The skyline of an ever-changing world (author’s own photo: Bangkok, 2012)

These are the skills you need to build ifutf you don’t want to be outsourced to a computer

Developing resilience to a changing world of work

The world is changing and uncertain. So far so cliché. Whether we look into the horizon or the near future, the uncertainty and challenges ahead are undeniable. I think we need to prepare ourselves so that we are resilient to the challenges of this ever-changing context. Can we become ‘context-proof’ or are we at the mercy of the changes that go on around us?

In my last article I quoted research by Carl Frey & Michael Osborne from the Martin School at Oxford University that predicted that 47% of US jobs are at risk of automation. A conclusion sometimes reached about data like this is that we face a stark choice between some form of basic income and the risks of mass under-employment. British MP Chuka Umunna recently articulated an alternative perspective. He makes the case against basic income, seeing it as “a signal that we’ve given up” and arguing that work provides us with a sense of meaning and dignity and must therefore be protected.That leaves us with a conundrum. To protect work in a world of exponential technological progress we need two things to happen:

1. We, as individuals, need to develop those attributes that are resilient to automation. Put another way, we need to do more things that only humans can do.

2. Leaders, whether business or political, need to do something quite remarkable and imagine a world where there are more and more jobs where ‘uniquely human’ jobs; and then engage in something of a huge global development program so that people are ready to do them.

Leaving point 2 for another time (I have opinions to share but not in this format) let’s think for a moment about what this means for our own personal and professional development. If you wade through the mathematical formulae of the Frey & Osborne article (I outsourced that part to AI, by the way) the method they use to predict the resilience of work to automation is a pretty good recipe for context-proofing your career. The capabilities that are resilient to automation and AI are listed in the table below, along with the authors’ descriptions (incidentally, the appendix of the article shows the likelihood of automation of about 700 jobs — it makes sobering reading). I’ve excluded a couple of things related to manual dexterity: as a psychologist I have an unapologetic bias towards thinking about thinking.

Adapted from Frey & Osborne (2016

What can you do with this to plan meaningful development? Here are some questions I think are worth considering:

1. How much do you use those six capabilities in your current work? The more you do, the more resilient your work is to automation. .

2. When you look at the six capabilities, which ones are you good at? Which do you enjoy? Which do you need to develop?

3. How would your work be different if everything you do revolved around those six capabilities?

4. What can you do now, in or outside work, to develop one or more of these capabilities?

There’s no single answer to the challenges presented by technology and automation but my hunch is that if we evolve in these capabilities, we’ll outperform artificial intelligence for some time yet. Doing so gives us a better chance to solve the problems we need to, see the opportunities ahead, and make sure natural intelligence leads the artificial. To quote Erik Brynjolfsson, author of The Second Machine Age:

“There is no better resource for improving the world and bettering the state of humanity than the world’s humans — all 7.1 billion of us.”
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