Where Will the Jobs Be in the Digital Age?

Advances in technology are transforming the landscape of the global labor force. Developments in robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) are at the forefront of changes in the workplace. They herald a future of automation that will make work drastically different from today. Technologies can already do tasks that we once believed only humans could do. And this trend will only continue. Analysts from such august institutions as McKinsey, Brookings and MIT anticipate that the disruption in the labor force stemming from technology will be of a similar magnitude as the shift from the agrarian economic model to the model ushered in by the Machine Age. Some speculate that it might even be greater.

Although such dramatic prognostications are fodder for alarmists who warn that robots are killing jobs, you shouldn’t panic. Yes, some jobs will be fully automated in the future. Most, however, are likely to change rather than disappear entirely. And many new jobs that we can’t even imagine today will emerge. 

Jobs in Transition

Global Management Consulting firm, McKinsey, has undertaken an ongoing effort to study the future of work. In a January 2017 report analysts studied 2,000 work activities across 800 occupations. They found that, the majority (60%) of all occupations have at least 30% of activities that could be automated. And that almost every occupation has at least some automation potential. However, given current technologies, less than 5% of all occupations can be automated entirely. In other words, more occupations will change than will be automated away.

That doesn’t mean you have nothing to worry about. In a related report in November 2017, McKinsey estimates that 75 million to 375 million people globally may need to switch occupations by 2030. Not surprisingly, the jobs that will be lost to automation involve physical activities in very predictable environments. These are such jobs as in manufacturing, food service and hospitality. It also includes the collection and processing of data, such as in certain financial work and back office transactions.

The jobs of the future will require technical skills, math, statistics, and logical thinking. Comfort with data will be essential. We will likely see “hybrid jobs.” These are jobs that combine different disciplines in ways that we haven’t seen before. But they will also increasingly involve humans working side-by-side with machines. We will be using skills that machines cannot match, especially those that rely on social interactions, such as managing people, applying expertise, or research and writing skills.  The more “human-centric” a job is, the more likely it is to resist absorption by automation. Such jobs are likely to involve four basic competencies. Sometimes called the “Four C’s,” they are creativity, critical thinking, collaboration and communication.

In some ways, older professionals are well situated for such jobs.

Why? Because they have been in the workforce longer than younger professionals. Older professionals have more experience. They have acquired valuable interpersonal skills and expertise that will serve them well as the work landscape changes. But in the Digital Age no one can afford to rest on his laurels.

In a 2017 Deloitte report, analysts anticipate that the half-life of skill sets will decrease to five years in the future of work. For example, technical skills that are in high demand today will become less sought after as more workers become skilled in those areas. Meanwhile, the demand for expertise in other areas will grow. Above all, workers must constantly focus on upping their game and making their own opportunities.

Factors in Job Growth

Demographics, climate change and global economic forces will all be determining factors in job creation by 2030, too. Our aging society is catalyzing the growth of jobs in the healthcare industry, for example.  Climate challenges and rising energy demands will spur jobs promoting energy efficiency. Investment in technology and infrastructure by government and business will beget jobs in technology, construction and construction-related sectors.

Historically, developing technology has created more jobs than it has destroyed. McKinsey found, for example, that since the advent of personal computers 3.5 million jobs have been lost versus 19.2 million jobs created. That is a net gain of 15.8 million jobs. Looking ahead, McKinsey forecasts that new jobs will result from growth in current occupations. Growth will also come from the creation of new types of occupations that may not have existed before. If history repeats itself, job growth (i.e. jobs gained) could more than offset jobs lost to automation.

Specifically, McKinsey reports, “the categories with the highest percentage of job growth net of automation include healthcare providers; professionals such as engineers, scientists, accountants, and analysts; IT professionals and other technology specialists; managers and executives, whose work cannot easily be replaced by machines; educators…; and ‘creatives,’ a small but growing category of artists, performers, and entertainers who will be in demand as rising incomes create more demand for leisure and recreation.”

Tours of Duty

To smooth the transition to the future of work, it will be incumbent on government and businesses to implement policy changes. They will need to train and retrain people to accommodate the demand of new and different workforce skills. Healthcare will have to be retooled. Income support systems will need to promote more fluidity in the labor market. They will also have to help displaced workers find employment.

By all appearances, these institutions have a long way to go. Andy Wyckoff is the director of the Directorate for Science, Technology and Innovation at the OECD.  He writes that governments are lagging behind the need to adapt policymaking to the fast pace of technological developments – and the gap is widening. Businesses aren’t doing much better. According to a Deloitte survey, employees give their learning and training departments a low -8 net promoter score. They complain of outdated learning management systems and legacy content. The smart worker, therefore, will shoulder the responsibility to continually learn new midcareer skills. The smart worker will adapt to changes in the employment market.

LinkedIn co-founder, Reid Hoffman, views careers today as “tours of duty,” whereby workers stay at a given company just a few years. He believes the time has come for a new employer-employee compact. They need to acknowledge the probable impermanence of the relationship while yet seeking to build trust and investment. This will result in an alliance that offers both parties value.

In other words, companies should try to attract and retain talent by offering employees real skills, new relationships or the opportunity to enhance their personal brand.

As an employee, if a company isn’t offering you these things, you might do well to look elsewhere because, as long-term job security slips away in the future of work, learning and development opportunities will be the hallmark of a good job and your ticket to a better career.

For more information on the future of work, read Where Will Your Office Be In the Digital Age?

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