What better time to reflect on the future of work and jobs than Labor Day? I’ve written about this extensively with my latest foray on a recent blog post.
Is STEM our future?
Today, I want to be a contrarian. The conventional wisdom is that the best way to prepare students for the future of work is through a STEM education (science, technology, engineering and math), although a few might recommend STEAM (adding art as a token concession to the quantitative basket). Let me challenge this on several levels.
First, it maintains a disciplinary focus to education at a time when our disciplinary boundaries are becoming prisons that prevent us from fully understanding the rapidly changing world around us.
Second, it suggests kids should go into disciplines that are particularly vulnerable to automation, especially if we focus on the quantitative and systemic dimensions of these disciplines. Sure, data analysts are in hot demand now, but how long will it be before artificial intelligence automates much of this activity? Robots are already designing and building their compatriots.
Third, it seems to be driven by the sense that we’ll all need to become “techies” in order to survive in a world increasingly shaped by technology. Yet, the wonderful capabilities of these new generations of technologies are that they quickly blend into the background and can be used by anyone without a tech education. Think of the computing power embedded into our smart phones today – the equivalent of mainframe processing power just a few decades ago – that can now be applied with just a few taps in proliferating applications usable by anyone.
Fourth, if the children are not deeply passionate about these disciplines and simply going into them because they will provide a sustainable career, they will most likely fail as the mounting performance pressure leads to growing stress and ultimately burn out.
Alternatives to STEM
So, what’s the alternative? The only real alternative to prepare our kids for the new era unfolding around us is to radically redesign our educational systems. What we need are learning environments that will draw out and nurture capabilities that today are only in the background, if present at all – capabilities like creativity, imagination, curiosity, and emotional and social intelligence that transcend conventional disciplinary boundaries.
Until then, the best advice we can give our children is to search wherever they can (and certainly beyond the four walls of the classroom) for a sustaining passion that excites and engages them and to not stop until they have found it. Once discovered, they then need to do whatever is necessary to pursue that passion and find ways to turn it into a remunerative job.
Work versus jobs
Which leads me to my next contrarian position. I’ve just come back from a conference where the consensus appeared to be that we might continue to work in the age of machines but that few, if any, of us would be able to turn that work into jobs that provide us with income to support ourselves (much less our families). Frankly, this position baffles me.
I believe that we all have an insatiable desire and need to achieve more of our potential, even though for many of us that desire and need has been suppressed by an educational system designed to prepare us for jobs that offer very limited opportunity to achieve more of our potential. Moreover, I also believe that we will be willing to pay those who can play a material role in achieving more of our potential and in providing us with products and services tailored to our individual needs and interests.
The way I see it, there will be a flourishing of jobs that will leverage digital technology infrastructures but that can provide a healthy living to more and more people who discover that they have a passion for this kind of work. What are some examples? Let me just quickly roll through a list (and I couldn't resist having them all start with the same letter):
Craftspeople and artists – I believe we are headed back to the future, a world where more and more of the products we buy will be produced by talented craftspeople who can inspire our own creativity and imagination
Customizers – these are people who have a talent in taking more generic products and services and creatively tailoring them to the specific needs and interests of each person
Curators – people who develop a deep expertise in particular domains of products and services and can quickly and effectively help us to find the product or service that best meets our needs and interests - they don't have to be high tech products, but all forms of products including beds, gardening tools and surfboards
Coaches – these are people who help us to accelerate our learning and performance improvement in a broad range of domains that are meaningful to us, ranging from job skills to wellness and relationships. Once again, these skills don't have to be high tech skills - they could be cooking, pottery making or swimming
Counselors – people with a deep intuitive sense of the individual who can help us with motivational or lifestyle issues that are preventing us from achieving more of our potential, including drug abuse, fear or self-absorption
Compelling experience hosts – those who can help us to explore domains in ways that enhance our learning or spirit of adventure. This could cover a broad range of experiences from travel and exercise to learning about new tools that can help us express our own creativity and imagination
Community hosts/moderators – people who are talented in convening gatherings (both in physical space and virtual space) that bring together people and foster interactions that draw out new insight and motivate us to harness that insight so that we achieve more of our potential. By the way, these community moderators could emerge in many domains, ranging from specific crafts to helping neighbors achieve a greater sense of community
Captivating performers – these are people in a variety of domains including sports and entertainment who can engage and inspire us to achieve more of our potential by tapping into our imagination and showing us what is possible
I could go on, but let me suggest that ultimately the jobs of the future will focus on serving four basic human needs – exploration, connection and creation as well as the learning required to do the first three more effectively.
But, where's the money?
So, will we be able to earn a living from these activities? I believe so, for a variety of reasons.
First, our cost of living is likely to decline significantly in the years ahead as we reap the benefits of technology. This technology is already helping to significantly reduce the cost of producing and delivering the products and services we need to meet our basic needs, ranging from food and energy to the devices we use to connect to the rest of the world. There admittedly are certain domains (at least in the US) like education and healthcare that are experiencing rapidly rising costs, but I believe these domains will be significantly disrupted in ways that unleash the opportunity to make these services more accessible to a larger segment of the population (perhaps the focus of a future blog post).
There’s another factor likely to reduce our cost of living over time – the move from ownership to access. We’re shifting from the need or desire to own large physical assets like homes or cars to seeing the value of simply accessing these resources when and where we need them. Access will tend to reduce the amount we need to spend to get the benefit of these assets.
Second, we’ll likely have to move from being employees to becoming entrepreneurs in order to create these jobs for ourselves. I’ve written extensively about concentration and fragmentation trends in the economy elsewhere. While I’ve made the case that we will still see very large and concentrated businesses in a variety of domains that are driven by significant network effects or economies of scale and scope, these businesses will tend to be very capital intensive and actually require relatively few employees to prosper (the one exception being the “trusted advisor” business opportunity). As a result, most people will tend to make a living in the fragmenting parts of the economy, where most if not all of the job opportunities I outlined above will reside.
To harness these job opportunities, we’ll need to be prepared to leave the largely illusory security of working as an employee and instead build our own small business by seeing an untapped opportunity and being willing to take the risk of investing our time and effort in addressing that opportunity. In doing this, we'll be able to leverage new generations of technology like 3D printing that are making the means of production more affordable and accessible, as well as digital funding, talent and commercialization platforms that will help us to connect with the resources and customers we need to build a business.
Success will be modest, at least in the sense of not becoming the next unicorn. That’s the consequence of operating in a fragmenting part of our economy – small businesses will prosper, but find it increasingly challenging to become very big. But we will likely be able to create a comfortable living for ourselves, our families and perhaps a few other trusted collaborators.
If we’re targeting opportunities like the ones highlighted above, I believe that we can create jobs for ourselves. This work taps into basic human needs that we all have. Think of it in terms of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. As the basic physical requirements for human survival become increasingly affordable, we will naturally move up the hierarchy to focus ultimately on self-actualization. And, if you believe, as I do, that our potential for self-actualization is ultimately unlimited, there will be an ever growing demand for products and services that can support us on this journey.
If it’s not already clear, I’m an optimist regarding the potential for jobs, while recognizing the challenges we will certainly face in making this transition as the future of work gets redefined. The jobs that are emerging are far more fulfilling than the jobs today that require us to leave our humanity at the door in order to take home a paycheck at the end of the month. These jobs are within the reach of all of us, provided that we discover and pursue our passion.