The Robots are coming- what do we tell the children?
You could be forgiven for thinking that this is a line from a dodgy 1970's B movie. Actually it is driven by a genuine concern for our children's future employment prospects, given the steamroller of technology which is heading our way, and therefore their way. The convergence of technologies, including the Internet, collaborative software, big data underpinned by ever more complex algorithm's, nanotechnology and yes, the good old fashioned Robots is akin to a perfect storm. This will have a massive impact on the number and types of roles which will be available to current, and future generations. I do not believe that it is possible to 'futureproof' our children, any more than out parents could do for us. There are however things that we and they need to be thinking about to give them the best life chances . In no particular order, these are my thoughts.
1/Do not expect a degree to be a guarantee of a job or career, or to have a career for life. Both of these are rapidly becoming outdated notions. By all means study a degree for its own sake and for the experience, and if you are looking to fulfill a career or vocational goal, know yourself and what you are best at and align your degree choice carefully to that. Perhaps the most powerful reason to study a degree now, is that it will take 'learning how to learn' to a higher level. This will be increasingly important in a fast changing world where the emphasis on learning new skills and adaptability will become ever greater.
2/Develop a flexible mindset which regards learning as a life long activity and career change as normal and desirable.Most people will need to change direction or career more than once in future and it is better to embrace change and to develop the skills and attributes which will allow you to adapt. Constantly remain vigilant to changing trends in technology and employment and avoid comforting assumptions about these.
3/Focus on developing your emotional intelligence and people skills because how you interact with and influence others will become ever more important. If you are a born leader, or are capable of developing into one then go for it because even as our definitions of leadership change, the need to get things done through influence and persuasion will not. In my opinion, the roles which will be safest (a relative term) in future, will be those on the right side of the technology (masters rather than servants) and those which require leadership, influence and high touch interactions with others. Technology can replace all manner of processes, from making hamburgers through to accounting, medical triage and paralegal functions. Robots cannot lead, influence, inspire and understand others emotionally.
4/Make no assumptions about the roles which can or cannot be replaced in future, because technology and its exploitation are moving so fast and not necessarily in a linear fashion. For example in the field of Artificial Intelligence several road blocks have been overcome and there are likely to be quantum leaps in the near future. There are some roles which I cannot see being replaced by Robots- Brain Surgeon or Hairdresser perhaps. Then again, who would have conceived of driver-less cars or teacher-less degrees 10 or even 5 years ago?
5/Be open minded about what you do for a living and the nature of your engagement with your employer or work. Self-employment, entrepreneurial and portfolio careers and interim work are becoming more prevalent today, and I believe that these trends will continue. Speaking personally, I have found it liberating and rewarding to retrain and love being self-employed, I am pleased that my children can see and feel that because they will almost certainly need to make similar changes in their lives, probably more than once. We need to break the old world thinking about the nature of employment and careers, and also the shackles of old world 9-5, 8-6 or 9-9 working.
6/focus on your strengths and what you are really good at- your sweet spot- rather than spending too much of your time trying to fix or overcome your weaknesses, as so many of us are inclined to do today. Knowing what you are best at and being brave about exploiting your potential to the full, is rewarding personally and will help to protect you. Aristotle said that 'where the needs of the world and you capabilities overlap, there lies your vocation'. As the needs of the world change, so must we. Flexibility and courage will be essential.
Finally, a broader point about the likely social implications of the changes which I describe. With ever increasing numbers of unemployed and sadly unemployable people (not everyone will be able to adapt) our society and economic model will be increasingly challenged. This is not a new prognosis and the problem was envisaged many years ago by thinkers as diverse as Henry Ford and Karl Marx.
Ford identified that it would not be desirable for Robots to replace his workforce entirely, because after all, who would be left to buy the cars? Separately, Marx identified that Capitalism contained the 'seeds of its own destruction'. Due to the relentless drive for profit the system was not equipped to distribute wealth and purchasing power. As these become ever more concentrated, among an ever smaller elite today (5% of our population are responsible for 40% of our consumption, and rising) again, who will be left to buy the cars? In a post industrial, digital age the fundamental problem is likely to be how to get wealth and purchasing power into the hands of those who most need it, and will spend it.
The economy will not be fueled by the sales of Cartier watches and Caribbean holidays indefinitely, as some economists would have us believe. Companies such as Google, Facebook and Amazon employ a fraction of the workforce relative to their turnover, when compared with their industrial forebears. The convergence of, and synergies between, technologies will only make these ratio's worse and we will need to adapt, fast. New mechanisms for distributing wealth and creating employment will need to be found and I believe that this will require greater collaboration between the state and business. We have already had a glimpse of one possible future through the post crash riots, the emergence of food banks and pay-day lenders. I hope that this vision does not become our children's reality. There will need to be less greed and fear and more compassion and vision if we are to succeed. At least we can still do these things better than the Robots,
if you are interested to understand more about the technology underpinning the 'Rise of the Robots', I recommend a book which carries this title by Martin Ford, who also considers environmental and other forces at play. Ford concludes by saying;
'Negotiating a path through these entangled forces and crafting a future that offers broad based security and prosperity may prove to be the greatest challenge of our time'
David Head is a Coach and mentor with the award winning firm Accelerating Experience. firstname.lastname@example.org