The Future Of Jobs: How You Can Ride The Wave Of Change

For the average job-seeker or any parent wondering what kind of livelihood awaits the next generation, the current headlines are the stuff of anxiety attacks. Last month, the Associated Press announced that it would begin using an automated writing service to cover more than 10,000 minor league baseball games each year. Driverless trucks may soon be taking over from humans, elbowing out an entire profession. New technology purports to bring great change to a surprising number of fields, including law, medicine and financial services. What will be the human toll and net effect on the economy? Has the U.S. reached an epoch of irreversible job loss?

To a large extent, the public discussion over the future of work has followed a storyline that says technology and globalization are coming to whisk your job away. But behind the obvious forces, other perhaps more powerful factors are at play, says Wharton management professor Peter Cappelli, director of the school’s Center for Human Resources. “If one wanted to look at single changes that matter a lot to work, the biggest in my view has been ideology, the shift from the idea that business had a responsibility to all stakeholders toward the idea that they have responsibility only to one – shareholders.” He adds that the second most impactful change has been the rise of China and “the addition of maybe 500 million semi-skilled workers to the world labor force. Neither of those were predictable a decade or more in advance of them happening.”

The implications are as much political as economic, says Wharton management professor Matthew Bidwell. “Certainly for hundreds of years, people have said in the future nobody is going to work and machines will do it all for us, and that has yet to happen. First of all, up until now technology has created as many jobs as it has destroyed.”

Still, he says, the trends, for reasons quite apart from technology, are extremely worrisome. “The working class has not had a good 30 or 40 years in the U.S. and the U.K. The destruction of the minimum wage and destruction of the unions played a role, technology has played a role, and globalization has played a role,” he notes. “Generally, modernization is not working terribly well for a lot of people, and it does result in Brexit, Trump and all that sort of stuff.”

The shift is alarming, Bidwell adds, “because one perspective is these technologies are complex enough that you will see a few organizations controlling more and more of them. There is a huge barrier to entry. And I think then the only way to change is major social strife. If jobs really change as much as people say they are going to, for me the scariest piece is the political implications — the massive concentration of power that is likely to result.”

“If one wanted to look at single changes that matter a lot to work, the biggest in my view has been ideology, the shift from the idea that business had a responsibility to all stakeholders toward the idea that they have responsibility only to one – shareholders.”–Peter Cappelli

Evaporating Jobs

Nailing down the future of work has long been a line of work in itself. Author Martin Ford argues that artificial intelligence threatens to make many professions obsolete, and has advocated for a basic income guarantee. About 47% of the U.S workforce is in jobs at high risk for becoming automated within the next two decades, according to the 2013 Oxford University study “The Future of Employment: How Susceptible are Jobs to Computerisation?” by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne. And not only the jobs you might expect: “Occupations that require subtle judgment are also increasingly susceptible to computerisation [sic]. To many such tasks, the unbiased decision making of an algorithm represents a comparative advantage over human operators,” says the study, which included 702 occupations in its analysis.

What about creative industries, like music and screenwriting, and jobs that require the very human qualities of strategy, wisdom and intuition, like journalism? These jobs are, of course, safe, right? Not so, says Bidwell. “When you look at some of the industries some of the technology has devastated in the last 30 years, journalism and music are very high up the list,” he notes. “I think part of the problem is that now you have this infinite distribution capacity, and those markets have been superstar markets, but a smaller number of people are making quite a bit of money. Customers have access into that content, but employees in those industries have not fared terribly well. If all the drudgework gets taken out, are we all going to be doctors or screenwriters? I’m not so sure.”

To wit, just because a profession is producing something desirable, or even necessary to the functioning of society, doesn’t mean society has figured out a way to pay for the care and feeding of its practitioners.

We have always argued that we are on the precipice of a profound change in the workplace, says Cappelli. “What history tells us is that the big changes move inexorably but reasonably slowly, and there is no single cause,” he says. “The current spate of stories about the future of work are driven by stories about technology, but what we know about technology is that it has rarely been the source of immediate change.” The ability to do something with technology is quite different than the notion that it will spread, let alone spread quickly, Cappelli says.

The impact of technology gets mediated by its cost and complexity, he adds. For example, in the 1980s there were reports that VCRs would wipe out traditional television because of the ability to record and then blow through commercials. “Even though it was possible to do, it was difficult to use, so it never happened,” Cappelli points out. “The problem basically is that employers are sitting on one side of a supply chain saying, ‘We’d like workers with these skills, and by the way, we don’t want to train them.’ On the other are individuals looking for jobs. Sort of in the middle are community colleges and for-profit schools. The groups trying to help make matches are state and local workforce development agencies.”

Change may be slow, but that does not mean it isn’t coming. Nearly half of all respondents interviewed as part of a Pew Research Center study on the evolution of work 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.” The 2014 study was not the typical representative poll of workers and managers, but, rather, a survey of 1,896 internet experts screened by Pew for previously insightful predictions about the internet.

“If jobs really change as much as people say they are going to, for me the scariest piece is the political implications — the massive concentration of power that is likely to result.”–Matthew Bidwell

On the hopeful side, these experts believed that although technology would displace

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