Not all jobs will disappear during the coming robopocalypse. Many will survive for decades to come, all while thumbing their noses at the future robot overlords. The reasons why might surprise you.
As a country matures up the economic ladder, each successive generation of its citizens lives through dramatic cycles of destruction and creation, where entire industries and professions are replaced by wholly new industries and new professions. The process generally takes about 25 years—enough time for society to adjust and retrain for the work of each “new economy.”
This cycle and time range has held true for well over a century since the start of the first Industrial Revolution. But this time is different.
Ever since the computer and Internet went mainstream it has allowed for the creation of exceedingly capable robots and machine intelligence systems (AI), forcing the rate of technological and cultural change to grow exponentially. Now, instead of a gradual phasing out of old professions and industries over decades, entirely new ones seem to appear almost every other year—often faster than they can be manageably replaced.
Not all jobs will disappear
For all the hysteria around robots and computers taking away jobs, it’s important to remember this trend toward labor automation won’t be uniform across all industries and professions. The needs of society will still hold some power over the advance of technology. In fact, there are a variety of reasons why certain fields and professions will remain insulated from automation.
Accountability. There are certain professions in a society where we need a specific person to be accountable for their actions: a doctor prescribing medicine, a police officer arresting a drunk driver, a judge sentencing a criminal. Those heavily regulated professions that directly impact the health, safety, and freedoms of other members of society will likely be among the last to become automated.
Liability. From a cold business perspective, if a company owns a robot that produces a product or provides a service that fails to meet agreed-upon standards or, worse, injures someone, the company becomes a natural target for lawsuits. If a human does either of the above, the legal and public relations blame can be shifted fully, or in part, to said human. Depending on the product/service offered, the use of a robot may not outweigh the liability costs of using a human.
Relationships. Professions, where success depends on building and maintaining deep or complex relationships, will be exceedingly difficult to automate. Whether it’s a sales professional negotiating a difficult sale, a consultant guiding a client to profitability, a coach leading her team to the championships, or a senior executive strategizing business operations for the next quarter—all these job types need their practitioners to absorb huge amounts of data, variables, and non-verbal cues, and then apply that information using their life experience, social skills, and general emotional intelligence. Let’s just say that kind of stuff isn’t easy to program into a computer.
Caregivers. Similar to the point above, care for children, the sick, and the elderly will remain the domain of humans for at least the next two to three decades. During adolescence, illness, and during a senior citizen’s sunset years, the need for human contact, empathy, compassion, and interaction is at its highest. Only future generations who grow up with caregiving robots may begin to feel otherwise.
Alternatively, future robots will also need caregivers, specifically in the form of supervisors who will work alongside robots and AI to ensure they execute select and overly complex tasks. Managing robots will be a skill unto itself.
Building and repairing things. Whether at the high end (scientists and engineers) or at the low end (plumbers and electricians), those who can build and repair things will find ample work for many decades to come. The reasons behind this continued demand for STEM and trades skills are explored in the next chapter of this series, but, for now, remember that we’ll always need someone handy to repair all these robots when they break down.
Reign of the super professionals
Since the dawn of humans, the survival of the fittest generally tended to mean the survival of the jack-of-all-trades. Making it through a week involved crafting all your own possessions (clothing, weapons, etc.), building your own hut, collecting your own water, and hunting your own dinners.
As we progressed from hunter-gatherers to agrarian and then industrial societies, incentives arose for people to specialize in specific skills. The wealth of nations was largely driven by the specialization of society. In fact, once the first Industrial Revolution swept the world, being a generalist became frowned upon.
Given this millennia-old principle, it would be fair to assume that as our world advances technologically, intertwines economically, and grows ever-richer culturally (not to mention at an ever faster rate, as explained earlier), the incentive to further specialize on a specific skill would grow in step. Surprisingly, that’s no longer the case.
The reality is that most of the basic jobs and industries have already been invented. All future innovations (and the industries and jobs that will emerge from them) wait to be discovered at the cross section of fields once thought to be entirely separate.
That’s why to truly excel in the future job market, it once again pays to be a polymath: an individual with a varied set of skills and interests. Using their cross-disciplinary background, such individuals are better qualified to find novel solutions to stubborn problems; they are a cheaper and value-added hire for employers, since they require far less training and can be applied to a variety of business needs; and they are more resilient to swings in the labor market, as their varied skills can be applied in so many fields and industries.
In all the ways that matter, the future belongs to the super professionals—the new breed of worker that has a variety of skills and can pick up new skills quickly based on marketplace demands.
It’s not jobs robots are after, it’s tasks
It’s important to understand that robots aren’t really coming to take our jobs, they are coming to take over (automate) routine tasks. Switchboard operators, file clerks, typists, ticket agents—whenever a new technology is introduced, monotonous, repetitive tasks fall by the wayside.
So if your job depends on meeting a certain level of productivity, if it involves a narrow set of responsibilities, especially ones that use straightforward logic and hand-eye coordination, then your job is at risk for automation in the near future. But if your job entails a broad set of responsibilities (or a “human touch”), you’re safe.
In fact, for those with more complex jobs, automation is a huge benefit. Remember, productivity and efficiency are for robots, and these are work factors where humans shouldn't be competing against anyway. By hollowing out your job of wasteful, repetitive, machine-like tasks, your time will be freed to focus on more strategic, productive, abstract and creative tasks or projects. In this scenario, the job doesn’t disappear—it evolves.
This process has driven massive improvements to our quality of life over the last century. It has led to our society becoming safer, healthier, happier, and wealthier.
While it’s great to highlight those job types that will likely survive automation, the reality is none of them truly represent a sizeable percentage of the labor market. As you’ll learn in later chapters of this Future of Work series, well over half of today’s professions are predicted to disappear within the next two decades.
But not all hope is lost.
What most reporters fail to mention is there are also big, societal trends coming down the pipeline that will guarantee a wealth of new jobs over the next two decades—jobs that may just represent the last generation of mass employment.
To learn what those trends are, read on to the next chapter of this series.