The Future of Human Work is Imagination, Creativity, and Strategy
Technology has come a long way since primitive humans first discovered they could use sharp stones to cut and split things.
Today, it is impossible to live without technology.
Some of the technological advancements we are seeing today seemed farfetched a just a few decades ago.
Algorithms and AI systems that respond to our inquiries on websites and social media, drones that deliver items we ordered online, AI systems that give free legal advice, and cars that drive themselves are wonderful examples of the high level of technological advancement that human beings have achieved.
All these technologies have made people a lot more productive and brought about unimaginable levels of convenience.
Despite all the benefits technological advancement has brought, automation of jobs through robots and intelligent systems also poses a huge threat: mass unemployment.
If all vehicles become autonomous, what will the millions of people who work as drivers do to earn a living?
If robots start serving us at fast food restaurants, how will the millions who work within the fast food industry earn a living? If automation takes over the work done by bankers, factory workers, doctors, lawyers, and millions of other people, what will humans do for work?
The thought of technology taking all our jobs might seem like something that is decades away, but it is a lot closer than you think.
According to a report by the McKinsey Global Institute, between 39 and 73 million jobs will have been displaced by advances in robotics, artificial intelligence and automation by 2030, which is less than one and a half decades from now.
Yet another report found that more than half of the jobs available today can be theoretically automated using technologies that are in existence today.
Of course, just because these jobs can be feasibly automated does not mean that they will all be automated.
There are several other factors that influence whether automation will be adopted and the pace and extent of automation, such as labor-market dynamics, the costs of developing and implementing automated solutions, the benefits of automation, governmental regulations, as well as social acceptance.
However, this still shows that there is a huge possibility that automation will take away a significant number of jobs in coming years.
WHY THE INCREASED CONCERN?
The debate about machines and automation taking away people’s jobs is not a new one. It has existed for as long as there has been technological innovation.
All major technological advancements have displaced millions away from their jobs, yet there has not been any increase in unemployment.
The introduction of the tractor and other farm machinery in the United States reduced the share of agriculture in total employment from 60% in 1850 to less than 5% in 1970.
Automation in manufacturing reduced the percentage of the US workforce working in manufacturing from 26% in 1960 to less than 10% today.
The percentage of the Chinese workforce working in agriculture reduced by over 30% between 1990 and 2015.
Despite mechanization and automation taking all these jobs, both the United States and China did not experience an increase in unemployment during these periods.
If anything, employment grew as new industries and jobs emerged to absorb workers who had been displaced by automation.
Looking back at history, it would seem the fears about technology taking people’s jobs are unfounded.
So, why is there increasing concern that the recent advances in technology will actually lead to mass unemployment?
The answer lies in the nature of today’s technological advancement.
There are two types of human abilities – physical and cognitive. In the past, machines and automation displaced people from jobs that required raw physical abilities.
No skills are needed for these jobs. Anyone can be a farmhand or a laborer in a factory as long as they are physically strong to do the work.
As machines took these jobs, the displaced workers took the new service jobs that emerged.
These new jobs required cognitive abilities, something that machines did not have.
The current advances in robotics, artificial intelligence and machine learning, however, have brought about a new era of automation.
Today’s technology can perform activities that require cognitive abilities such as sensing emotions, analyzing information and making decisions, activities that were previously considered to be a purely human domain.
The current automation age does not simply threaten to take over physical, low skill jobs. It threatens majority of jobs, including high skill jobs.
Today, drivers, doctors, bankers and financial analysts, lawyers, and a ton of other jobs that require mental skills are facing the threat of automation.
If machines become better than humans in both physical and cognitive abilities, then we simply have no competitive edge over them, which makes the current threat of automation such a major concern.
WILL THERE BE MASS UNEMPLOYMENT DUE TO AUTOMATION?
Now robots and automation are threatening to take even jobs that were previously considered to be the preserve of human beings, are we about to see a huge number of people becoming jobless as automation gains increasing adoption?
To answer this question, we need to once again look back at history.
When the first ATM machine was introduced 50 years ago, it was assumed that it would lead to the unemployment of human bank tellers.
After all, if a machine could dispense cash and take deposits, what role did a human teller have to play?
The funny thing is that since the first ATM machine was installed, the number of human tellers employed in banks has more than doubled. How did this happen?
When ATM machines were first introduced, the number of tellers employed by banks went down as expected. About one third of human tellers employed in banks lost their jobs.
This created another effect that people had not thought much about.
With fewer tellers per branch, banks realized that it had become a lot cheaper to open a bank branch. As a result, the number of branches operated by each bank increased.
More bank branches created a need for more tellers. However, these tellers were not doing the same routine work.
With ATMs handling the routine tasks of dispensing cash and taking deposits, tellers went from cash handling tasks and started performing tasks like solving customer problems, forging relationships with customers and selling new products to customers.
In other words, their job description went from routine work (which a machine could do better) to more cognitively demanding tasks.
This is a great example of what will happen in the near future.
The increasing adoption of automation will take away routine jobs with tasks that can easily be easily translated into an algorithm, freeing people to do other tasks that require creativity and imagination, something computers are yet to master.
Therefore, instead of automation leading to unemployment, it will merely lead to a shift in the nature of work.
Physical jobs in predictable environments are the most susceptible to automation.
These include activities such as preparing fast food, operating machinery, sorting products in a warehouse, and so on. On the other hand, physical jobs in unpredictable environments have little risk of automation. These include jobs such as nursing, elder care, child care, plumbing, and so on.
Additionally, routine but mentally demanding jobs – such as data collection and processing – are highly susceptible to automation.
People who work in fields like back-office transaction processing, paralegal work, mortgage origination, accounting, and so on might soon be replaced by machines and software programs.
Jobs that require creativity, imagination, strategy and emotional connection, on the other hand, have little risk of automation since humans are still far much better at these skills compared to machines.
THE FUTURE OF WORK
Machines will take up mindless, routine and repetitive tasks and free up people to explore, experiment and engage in other interesting activities that require creativity and imagination, thereby ushering in the imagination age and the imagination economy.
Coined by Rita J. King, the term imagination age refers to the next theoretical step of evolution where the key creators of economic value will be creativity and imagination.
Already, the transition into the imagination economy has begun, driven by the rise of digital platforms like YouTube, Flickr, Medium, and so on, as well as technological trends such as virtual reality, which demand creativity and user generated content.
So, what skills will people require to thrive in the imagination economy?
The most in-demand skills in the imagination economy will be soft skills, which are a lot more difficult for machines to master.
These skills include managing others, oral and written communication and applying expertise.
Jobs of the future will also require more social and emotional skills as well as critical thinking, creativity and collaboration.
According to a research conducted by the Foundation for Young Australians, jobs of the future will require workers with 70% more transferable and non-industry specific soft skills.
Another report by McKinsey Global Institute, published in November 2017, states that by 2030, up to 14% of the global workforce (between 75 and 375 million workers) will have to retrain and learn new skills that will allow them to adapt to the new jobs that will emerge due to automation.
Yet another report by the World Economic Forum reports that more than half of the jobs that will be done by students who are currently in elementary school have not been invented yet.
While it is impossible to predict with absolute certainty what jobs of the future will look like, below are some skills that will help you thrive in the coming economy.
Creativity is the ability to come up with new ideas and to come up with solutions by finding connections between seemingly unrelated phenomena.
While machines are better than humans at analyzing information and making calculations, they are poor at coming up with new, abstract ideas and thinking outside the confines of well-defined rules.
This means that highly creative people will be less likely to lose their jobs to automation.
Machines may be better than humans at several things, but we are yet to get to a point where we can trust them to do the critical thinking for us.
As such, people with high critical thinking skills will still be in demand in jobs of the future.
These people will be need to constantly analyze situations, consider multiple solutions and make up decisions while taking into account the various implications of their decisions in an increasingly complex world.
As machines take over manual and technical jobs, people will need to work together and collaborate on a whole new level in order to come up with solutions for global problems, such as climate change, poverty, inequality, pollution, and overpopulation.
For this collaboration to be effective, there will be a need for strong people skills, the ability to work with others, manage others and build an emotional connection.
In addition, machines have no empathy. They don’t know how to express sentiment.
Mental Flexibility And Complex Problem Solving
As we march into a new world driven by an over-reliance on technology, we will face complex problems we have never experienced before.
Solving these complex problems will require the mental flexibility to adapt to the new world and think in new, unconventional ways in order to come up with solutions.
In addition, the world will continue changing rapidly. What works today might be absolute by tomorrow.
People will need the mental flexibility to adapt to the constantly changing world and remain on top of the situation. People who can display this mental flexibility and complex problem solving abilities will be in high demand in the imagination economy.
Skills in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields may be in high demand right now, but they will be in even higher demand in future.
Even as automation takes up existing jobs, there will be need for further innovation and technological progress.
This innovation and progress will be driven by people with advanced skills in STEM fields.
Apart from STEM skills, the world is also shifting towards SMAC (social, mobile, analytics and cloud) technologies.
Today, virtually every business has a social media presence.
More and more people are using mobile devices to access online services.
The number of people using mobile devices to access the internet has already surpassed those accessing on desktop.
The increased usage of the internet is generating huge amounts of data, creating the need for analytics to make use of this data.
Cloud computing is driving new business models, such as SaaS (software as a service), PaaS (platform as a service) and IaaS (infrastructure as a service).
As we move into the future, these technologies will become even more important, leading to increased demand for people skilled in social, mobile, analytics and cloud technologies.
Automation will change the nature of traditional careers as we know them.
Instead of being proficient in a specific field, jobs of the future will require you to have knowledge in multiple disciplines.
You will need to pull information from diverse fields and use it to come up with out of the box solutions to future problems.
THE NEED FOR EDUCATIONAL REFORM
As we march towards the future, there will be need for educational reforms in order to prepare students for the future workplace.
One of the problems of education as we know it today is that it was designed for the industrial age, yet we left the industrial age a long time ago.
We are currently living in the information age and we have already started the transition into the imagination age.
The focus on content knowledge and grades has grown obsolete. The current education system was designed for routine and fixed procedure.
Currently, we are taught how to do something once and then we spend the rest of our lives doing it.
While this model worked before, it will not work in the future.
Schools should now start focusing on skills that will allow young people to survive in the economy of the 21st century, whose economic value will be driven by imagination and creativity.
One of the problems with current line of thought is that majority of people believe that imagination and creativity are innate skills. That these skills cannot be learnt.
You are either born with it or not. In addition, majority of people believe that imagination and creativity are only important for those whose jobs are officially creative, such as designers and artists.
Both these lines of thought are totally wrong. Like any other skills, creativity and imagination can be learnt. These skills are also important for people across all professional backgrounds.
Scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs, doctors, writers, lawyers, corporate leaders and all other professions have a lot to gain by being creative and imaginative.
To enhance creativity and imagination skills, schools should place more emphasis on multi-disciplinary thinking.
Students should be taught to view problems from different angles and contexts (link to article on “How You Define Problems Determines Whether You Solve It), as well as how to make connections between seemingly unrelated ideas and fields.
Students should also be encouraged to take part in the active creation of information, rather than simply being passive consumers.
They should be encouraged to conduct experiments and use the knowledge gained from these experiments to actively solve problems.
Other ways of enhancing creativity and imagination skills among students is to have them take part in imagination-enabling activities, such as creative writing, arts, reading and watching creative books and films, and self-reflection.
RETRAINING DISPLACED WORKERS
As businesses deploy more robots and automate business processes, it is inevitable that a significant number of workers will get displaced from their jobs.
However, this does not mean that we will see growth of huge companies with the CEO as the only employee. Deployment of these robots and algorithms will also create new jobs that will need a human workforce.
For instance, the use of drones by the air force decreased the number of pilots hired by the air force.
At the same time, the number of drone pilots to fly these drones and analysts required to make sense of the data produced by drones increased significantly.
The same will happen in business.
However, employees will need to relearn different skills in order to take up these emerging jobs.
Workers who work in process based roles (which are highly susceptible to automation) will need to learn skills that allow them to work alongside machines or to be in charge of these machines.
Even employees who are in positions that are not facing a lot of threat from automation should expand their skills to help them prepare for the increasingly unpredictable future of work.
Fortunately, there are numerous online classes, workshops, seminars and community college classes that workers can take advantage of to gain these important skills.
Companies and organizations in industries that are highly susceptible to automation should also provide opportunities for retraining and re-skilling for workers whose roles are most likely to be displaced by automation.
The rapid technological advancements will lead to a lot of jobs being taken up by machines, robots and artificially intelligent systems.
However, this will not lead to a massive loss of jobs for humans. Instead, it will change the nature of work.
By taking up manual and process based jobs that are based on repetitive tasks, automation will free up humans so that they can focus on jobs that require creativity, imagination and strategy.
Automation will also lead to the creation of new jobs that will absorb the workforce displaced by automation.
Automation will also lead to work becoming more meaningful.
Since jobs of the future will require people to apply their intelligence, creativity and imagination, people are more likely to find more their jobs more meaningful and to experience job satisfaction, which will make people generally happier than they are today.
All in all, while it is impossible to accurately predict the future of work, I can confidently say that it holds exciting possibilities.
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