One of the biggest work-related topics these days among the rich countries of the world is the fear that people will end up being replaced by machines and that many jobs that existed before, even white collar ones, won’t exist anymore. The Orwellian descriptions that are normally used to describe this otherwise natural conversation, generate truly grim labels. It doesn’t have to be like that. Let’s dive in a bit into what’s really going on and see if we can use this era as an opportunity.
The skills of the future
In the past decade one of the biggest buzzwords has been “change”. And it’s here to stay. We were used to apply boxes around people’s specialisations and be fixated in building expertise in specific fields, that indeed used to keep our companies competitive for many years or even decades to come. What we’re starting to see is that the speed at which this expertise needs to be reshaped and rebuilt is significantly higher. If being very good at a specific set of skills used to provide a sustainable strategic advantage, now being good at learning new things, adapting to new trends (in technology or otherwise) is starting to be seen as the game changer. Many jobs are quickly becoming obsolete and that might actually become the norm, not a temporary curse of events.
While we are told that the skills of the future are related to all things tech — artificial intelligence, coding, data analysis, genetic engineering — what employers are actually starting to see is that many crucial skills that people need to develop in the future are soft skills — creativity, ability to learn and cope with change, empathy etc.
Many of the skills that will be required in the future are already here, they don’t need to be reinvented, just continue to naturally gain more visibility and influence in companies.
Fast Company identifies five skills for the future that leaders will need to manifest in order to build businesses that thrive, and they are all human, trainable skills than can be built upon our existing work environments.
- The ability to think of new solutions — as the world is changing rapidly, deterministic strategies need to be replaced by more fluid, dynamic, adaptive ones.
- Being comfortable with chaos — the high pace of change generates uncertainty and, as such, the need for professionals that are comfortable with making decisions in these conditions.
- An understanding of technology — not everyone will need to write code in the future, but it will be required that we understand how different technologies around us work and how we can put them to use in our own work environments. This doesn’t require expertise as much as open-mindedness and willingness to learn new things.
- High emotional intelligence — the more technology steps in to take over the routine jobs, the more employees will do more creative work, demanding more autonomy and flattening organisational structures. Leaders that have the empathy to utilize this new professional freedom of people, will build more adaptable and innovative companies.
- The ability to work with people and technology together — the most effective leaders will understand that people and technology are completing each other, and will maximise the capabilities of both to drive more value.
Of course, we will need more and more people with technical backgrounds in a wide range of emerging technologies — but that doesn’t mean we need a new breed of people or even new people altogether.
While we support the creation of educational programmes that develop more of the skills we need, we could also take a look in our own backyard to see how can we make use of the existing talent.
Programmers that currently work in business applications and smartphone apps, can easily be repurposed to work with blockchain, trading algorithms and big data analysis. Instead of hopelessly looking for scarcely available experts in currently emerging technology, why not hire already smart people, trained in adjacent areas, that can learn with you, for you.
I grew up with a dad who works in oil extraction and, for half of his career, didn’t work in a nice office in a posh district of town, but close to a well, dressed in safety equipment. He’s a tremendous engineer and now leads young people that, just like him, start their careers working on the field. At the same time, he’s aware that the fossil fuel industry will be heavily affected by the rise of electrical vehicles and he’s actually really looking forward to owning one himself one day. People like him and many other engineers coming from industries in decline could easily be redirected in others that are on the rise — solar energy, wind energy, electrical vehicles, biofuel etc. — especially in developed economies that have the financial power of creating traction for innovative industries.
I don’t believe we really need to look as far as we think for the experts in the technologies of the future, we might just need to give the opportunity to learn something new to already great professionals. After all, the people who already have the expertise, had the opportunity to learn it themselves, either in their spare time, or, more likely, because a former employer empowered them to learn it while working on the job.
According to the World Economic Forum’s report, The Future of Jobs, the top types of work that will be made obsolete by automation will be office and administrative operations together with manufacturing and production jobs. Many of the people filling in these positions will most likely be left behind if they don’t gain radically new knowledge because we won’t really have the need for their current skills.
This is a serious social problem that has to be addressed from many angles — governments, businesses, non-profits and our own communities. Universal basic income could be a solution, given that the working-age people are helped to retrain. Having previously lived in Denmark, a country that already hit the automation problem a bit before most developed economies, I don’t think welfare is the answer to everything and I’ve seen it demotivating people to actually seek jobs and contribute to society. Now, our governments should, for sure, bring financial support to this transition period, but the measures we should fundamentally take in order to change the outlook of this situation are the ones that help rebuild people’s confidence that they are still important and useful to our societies, not the ones that reassure their fears that they are becoming dependent and unable to cope with current realities.
Retrain, retrain, retrain. People want to learn and contribute, it’s in our nature. Regardless of age.
Less routine jobs. More engagement.
Automation doesn’t have to kill careers, it can actually repurpose and take them to the next level.
More routine work being replaced by automated tool means more people being able to focus on creative, intellectually stimulating jobs. With a majority of 51% of the workforce being disengaged in the US (Gallup, 2014), employee participation is a serious issue, costing our businesses and economies a tremendous amount of money. These are not different figures from many developed economies in the world.
Employees that have to do redundant work that they don’t like might be one of the important causes for this issue. Removing and reimagining these jobs will cause some distress, but it can also result in an improved, stronger, more adaptable workforce that will bring more value to our economies.
I believe things will boil down to the decision of seeing this as a problem to fix or as an opportunity to take. I am a strong supporter of the latter and think that this is the mindset we need to have when building the tools, the politics and the business strategy for the future.