Take a look at the graph below. This is a McKinsey report showing how much each job category can be automated away with today’s technology. Which is to ask, how much of the current tasks performed in these positions will eventually be performed by robots (or more likely, software)?
The percentages run the gamut from 0% to 100%. And the results aren’t always what you’d expect. Can you guess what two jobs these arrows are pointing to?
The first arrow points to registered nurses with 2 million of them in the U.S economy and the second to pharmacists, representing 260,000. For pharmacists, 47% of their current job tasks can be performed by machines and for registered nurses that number is 29%. This means almost half of what pharmacists currently do and one-third of what nurses currently do can be accomplished by a machine--a machine that can work 24 hours a day with no vacation or sick days.
What about this next example? Can you guess what occupation this is?
That bubble represents the 2.4 million American workers who are waiters and waitresses. A usually reliable source of occupation for young workers, students and middle class families, waitering is incredibly vulnerable to automation. 77% of waitering tasks can be automated away with today’s technology.
Lest you underestimate the relentless march and wide reach of automation, here is where web developers stand:
And what about computer programmers in general?
Even these previously immune techie positions are falling to the beast of automation and technical obsolescence. After all, how many telegraph operators or linotype setters have you come across recently? These highly technical jobs were once competitively pursued and financially rewarding for their time. However, telegraphs gave way to the telephone and linotype to photosetting and computer-aided printing.
This sort of technical obsolescence is happening at an exponential rate today because new innovations often have a multiplicative effect on previous technology rather than a simple additive one. It took about 3600 years to progress from the invention of writing in Mesopotamia to the first wooden printing blocks in China around 200 CE. From there, it only took 1200 years to progress from wooden printing blocks to Gutenberg's printing press. And a mere 500 years to advance from the printing revolution to the desktop publishing explosion.
Exponential technological growth also means rapidly evolving skills demand across all industries. As new technology eliminates older jobs, it also creates a fresh demand for brand new jobs, often related to the operation and management of the same technology that eliminated the old jobs. When telephone technology gradually phased out the telegraph, a whole new career for switchboard operators was created just as the old telegraph operators were slowly being obsoleted.
This cycle of creation, obsolescence and re-creation is narrowing over time and resulting in shorter job tenure. Where in the past, it was fairly common and expected for a worker at General Motors to remain with the company his entire career, such life-long occupational marriages are far less common today. Modern workers are forced to constantly train themselves for new technological developments coming just around the corner.
However, training and skills acquisition are only part of the solution for workers of the 21st century. We have seen that even the most advanced technology jobs can and will be automated to some degree. So, how should 21st century workers future-proof themselves once the robots come for their jobs?
Ultimately, despite appearances, this is an article about encouragement not fear.
In that vein, here are four recommendations for future-proofing yourself and thriving even after the robots come for your job.
Face your fears
The first step is to accept the fact that change is coming. And it is coming for us all. There aren’t any occupations that are completely immune from automation of some degree. Sticking your head in the sand may work in Bugs Bunny cartoons but in real-life we all need a more effective strategy than simply wishing the problem away. Short of a global-level nuclear holocaust, technology only advances, it does not retreat. We cannot shove the AI toothpaste back into its tube.
Likewise, raging against the literal machine will get you nowhere and Zack De La Rocha himself will probably agree. As noble and well-meaning as the Uber and Lyft boycotts may be, their long-term effectiveness is doubtful. How successful were 19th-century Luddites at preventing the automation of the textile industry? It didn’t matter how many factories and mills they burned, their handlooms were just never going to compete effectively. Greater productivity drives profits and profits drive markets. As long as we continue to exist in a market-driven economy, novelties like self-driving cars and trucks will eventually replace human commercial drivers.
The sooner you accept this fact, the sooner you can identify alternative career paths for yourself.
Trust yourself to find solutions
Once the fear of obsolescence is handled, you’re free to start looking around and observing your surroundings with greater attention. For some habitual corporate types, you may be doing this for the first time in your life. The key is to understand that you are a conscious, thinking, self-directed entity with some agency over your environment. If you probe this environment with enough patience and curiosity it will yield insights (and opportunities) that would not have been apparent to you before.
Engage with your environment, no matter how immediate, and it can’t help but engage back.
In a lighthearted example, consider how abysmal our world would be today without the invention of chocolate chip cookies. Up until 1930, there was no such thing as a chocolate chip cookie. A horrible thought, I know.
We owe this great debt of gratitude to the resourcefulness of Ruth Wakefield. She ran a roadside tourist lodge called the Tollhouse Inn in the 1930s. Every morning, the Tollhouse Inn guests were treated to freshly baked chocolate cookies from Ruth’s kitchen. One morning, she discovered she had run out of the baker’s chocolate necessary to make her chocolate cookies. Rather than deprive her guests of her delicious treats, she decided to use whatever she had at her disposal. She broke bits of Nestle chocolates into her cookie dough, fully expecting the chunks to melt in the oven to produce regular chocolate cookies.
To my eternal gratitude, that isn’t what the laws of cooking physics granted. The chocolate bits clumped together and Ruth pulled out the world's first batch of chocolate chip cookies instead. Her little culinary improvisation became an instant success for herself and Nestle--and, of course, every kid’s birthday party since.
Embrace the practice of creativity
Creativity is the rocket that will power you through the detritus of the robot takeover. Let’s revisit McKinsey’s data for a minute.
Take a look at the chart below. Jobs that require a high degree of creativity and emotional intelligence have the lowest automation vulnerabilities--at least for now.
This isn’t to suggest that we all need to become painters and poets to avoid being replaced by machines. It just means occupations that require a reasonably high degree of human ingenuity and creativity to produce their final outputs will fare well against automation in the near term.
Architects and Industrial Engineers all work in jobs where human creativity and insight is used to harness the laws of nature towards the production of a useful product or service. As a result these two occupations are similarly resistant to automation.
Fortunately for us, creativity is a skill that can be improved with practice. Psychologists and neuroscientists like David Eagleman and Scott Kaufman, among others, have demonstrated through their research, just how neuroplastic the human brain can be. We are capable of learning and rewiring brains throughout our lifespan.
Recent creativity research also sheds light on the brain’s internal states when engaged in various classically creative activities. Seeking novelty, identifying patterns, synthesizing and modifying inputs to produce new outputs are all innate human brain behaviors which can be enhanced in almost anyone.
These skills also happen to be the most difficult for computers to mimic. The small consistent practice of creativity will inform every aspect of your life and significantly impact your personal and occupational output.
Give more than you expect to get
There is an old, overused adage that goes: “Life is a journey, not a destination.”
Or something to that effect.
I prefer the slight modification, “creativity is a journey, not a destination.” Where creativity is concerned, it helps to view the destination as a side effect of the journey. This doesn’t mean the destination is irrelevant, after all the destination is the whole reason you got on the road in the first place. It just means, after you’ve decided on a destination point, your journey to get there should command all your resources, effort and attention.
Focusing too much on the outcome (your destination) counterintuitively makes the creative journey more difficult and less effective. The personal growth we desire only happens as we exert effort during the creative process with little expectation for the outcome. The work that results is akin to a road marker or a way of keeping score. The real personal benefit is within the process and how you improved along the way.
This method of giving yourself completely to a process without a guarantee of the outcome is, paradoxically, the most likely way to achieve that outcome. If this sounds scary, congratulations, you’re paying attention. It's the reason the first step is to face your fears. Without doing so, none of the subsequent steps are possible. Recognizing a threat, trusting yourself to find a solution to that threat, embracing the intangible concept of creativity and then leaning into it by committing precious time and resources without a guaranteed outcome is downright terrifying!
A reckless gamble?
Perhaps it is, perhaps it’s not, but I’m willing to bet this is the sort of gamble every remarkable individual you’ve ever admired in life made.
People like Van Phillips who, after losing a leg in a horrific water-skiing accident, devoted his life towards the invention of a new type of prosthetic that would enable him to run and play sports again. It took twelve years of toiling before Phillips released his Flex Foot Cheetah line of performance prosthetics. These were the same prosthetics Oscar Pistorius wore to compete in the 2012 Summer Olympics.
Another famous example is J. K. Rowling’s life leading up to the publication of the first Harry Potter novel in 1997. As Rowling describes it, in 1990 she was working for Amnesty International in London while living in Manchester, England. On a long train ride from Manchester to London, she got the inspiration for a story about a young, bespectacled boy wizard. Rowling was so gripped by the idea that she started writing it immediately. However, the next seven years were anything but smooth for the then 25-year-old Rowling.
She endured the passing of her mother in 1990, an abusive relationship in Portugal with her first husband and one miscarriage before the birth of her daughter. By 1994 she had moved to Edinburgh and was living on state benefits while rearing an infant. She admits to feeling like a failure during that period of her life, but she kept writing her novel--with no guarantee of the outcome.
She finished her manuscript for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in 1995 and was rejected by twelve publishers before finally being accepted by Bloomsbury Publishing House. Even after her book was accepted by the publisher, they advised her to get a day job because they had low expectations about her profitability as a children’s book author.
Bloomsbury published her book in June of 1997 and eight months later it won the British Book Award for Children’s Book of the Year. The rest, as they say, is well known history. Nobody could ever have predicted how well her books would do, but that’s the point. Even without a guaranteed “pay-off” at the end, she kept toiling away at her book for five years and endured rejection for almost two more. It took seven years of steadily giving to her vision before the world was graced with her tale of the orphaned boy wizard we know and love today.
Automation will eventually eliminate a considerable fraction of all jobs. Unfortunately, some jobs like low-level manufacturing positions and commercial transportation have a higher exposure to automation than others. These industries will experience the greatest amount of upheaval in the form of industry shrinkage and worker displacement.
Industries with the lowest-exposure to automation, for now, involve work that is highly creative and requires substantial emotional facility. We see this in creative industries like architecture, entertainment, legal and social services to name a few. Novelty, creativity and human emotions are all incredibly difficult for machines to produce with any consistency.
When automation and redundancy finally come for you it’s good advice to:
Face your fears. Automation and the accompanying change is an irreversible tide
Trust yourself to find solutions. Engage with the world and try new approaches because what you seek is out there
Embrace the practice of creativity. Lean into the greatest strength you possess as a creative human being
Give more than you expect to get. Even though the creative journey will be long and arduous with no guarantee of a destination prize, you should still commit yourself completely to taking the journey