Don’t Want to Lose Your Job to a Machine? Better Get Touchy-Feely
Economists and wise gray heads all across America are discussing what the jobs of the future will look like and which industries are best positioned to lead the country’s recovery. But what these well-intentioned politicos and professors are only debating, you, young careerist, will actually have to live.
As someone at the start of their working life, you have somewhere in the neighborhood of four decades of career in front of you, so the question of what types of jobs will be around and available in the future isn’t just an academic discussion. The answer will inform your career trajectory and your choices when it comes to training and development.
Earlier this year, Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee published a book, Race Against the Machine, which argues that smart machines are making it easier for companies to produce more output with fewer people. They argue that in such a world, finding enough jobs to keep everybody employed will be increasingly challenging. Whether they’re right is still being discussed (more technology hasn’t seemed to decrease employment in the past), but no one argues that the mix of available jobs is changing.
Why Get Touchy-Feely?
So, what types of careers are likely to have staying power?
If you’re a programmer or a quant, good for you. You probably stopped reading this post a few paragraphs ago as irrelevant for your situation. But for the less mathematically gifted of us, there’s still hope.
Recently on Slate, Ray Fishman argued that the key to career longevity is reacting to the rise of machines by being more human—specifically, more touchy-feely. He writes:
If jobs are being lost to low-wage Indians and computer programs, then what today’s worker needs is a set of skills that offers the personal touch and judgment that can’t be provided by a machine or someone 12 time zones away. [Harvard labor economist Larry] Katz argues that this will be crucial for those with only high school educations, who will need to learn a “high touch” trade—like personal trainers, kitchen designers, and home health aides—where personal interaction is critical. He makes a similar argument for the college educated as well: With many clerical and lower-level management jobs made obsolete by advances in information technology or lost to off-shoring, they’ll have to reinvent themselves as, say, IT support professionals or consultants.
That means if your people skills aren’t up to snuff, you might want to think long and hard about the long-term career implications of that deficiency—and take action.
Another area where humans are unlikely to be outpaced by machines anytime soon is in fields where creativity is key. Despite the recent success of robot sports reporters (which this writer links to with terror) robots are unlikely to perform an opera, design a website or style a fashion shoot any time soon.
Just look at a recent report from online jobs marketplace Elance for evidence. In a statement accompanying the latest quarterly review of activity on the site, the company noted:
The new ‘Creative Economy’ has fueled hiring online; demand for creative skills such as web design (+574%), voice acting (+295%) and content writing (+256%) were each up significantly over a year ago. Companies are investing heavily in creative talent, signaling a shift in how businesses engage customers and commitment to growth.
Elance CEO Fabio Rosati commented, “For the first time, the growth rate in information technology is being overshadowed by the increased demand for creative talent.”
Maybe creative writing and dance classes aren’t just for slackers or the career-oblivious anymore.
Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London. She writes a daily column for Inc.com and has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch and GigaOM, among others.
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