel the impact of technology, and some fields might employ fewer people while others disappear altogether. That doesn’t have to mean humans will face perpetual unemployment. Regardless of their ability to manage and interpret data, or even to operate other machines, there are some things robots don’t do as well as humans.

To succeed in a world of automation will require being as un-machinelike as possible (Santens, 2017). In other words, we know computers excel at storing and retrieving information, and we know memorization, calculation and coding are tasks that computers perform better and faster. Yes, humans still need to know the basics, but it makes little sense to try to compete with computers to perform these basic skills. Rather, we should focus human learning on the skills computers don’t excel at; the skills that are inherently human.

Soft skills, such as expressing empathy, creativity, emotional intelligence and collaboration, have not been mastered by machines. Thus, it’s conceivable that we may push computational tasks to machines while human labor is devoted to more human tasks.

The caregiving industry, either for children or seniors, will still need human laborers. So too will the service industry, to facilitate home repairs or renovations. Consider also that with more machines we will have a greater need for people who know how to fix those machines in the field.

Creative types like chefs and artisans will still be in demand, though creativity can also manifest itself in one’s ability to be resourceful and, sometimes, unconventional. The ability to use imagination, reasoning and past experiences to fundamentally understand, and then resolve, problems is a skill that is transferable across multiple industries, and one that computers are ill-equipped to perform given their propensity for using data, not imagination (LiveCareer.com).

Perhaps the greatest skill humans have that machines lack is curiosity, particularly when it comes to entertainment. As documented by Steven Johnson in his book ‘Wonderland’ many of today’s advancements can be traced to yesterday’s toys, and to people asking, “what if?” For example, automatons led to the first version of a computer, frequency hopping can be traced to player pianos, global trade is rooted in a desire to experience new flavors, and clothing for fashion, not function, can be traced to the discovery of the color purple.

Amusement, more than any other factor, fueled the invention of countless items that have transformed the way we live. Consider, the Olmecs, Aztecs and Mayans failed to invent the wheel, but the ball they used for games was central to the culture of all three societies (Johnson, 2016). Inventors didn’t begin tinkering with “writing machines” until the early 1800s, although the concept of mechanical “keys” existed in instruments as early as the 1400s (Johnson, 2016). Today the wheel and the keyboard are integral parts of everyday life, but they wouldn’t exist if we hadn’t first tried to entertain ourselves with ball games and music.

Humans have basic needs, none of which include pleasing sights and sounds or toys. Our quest to entertain ourselves was the precursor to many of the technological capabilities that are commonplace today, and our curiosity propelled us to turn our amusements into innovations. As we continue to explore new ways to fascinate and amaze we will continue to innovate.

 

Join the Conversation

In 2016, 85 percent of people between the ages of 25 and 54 with a college degree were working, compared with 70 percent with a high school diploma or less (Furman, 2017). In other words, those with more education have a greater chance of being employed in today’s climate, where automation is just being introduced. Education will continue to increase one’s employment opportunities in the future, but it will look much different than it does today.

By focusing on soft skills and letting curiosity reign, teachers can help the workforce of tomorrow stay relevant despite the changes coming their way. However, this requires schools to be forward-thinking, and since reliable data on workforce trends extends only five years schools will need to better collaborate with businesses and local communities to devise the best long-term approach  (Herold, 2017).

Does your school have a long-term plan to address the future of work? What soft skills are your students learning? Look for our blog each month over 2018 as we explore the skills kids needs to succeed in the digital age, and the role schools, parents and communities play in preparing them for the Future of Work.

 

References

Brown, Dan. Origin. Bantam Press, 2017

 

Education Week Staff (2017) EdWeek, Schools and the Future of Work (https://www.edweek.org/ew/collections/schools-and-future-of-work/index.html)

 

Furman, J. (2017) EdWeek, Keep These 4 Things In Mind When Preparing Students For An Uncertain Future (https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2017/09/27/keep-these-4-things-in-mind-when.html)

Herold, B. (2017) EdWeek, Automation and artificial intelligence are disrupting the labor market. What do K-12 educators and policymakers need to know? (https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2017/09/27/the-future-of-work-is-uncertain-schools.html)

Johnson, S. Wonderland, How Play Made the Modern World, Riverhead Books, 2016

 

Kessler, S. (2017) Quartz. The Optimist’s Guide to the Robot Apocalypse (https://qz.com/904285/the-optimists-guide-to-the-robot-apocalypse/)

 

LiveCareer Staff, LiveCareer.com, Top 10 Soft Skills in Demand, (https://www.livecareer.com/career-tips/career-advice/soft-skills-in-demand)

 

Santens, S. (2017) EdWeek, Stop Teaching Students What to Think. Teach Them How to Think. (https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2017/09/27/stop-teaching-students-what-to-think.html)

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