A Solution for The Future of Work and Loneliness in The Age of AI

Alex Schwartz
Jan 21, 2020 · 11 min read

Work and human connection — primary sources for fulfillment and meaning — are being radically disrupted. Why?

My work and research with technologists, top executives and academics has uncovered two powerful trends:

1. Forthcoming job losses driven by advances in Artificial Intelligence, automation and robotics

2. An epidemic in loneliness — driven by the loss of inter-personal skills, and the compulsive use of technology, smartphones and social media

  • A recent study found that 47 percent of Americans lack meaningful inter-personal connection and often feel alone or left out
  • Hockey stick growth in loneliness/isolation, especially among young adults and teens, directly tied to increased screen time, smartphone and social media use (Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation)
  • Smartphone use reduces empathy and 82 percent of adults feel the way phones are used in social settings hurts communication (Stop Googling. Let’s Talk)

By themselves, these are formidable. Paired together, they are potentially catastrophic. For millions, this may mean an existential crisis. For others, an opportunity. I believe the solution to both problems is intertwined. To thrive, we must:

  • Retrain ourselves to use technology to reinforce human connection
  • Double down on innately human soft skills — interpersonal skills, creativity, leadership, critical thinking, communication, empathy and resilience

I call this process re-humanizing. I am building a platform for executives and educators to activate for their employees and students.

This sounds easier than it is. As whistleblower Tristan Harris points out, we live in a time where God-like technology easily overwhelms our still paleolithic brains. Still, experience has taught me never to underestimate the human will or our capacity for radical transformation.

The problems we face are ones I know well! Growing up as a highly-sensitive only child, it was hard for me to connect. As a late-blooming ‘mama’s boy,’ I experienced intense bullying from the age of seven to fifteen, which led to excruciating loneliness and social isolation. By the time I was eleven, I wasn’t sure I wanted to keep on living. In my mid 20’s, despite a successful career in the entertainment industry, my work hard, play hard lifestyle led to struggles with addiction (compulsive behavior similar to what many experience with smartphones and social media) and I have been sober for nearly thirteen years.

Looking back, I am grateful for my struggles with loneliness, isolation and addiction. They cultivated resilience and propelled me to upgrade my human soft skills and become an expert on building meaningful relationships. I have empathy and compassion for others who are experiencing a similar brand of isolation or emotional hardship and it drives everything I do.

Today, in my spare time, I lead a men’s group focused on personal growth, authentic communication and empathy. I work with charities teaching mindfulness and connection to at-risk kids, and I help individuals struggling with addiction. I’m also a father who cares deeply about my son’s development and the world he will grow up in. I want it to be one where people are fulfilled by purposeful work and the strong human connections which give life meaning.

So, what am I doing?

Professionally, I have worked since 2013 as a client-facing growth strategist for Publicis.Sapient, creating custom technology, design and organizational change solutions for Fortune 500 companies. I brought in and onboarded twenty-three industry leading clients resulting in $250M+ in project revenue. Understanding our offerings and our client’s business mattered, but what made me exceptional was my drive to genuinely connect with people, think strategically and demonstrate empathy for their businesses.

Over the past twenty-four months I have noticed a shift among existing and prospective clients to investments in big data, automation and AI programs. While many are not overly concerned about job loss in the age of AI/automation (cue the techno-optimists who believe this Fourth Industrial Revolution will create countless new jobs to replace those which are lost) there are reasons to worry. A post-Davos New York Times article, notes:

“In public, many executives wring their hands over the negative consequences that artificial intelligence and automation could have for workers. They take part in panel discussions about building “human-centered A.I.” — and talk about the need to provide a safety net for people who lose their jobs as a result of automation. … But in private settings … these executives tell a different story: They are racing to automate their own work forces to stay ahead of the competition, with little regard for the impact on workers.”

Two summers ago, a C-Suite executive of a major travel corporation told me he could replace 40% of his workforce immediately with automation more effective and efficient than his human workforce. The only thing stopping him was company culture — but he felt that was shifting.

In his recent TED talk, Kai-Fu Lee predicts AI will lead to net job losses of 40–50% in the US within ten to fifteen years as hard skills become automated. However, while machines and robots will increasingly perform tasks in superhuman ways … it won’t feel “human.” Thus, safe jobs in the future will rely on our more humanistic traits: interpersonal skills, empathy, compassion, communication, creativity, caregiving, hospitality, etc. These are skills that are done best when they come from the heart, not the mind.

The debate over whether AI will create massive job losses vs. whether AI will create new jobs with no material dip in employment (as posited in HUMAN + MACHINE) will undoubtedly continue. My belief is that while there will be an abundance of new or evolved jobs that will pair humans and machines more closely, job losses overall will be staggering. Where experts find consensus is that these aforementioned humanistic skills will be in high demand throughout the job marketplace going forward (As AI infiltrates work, employers pay a premium for soft skills).

Loneliness and Human Connection

In parallel with my experience and research on AI, automation and jobs, it has been impossible to ignore the emerging conversation around second screens, “tech addiction,” social media, and what appears to be a global crisis of loneliness and social isolation. (A recent study noted that loneliness has the same impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, making it even more dangerous than obesity.) It is becoming more commonly accepted that the technology platforms which were designed to make us feel connected are driving us apart.

What has ensued is an unquenchable desire for dopamine and approval in the form of likes and follows. This has led to a global spike in depression, anxiety and isolation since 2012, the year in which nearly half the U.S. population owned a smartphone (1). While there is strong debate as to whether smartphones and social media create addictive behavior vs. enable non-addictive but compulsive behavior I would candidly ask, does it matter?

Thankfully, whistleblowers have emerged. Tristan Harris and his Center for Humane Technology are illuminating how the leading players of “The Attention Economy” (Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Snap, Google, Apple, Netflix) are preying upon our brains weaknesses to keep us glued to our screens. The result? A term Tristan coins as Human Downgrading which he says “feels like a downgrading of humanity … a downgrading of our relationships, a downgrading of our attention, a downgrading of democracy, a downgrading of our sense of decency.”

The media has followed suit with related exposés, Diane Sawyer with ScreenTime, for example. Not to mention smart and well-intentioned individuals like Giancarlo Pittoco (Purposeful) and Dan Schawbel (Back to Human) who are bringing strong thought leadership and solutions to the fore. The ranks of those concerned about this issue are growing by the day.

Still, a critical nuance missing in this debate is how these deleterious effects are augmented in a generation that was born digital. iGen, aka GenZ, was born between 1995–2012 and comprises 25% of the US population. iGen is eroding their interpersonal skills and sapping their desire to spend time with friends and have deeper, more intimate relationships (2). Dr. Jean Twenge, an expert on this topic, painstakingly links these shifts to second screens and social media. She said:

“Around 2012, I noticed abrupt shifts in teen behaviors and emotional states. The gentle slopes of the line graphs became steep mountains and sheer cliffs, and many of the distinctive characteristics of the Millennial generation began to disappear. In all my analyses of generational data — some reaching back to the 1930s — I had never seen anything like it.

There is also a staggering rise in narcissism fueled by social media — especially when viewed through the lens of critical human soft skills. Dr. Twenge proclaims:

“Someone who is high in narcissism is missing that piece about valuing relationships. There’s a lack of empathy and caring. They’re willing to admit that empathy and caring just aren’t their things. They like having relationships because of what those relationships can do for them, but true intimacy, empathy, and caring is something narcissists don’t do well.”

Sadly, most of these digital natives don’t know what they are missing. Having had a mostly analog childhood and a value for human connection, it is immediately apparent how isolated I feel when I overdose on screen time and social media, and under-dose on out-of-the-home, real world connected experiences.

Without a developed framework for comparison, it is hard for kids growing up digital to understand the pros and cons of the trade-offs they are making. And while generational shifts often produce meme-worthy responses from teens and young adults who feel their parents don’t “get them” I believe it is incumbent on older generations to show them the benefits of life offline.

How Will Our Kids Fare in an AI Future?

Do you have kids? If not, would you like to?

I have a four-year-old boy, and the question I am asking (the question I hope you’ll ask yourself as well) is:

How do we prepare a generation — one that is arguably the least equipped with human soft skills in more than a century — to train for a job market that will be more deeply reliant on soft skills than ever?

Upgrade Your Soft Skills to Upgrade Your Software

Having explored the seismic shifts occurring in work and human connection, I believe the most significant tool we have to prepare ourselves and our children lies in recultivating our soft skills to embrace what makes us human.

As technology fundamentally changes what it means to be human, soft skills are evolving to become “human skills” and they are more important now than ever.

That’s why I have made it my mission to bring these critical human skills to the people that need them most, executives and educators.

I believe the solution must exceed changing screen time and social media habits. We need a holistic approach that focuses on four things:

  1. Shifting second screen behaviors to behaviors that increase, not decrease, human connection
  2. Raising awareness around The Future of Work. What will the new jobs be and what are the requisite human soft skills?
  3. Teaching focused human soft skills programs
  4. Teaching resilience and a mindset which allows people to adapt to such a rapidly changing world

I believe the speed at which AI and automation will disrupt the jobs market will be far quicker than anticipated. It will test millions of people across the globe and make them question their relevance, purpose and humanity. As Bill Gates said, “We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will happen in the next ten.” While the jobs market in the U.S. appears strong now, I do not believe that will be the case five to ten years from now.

I have watched the face of Lee Sadol, the best Go player in the world (a 2,500 year old board game more complex than chess) for nearly 20 years as he is beaten again and again by an AI-driven computer program. I want you to imagine it too. He winces. He nervously picks at his hand. His face crinkles in disbelief. His confidence is shattered. He is adrift.

Now imagine that as AI proliferates, and more and more job functions are automated, that this very same Lee Sadol moment could hit an entire generation! A generation in which isolation, depression and suicide; effectively deaths of desperation, are already skyrocketing (3).

So, let’s collaborate

This is a deeply humbling global problem that no one person or organization will solve on their own. The first step in my own contribution has been to synthesize the interpersonal skills that helped me to succeed in the corporate world, and my personal life, into a practical framework that anyone can master. Skills which I feel will be most relevant to AI, The Future of Work and feeling connected in an increasingly isolated world.

Whether you lead a company and want to prepare your employees for long term success and happiness, or lead a classroom and want to equip your students with the human soft skills they need to succeed in work and life…I’ve created presentations and workshops in the areas that are critical to meeting this shift.

  1. Empathy — How to augment empathy for work and personal interactions
  2. Communication & Relationship Building Skills — Best practices for communication in the digital age and how to build powerful human connection
  3. Resilience and Mindset Training — How to create the right mental model, fortitude and habits to support transformational change

I am dedicating myself to these efforts and to building a larger platform to help executives and educators address the broader concerns.

Key takeaways

  1. We are at an inflection point for what it means to be human
  2. There are two important forces at play: Increased automation driven by AI and a crisis of loneliness
  3. To thrive in a world where AI and technology become more pervasive we must re-humanize ourselves
  4. Reach out if you are interested in learning more about my research, approach, talks, workshops — or, if you are building organizations focused on AI, The Future of Work or Human Connection; I’d love to speak with you

In my own search for meaning, role models and mentors I have found myself both humbled and in awe of the human potential for transformation. I am both excited and optimistic in committing myself to helping people and corporations find the courage to change in the face of AI and automation — and in turn find purpose, joy and love by embracing the attributes which makes us human.

LinkedIn * Email: alexschwartz50@mac.com * Instagram: @alexschwartznyc

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Alex Schwartz

Written by

Entrepreneur focused on the nexus of AI, the Future of Work and Human Connection

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +792K followers.

Alex Schwartz

Written by

Entrepreneur focused on the nexus of AI, the Future of Work and Human Connection

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +792K followers.

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