The future of work. What jobs remain?

Yesterday’s post bid farewell to jobs that are going to disappear. What about the more positive side? What jobs will be left? What roles can we humans continue to play alongside the robots doing all this other work?

As it happens, one of yesterday’s LOTRW readers, Michelle L’Heureux, saw what was coming. In her comment, she cited a 2013 book by Tyler Cowen, entitled Average is Over, and the David Brooks reference to it in a column of a few weeks back in the New York Times. These had been intended as the basis for today’s post.

Michelle stole my speech.

Turns out that other writers have been noting the trend. Thomas Friedman, also writing in the New York Times, used this title, Average is Over, nearly two years ago, outlining the root idea (which in turn had been inspired in part by material he’d read…). Here’s some of what Mr. Friedman had to say:

In the past, workers with average skills, doing an average job, could earn an average lifestyle. But, today, average is officially over. Being average just won’t earn you what it used to. It can’t when so many more employers have so much more access to so much more above average cheap foreign labor, cheap robotics, cheap software, cheap automation and cheap genius. Therefore, everyone needs to find their extra — their unique value contribution that makes them stand out in whatever is their field of employment. Average is over.

Mr. Brooks added this commentary:

… our challenge for the day is to think of exactly which mental abilities complement mechanized intelligence. Off the top of my head, I can think of a few mental types that will probably thrive in the years ahead.

Freestylers. … there’s a style of chess in which people don’t play against the computer but with the computer. They let the computer program make most of the moves, but, occasionally, they overrule it. They understand the strengths and weaknesses of the program and the strengths and weaknesses of their own intuition, and, ideally, they grab the best of both.

This skill requires humility (most of the time) and self-confidence (rarely). It’s the kind of skill you use to overrule your GPS system when you’re driving in a familiar neighborhood but defer to it in strange surroundings. It is the sort of skill a doctor uses when deferring to or overruling a diagnostic test. It’s the skill of knowing when an individual case is following predictable patterns and when there are signs it is diverging from them[1].

Synthesizers. The computerized world presents us with a surplus of information. The synthesizer has the capacity to surf through vast amounts of online data and crystallize a generalized pattern or story.

Humanizers. People evolved to relate to people. Humanizers take the interplay between man and machine and make it feel more natural. Steve Jobs did this by making each Apple product feel like nontechnological artifact. Someday a genius is going to take customer service phone trees and make them more human. Someday a retail genius is going to figure out where customers probably want automated checkout (the drugstore) and where they want the longer human interaction (the grocery store).

Conceptual engineers. Google presents prospective employees with challenges like the following: How many times in a day do a clock’s hands overlap? Or: Figure out the highest floor of a 100-story building you can drop an egg from without it breaking. How many drops do you need to figure this out? You can break two eggs in the process.

They are looking for the ability to come up with creative methods to think about unexpected problems.

Motivators. Millions of people begin online courses, but very few actually finish them. I suspect that’s because most students are not motivated to impress a computer the way they may be motivated to impress a human professor. Managers who can motivate supreme effort in a machine-dominated environment are going to be valuable.

Moralizers. Mechanical intelligence wants to be efficient. It will occasionally undervalue essential moral traits, like loyalty. Soon, performance metrics will increasingly score individual employees. A moralizing manager will insist that human beings can’t be reduced to the statistical line. A company without a self-conscious moralizer will reduce human interaction to the cash nexus and end up destroying morale and social capital.

Greeters. An economy that is based on mechanized intelligence is likely to be a wildly unequal economy, even if the government tries to combat that inequality. Cowen estimates that perhaps 15 percent of workers will thrive, with plenty of disposable income. There will be intense competition for these people’s attention. They will favor restaurants, hotels, law firms, foundations and financial institutions where they are greeted by someone who knows their name. People with this capacity for high-end service, and flattery, will find work.

Economizers. The bottom 85 percent is likely to be made up of people with less marketable workplace skills. Some of these people may struggle financially but not socially or intellectually. That is, they may not make much running a food truck, but they can lead rich lives, using the free bounty of the Internet. They could use a class of advisers on how to preserve rich lives on a small income. 

Weavers. Many of the people who struggle economically will lack the self-motivation to build rich inner lives for themselves. Many are already dropping out of the labor force in record numbers and drifting into disorganized, disaffected lifestyles. Public and private institutions are going to hire more people to fight this social disintegration. There will be jobs for people who combat the dangerous inegalitarian tendencies of this new world.

Hard to argue with these views about where things are headed.

A few comments.

First, note that educators of every stripe use essentially the full range of Mr. Brooks’ listed skillset. He and others emphasize that job market shifts combine to make education, especially public education, all the more important to humanity’s future. The consequences of failing to prepare youth (and adults, for that matter), for the jobs of the future are dire, yet we continue to give short shrift to education.

Second, those of us in focused professionally on the threefold business of living on the real world – coping locally and globally with one or more aspects of natural resources, environmental protection, and building resilience to natural hazards, might likely find our jobs evolving rapidly but not immediately threatened because of advances in IT; indeed, they might grow more productive and satisfying. (Something similar can probably be said of many professions.)

But additional social concerns remain. Several of Mr. Brooks’ marketable skills involve helping computers and robots get even more adept at taking on expanded societal roles, and thus eventually putting ever-larger numbers of human beings out of traditional jobs. There’s a Scheherazade aspect to all this…

What’s more, even as machines and robots take over the routine, so that the jobs remaining grow more fulfilling for those able to do them… increasing numbers of us at the margins may find the jobs available beyond our training or capability. As the father of an autistic adult son, I feel this challenge personally; it’s likely that every reader has one or more family members or friends who fall into this imperiled category.

My son works for ServiceSource, a truly extraordinary resource for people with disabilities. As their website says,

ServiceSource is a leading nonprofit disability resource organization with regional offices and programs located in eight states and the District of Columbia. We serve more than 15,700 individuals with disabilities annually through a range of innovative and valued employment, training, habilitation, housing and other support services. ServiceSource directly employs more than 1,500 individuals on government and commercial affirmative employment contracts, making us one of the largest employers of people with disabilities nationwide. 

My son is one of the 1500; he has worked onsite in the mailroom of a federal agency here in Washington, D.C. for a decade. Of course, as you and I know full well, such snail mail is being supplanted by electronic and alternative forms; mailroom work is declining. The U.S. Postal Service is raising its rates. My son has seen cutbacks in this work and restructuring of his job as a result. He’s in his forties, but it’s hard to imagine he can work in this job until retirement age. And yet – it’s only by dint of extraordinary effort on the part of ServiceSource… their training and the management support they put in place at each of their contract sites – that my son can accomplish this work at all.

The question is: how can he, and millions of others in his circumstance continue to make useful contributions to society in the world of the future – and enjoy the self-respect and satisfaction that goes with that? We are called to work, not to be on some dole. Pure capitalism and unalloyed market forces don’t seem to offer an adequate answer, but neither does socialism.

We’ll all need to devote continuing energy and attention to formulating policies and social engineering that will tend toward mutually acceptable outcomes that are sustainable over the long haul.

[1] (LOTRW) I have a colleague who exhorts us to just this blend of humility and confidence. Note that Mr. Brooks clearly suggests erring in favor of humility. Incidentally, meteorologists make just such a call whenever they decide to overrule the computerized model guidance. With the passage of years, as numerical weather prediction has improved, the opportunities for overriding the computer have been diminished, and the career risks attendant to such actions have risen.

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