The robots are coming, as sure as the seasons, and the jobs that were the bedrock of employment, social status and wealth will in many cases be taken by faster, better and cheaper pieces of technology. What does that mean for the employment market of the future?
What does the employment market of the future, and I’m talking five to ten years, not five hundred, look like? Two recent events got me thinking. The first was my eldest daughter applying for University in September. Trying to decide which course had the perfect balance of being something she loved, but giving her a great foundation for her future was a challenge many parents will understand.
The second was a report by Andy Haldane, Chief Economist at the Bank of England that suggests that 15 million UK jobs are at risk over the coming years due to the development of ‘robots’. He’s not alone, most experts see an approaching ‘robot revolution’ whose impact will be akin to the industrial revolution, which changed the face of employment forever. Where does that leave my daughter and all our kids? What should they be studying to try and stay ahead of the game?
What we mean when we say robots, are not C3PO-like human-shaped mechanical constructs, but a huge variety of dedicated artificial devices able to perform currently human jobs. These fall into two categories. The first are the manual roles, the ‘blue collar’ jobs. In the US, McKinsey’s have shown that 40% of workers are employed in jobs that could be undertaken by existing types of automation. We’re not waiting for a new development, they could do it now. These jobs include sales assistant (self-service checkouts are already in most supermarkets), food preparation, waiting on tables and a thousand other jobs that take a limited, repetitive action or could just as easily be done by the consumer. Uber is already trialling self-driving taxis and trucks, buses, trains, planes and ships are all just around the corner, and without human error will be faster, more efficient and safer.
At the other end of the scale, thousands of previously sacrosanct white collar careers are under threat. Jobs based on either the retention of knowledge and its use, or on repetitive mental processes, are in the robot cross hairs. Doctors, lawyers, accountants, actuaries, administrators, bankers, many of the roles that have been most socially revered and well rewarded are all endangered species. Why trust a doctor when a computerised diagnostic system can hold the symptoms of every disease and ailment, can look at you with scanners and instantly refer you for surgery or prescribe the treatment?
A robot lawyer, or even judge, can hold every case and tell you instantly and definitively the right legal answer. A robot accountant will prepare numbers faster and more accurately than any human ever could. Already the big banks trust a significant portion of their trading not to people, but to sophisticated algorithms that can perform thousands of trades a minute to take advantage of micro-fluctuations in the markets that a human could never even see, let alone respond to. We are already being superseded. These systems are in many cases already here, or are in development. Often the only thing stopping them is public acceptance or case law catching up with technological capability.
The Human Element
Where does this leave us? Does this mean that we, or more likely our children, are bound for a utopian future of leisure while the robots do the work? Or a dystopian world where the masses scratch a living in grinding poverty while the elites who own the robots live in impossible luxury? Both have been suggested, but as is usually the case the reality will likely be somewhere in between.
Certain jobs are going to become the preserve of the robots, that much seems certain, in as little as a decade or two the idea of a plane, ship or even truck being controlled by a fallible human being will seem like madness. Instead, a plethora of new jobs and careers will appear, just as they did two hundred years ago when the industrial revolution destroyed the jobs that had existed for centuries. In many cases I’m sure it will be painful, change usually is, but it won’t be the end of the world.
Suffer the Children?
So what about our kids? What should I advise my daughter to study to give her the advantages I received? Well, first of all, I thought about all the successful people I had ever met, the ones who have ‘won’ at life. That includes but is not limited to those who have made money; fortune is one, but by no means the only measure of success.
I have been fortunate to have known several dozen billionaires and multi-millionaires, as well as people at the top of their professions in academia, the arts, politics, the military and many other sectors and what struck me is that there is no one path. Half of the super-rich people I know have educations from the great Universities, the other half left school with next to nothing. I even have a friend who is now a senior member of a University, mortar board, black gown and all, yet joined the Navy at sixteen and has not a degree to his name.
Career success in the future, as it has always been, will be down to commitment, hard work and a little bit of luck, but most of all to doing something you love doing. Which is all very well, but doesn’t help me advise my daughter, who does want to go to University but worries that the English degree she wants to do will qualify her for little or nothing useful come 2021. She wants to know what a ‘good’ job will be, and what she should do to ensure her future.
My answer was this; create.
The robots are coming, as sure as the seasons, and the jobs that were the bedrock of employment, social status and wealth will in many cases be taken by faster, better and cheaper pieces of technology. But robots cannot create, and I’m not talking about everyone becoming novelists or artists, but creativity is for now at least a human preserve. It is here that we should look to the future. For the white collar workers this will be marketing, advertising, architecture, design, media, research and development, business solutions, and yes the arts, these are all careers where creation is key, and whilst they may be assisted and changed by robots the spark of creativity at their essential heart is, for now at least, solely human.
For the blue collar worker too there are professions that only a human can manage, either due to their creativity, such as craft based careers, or the necessity to deal with too many variables; carpenters, plumbers, electricians etc. In many cases, the modern version of trade apprenticeships offer just as valuable and productive a path for the future as any academic ivory tower.
In all cases for the human worker, the future will be about doing what the robots can’t, coming up with new ideas, solving problems, presenting things, making things. The future can’t be stopped, so prepare for it, plan for it and guide those who will have to live with it to make the best choices they can. Those possibilities, utopia or dystopia, are still there at the extremes and it’s our foresight and advice to the next generation which will influence where they and possibly society end up on that spectrum.