Jobs in the 21st Century

Either the robots work for you or vice versa

1.7B people in the world have access to Smartphones. A device that can access all of the information in the world and show funny videos of cats. The Smartphone is not only changing how we learn but enabling new business efficiencies – farmers in 3rd world countries access weather and spot prices. But this is only the beginning of the IT revolution. When the next generation grows up, the smartphones we know today will be like pocket watches. The technology behind the smartphone – the application processors, the software ecosystem, the cloud infrastructure, data science, artificial intelligence, etc. – will change the way people live and work in unpredictable ways. Whether you are developing this new world or selling your personal skills, you will need to embrace the change to stay employed.

But that doesn’t mean you need to code. Michael Polanyi (Polani’s Pardox) observed, “We can know more than we can tell…” In the field of artificial intelligence this is known as Moravec’s Paradox: “It is comparatively easy to make computers exhibit adult level performance on intelligence tests and difficult or impossible to give them the skills of a one-year-old when it comes to perception and mobility.”

The lower right corner – Non-repetitive skills – includes craftsman, artisans, oil field workers, healthcare workers, educators, rainmakers (people who sell complex solutions to people). This will likely be the dominant component of the work force. Of course the earnings potential will vary greatly.

There is abundant evidence that repetitive skills are increasingly displaced by automation. The Internet disintermediation of interpersonal skills started a decade ago with travel agents replaced by Expedia, Kayak, etc. The trend is accelerating into every corner of the job market where goods and services once sold person to person, are now simple online clicks. Even taxi drivers and the hotel concierge are not immune to the power of ubiquitous Smartphones and perfect information.

The upper right corner – thinking, non-repetitive – defines jobs for people who exploit technology to identify opportunities and solve problems. The McKinsey article below coins a new definition of CEO, as the Chief Experimentation Officer. Thinkers are experimenters. Smart Technologies are the “beakers and bunsen burners” of their cognitive laboratory.

References and Recommended Reading

Manager and the Machine, McKinsey Quarterly, September 2014

Polanyi’s Paradox and the Shape of Employment Growth, David Autor MIT