During the next two decades, nearly half the jobs in the United States alone might become obsolete due to automation, according to an article in The Atlantic. But new opportunities will arise, particularly ones that require strong cognitive and social skills. As David J. Deming, associate professor of education and economics at Harvard, put it: People will have to become more human.
The Institute interviewed two experts to help imagine the positions people need to prepare for and the skills they’ll require in the future.
DEFINING WHO WE ARE
Futurist Ayelet Baron advises companies on how to prepare for changes in the workplace. Before we can address the question of what types of jobs people will have, Baron says, there has to be an understanding of what being an employee means. Is it having a title? Receiving a paycheck? Contributing to society? “Most people define themselves by what they do,” she says. “But work is just a part of who we are.”
As automation replaces more jobs, people will struggle with their identity, she predicts. You’ll probably see a ton of articles on tips and tricks for saving your job, but some jobs will be better off without human involvement, she adds. Instead, new questions must be asked, such as: What value can we add to the world? What can we do that makes a meaningful impact?
People need to let go of the fear of automation taking over positions, Baron says. Instead, look at it as an opportunity to grow into new, more human-centric, meaningful roles.
Two of the most important skills people will need, Baron says, is the ability to be entrepreneurial and to create with others. They might launch a freelance business, for example, or provide much-needed services or products that automation simply cannot replicate. Greater autonomy in the future will likely make it possible for people to attempt more ambitious projects, she says.
Kevin Curran, an IEEE senior member and technical expert who specializes in computer science, says, “We are at the tipping point, where in many sectors humans are becoming redundant.” But that means a large number of people will be needed to design, build, and operate the machines that inevitably will take over our jobs, he says, adding: “History has shown the loss of jobs to technology is moderated by the creation of new kinds of skills necessary for controlling the machines.”
Curran imagines mechanics will be needed to repair robots, pilots will be needed to maneuver drones, and advisors will be needed to manage digital currency. People with tech skills will have more opportunities in the future, he says, because “even the most intelligent of machines cannot function without humans.”
Preuniversity schools need to do a better job of teaching computer skills to build up the new generation of “knowledge workers,” he says. He calls many current computer classes “woeful,” often showing students how to type Word documents when they should be teaching how to write code.
Schools need to take a more general approach to the future of work, Baron adds. “We need to stop preparing kids for specific jobs,” she says, noting that “some schools now focus less on teaching subjects and more on showing students how to create and to be entrepreneurial,” giving them the opportunity to build up their intuition and creativity.
“I want to live in a world where we stop asking kids what they want to be when they grow up,” she says, “Instead, we need to give them the tools and the ability to innovate in whichever direction they want to go in, and teach them the importance of making a life—with work being a part of it—and not just a living.”
That philosophy is likely to become more relevant as robots prove we are not what we do.
This article is part of our June 2016 special issue on artificial intelligence.