The Future Proof Job

Pondering the job prospects for my two-year-old son. It’s never too early!

If you like this article, check out another by Robbie: 
The AI Entrepreneur’s Moral Dilemma

Photo: Evan Kirby via Unsplash

I’ve received a handful of questions about why I’m going back to school at my advanced age. My quip is that I’m doing it to figure out what career options will still be viable for my two-year-old son when he reaches adulthood.

I say it only partially in jest.

Since I stepped back at Automated Insights, I’ve had some time to think about the future and dig into the latest AI research and trends as I prepare for my PhD program in the Fall. When you are heads down running a company as I was for ten years, you don’t have much time to think deep thoughts about the future. It’s been eye-opening to consider where things are going and what it means for the workforce. It’s also been a helpful exercise as I think about options for my next startup.

I’ve already written about why I think the broader AI technology wave will continue for the foreseeable future and how it will result in greater innovation than we’ve ever seen. The question becomes: to what end?

Twenty-year time horizon

Recently, I’ve been wondering what the world will look like for my son twenty years from now in 2037. I’m assuming he graduates high school in 16 years and goes to college for four years — that’s if college exists in the same form in 16 years, which is far from certain considering current trends.

I’m not as interested in what kind of jobs are being automated right now, but what can be automated in twenty years. I’m going to assume that we haven’t achieved AGI by 2037 because after that, all bets are off regarding what life is like for us humans on planet earth. At that point, we’ll need to have evolved into something like Homo Deus (great book btw) to stay competitive with the robots.

At a certain level, I’m trying to anticipate the impossible. The only thing you know about trying to predict the future is you will be wrong. And it’s not always just a matter of whether something will be technically possible by then. The technology behind level 5 autonomous cars will be ready long before the geo-political environment will be ready to force humans out of the drivers’ seat despite the clear life-saving advantages of doing so.

Also, I’m trying to think about what kind of jobs will be thriving in twenty years, not just the ones that will be hanging on. It will take a long time, much longer than twenty years, before certain professions go away completely. Many will be in slow decline for a long time. There is a certain amount of inertia with humanity. Once we have our ways set, we keep going in a particular direction even if technology enables us to do otherwise. We just need to make it to retirement!

It’s a good thing my son can’t read yet

You don’t have to look very far to find research that paints an ominous picture about the future of employment. The main conclusion in an oft-cited study by Carl Frey and Michael A. Osborne from Oxford University is sobering:

According to our estimates around 47 percent of total US employment is in the high risk category. We refer to these as jobs at risk — i.e. jobs we expect could be automated relatively soon, perhaps over the next decade or two.

That means half of today’s jobs could be automated by the time my son is ready to enter the workforce.

Another study by the Pew Research Center showed that of the 1,896 experts they surveyed:

Half of these experts (48%) envision a future in which robots and digital agents have displaced significant numbers of both blue- and white-collar workers — with many expressing concern that this will lead to vast increases in income inequality, masses of people who are effectively unemployable, and breakdowns in the social order.

But it’s not like the other 52% were optimistic:

The other half of the experts who responded to this survey (52%) expect that technology will not displace more jobs than it creates by 2025. To be sure, this group anticipates that many jobs currently performed by humans will be substantially taken over by robots or digital agents by 2025. But they have faith that human ingenuity will create new jobs, industries, and ways to make a living, just as it has been doing since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.

No guarantee the future will look like the past

The Pew study showed that even the experts that think we’ll have more jobs in twenty years are betting on previous creative destruction trends holding true. In the past, if one product category was destroyed (e.g. point-and-click cameras), another one (e.g. smartphones) took its place in bigger and better ways. Or maybe you can point to assembly line jobs going away followed by a shift toward information workers.

The problem is there is no guarantee that trend will continue. What concerns me is that we’ll likely see multiple professions undergoing contraction in the coming years, not just one or two. That means we’ll need multiple new professions to take their place at the same time. It’s not out of the question, but the rate of creative destruction is going to happen much quicker than what we’ve seen before. Can the human ingenuity to create new jobs mentioned in the Pew study possibly keep pace with our ability to automate jobs away?

What about those un-automatable jobs?

There are two classes of jobs that you often read about as being difficult to automate. The Oxford paper referred to them as being based on creative intelligence and social intelligence. The socially-oriented jobs include nurses, teachers, human resources, and creative jobs include musicians, chefs, painters, writers, entertainers, and professions requiring original thought.

First, it’s likely that some of the social jobs evaporate because the mode in which we tackle problems will change. For example, if we change our approach to education in favor of online courses, there is an argument to be made that we’ll need a lot fewer teachers. Do we really need to teach the same material every term over and over again? Perhaps teachers morph more into discussion leaders and question answerers (ala the Kahn Academy style of teaching). While I don’t see the job of teacher ever going away, I can definitely envision scenarios where it’s much different than it is today.

For the creative jobs, I don’t agree that many are not automatable. Anything related to images will be completely owned by software in the future. We are already seeing some examples of software that can produce good art. Music and writing are harder to automate, but certainly not out of the question. My company has been automating the quantitative writing process for a half dozen years. Creative writing is harder, but I don’t think it is out of the question.

As I mentioned before, I’m not saying that just because the technology will exist to automate some of these tasks, it means humans will stop doing them or will even prefer an automated version. I’m looking for the professions where it’s difficult even to envision an automated solution.

What does that leave my son?

If half of all jobs today will be automated in twenty years and many of the jobs we don’t think of as being automatable today may also get automated, what advice would I give my Paw Patrol-loving son?

Until we achieve AGI, one pretty safe bet is anything related to putting ideas together to form new businesses, products, or ideas. That means entrepreneurs, inventors, and researchers are pretty safe bets twenty years from now (as far as not declining from current-day levels). It’s the creative jobs that require original thought.

Specifically, I think starting and building companies (i.e. being an entrepreneur) will continue to be a good career path just as it is today. The fundamental essence of what makes a human is unique and creative thought. Being able to pull together previously unexplored or under-explored concepts into an idea that you pursue as a business requires being able to have a world view and ability to execute across a variety of domains. It would be incredibly difficult to automate the job of an entrepreneur; I’m not even sure what aspect you’d try to tackle first.

That’s not to say the act of starting and running companies won’t see massive disruption in the coming years — I believe it absolutely will — but the parts that are done by the entrepreneur/founder/CEO, I’d feel good recommending to my son.

I’m probably a little biased since I am an entrepreneur, but I don’t think so. I’d love to hear your thoughts. I will be writing a lot more on this topic in the coming weeks!

Additional Reading

There is no shortage of interesting material out there on the future of technology, the workforce, and humanity itself. Here are a few I recommend if you are interested in more on this topic.

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