{ in·deed·a·bly }

adverb: to competently express interest, surprise, disbelief, or contempt

Employability

“A recent report claimed that 85% of the jobs there will be in 2030 have not yet been created. What do you think these jobs are, and which ones will no longer exist?

This was the thought experiment proposed by SavingNinja. The one thing he asked of participants was for a stream of consciousness outpouring of thoughts rather than a carefully polished article. Here goes…

Futuristic

Nearly 60 years ago, the world watched with fascination as brave explorers and smart engineers pushed the boundaries of innovation, knowledge and science in their quest to reach the stars.

Like over-competitive siblings, America and the Soviet Union each sought to trump the remarkable achievements of the other.

Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space, then the first to orbit the Earth.

Alan Shepherd soon emulated the former achievement.

A few months later John Glenn repeated the latter.

Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon. Not to be outdone, Shepherd played golf there.

Seeking to capitalise on the public’s fascination with all things space-related, the ABC television network premiered a futuristic cartoon show set in the year 2062. It was called the Jetsons.

The Jetson family lived in a world of flying cars, talking computers, autonomous robots, and clones.

Technology had reduced George Jetson’s working day to just three hours. He still complained!

George’s best friend was a computer. His children were looked after by a robot maid/nanny.

Today, we are well passed the halfway point on the journey towards the Jetson era.

Flying cars remain some way off. Technology has veered down autonomous driving and electric road vehicle tangents. For now.

The notion of living in space cities appears as fanciful today as it did back in the 1960s.

However, several of the other predictions have come to pass.

Video conferencing is ubiquitous.

Alexa, Bixby, Cortana, Google Assistant, Siri, TomTom and Waze are all forms of talking computers, though few would consider them best friends.

Boston Dynamics built a robotic person who can parkour, and a robotic dog who can open doors.

We interact with machine learning algorithms on a daily basis, mostly without realising it. Autocorrect while typing. Photographic composition and indexing. Predictive text. Social media newsfeeds. Traffic management systems. Universally unhelpful customer support chatbots.

Not long after the Jetsons aired, Gene Roddenberry imagined Star Trek.

Set some 200 years after the Jetson’s era, Captain Kirk and his crew were exploring a post-scarcity universe in a space ship that travelled faster than the speed of light.

They enjoyed some amazing innovations including real-time universal language translation, instantaneous transportation between known locations, and 3D printers capable of rendering pretty much anything they desired on demand.

In real life, today we have 3D printers capable of producing entire homes in a matter of hours.

Universal language has evolved from a pipe-dream to a realistic probability, already baked into search engines and spreadsheets. It isn’t perfect, but it is often good enough.

One of my favourite authors is Peter F Hamilton, who writes science fiction set in a richly imagined future that touches on all manner of societal and technological change. His predictive universe also began around the time of the Jetson’s era, with the invention of instantaneous transportation allowing humanity to colonise and eventually terraform other worlds.

Hamilton’s work touches upon numerous themes that innovation and technological possibilities have left society struggling with:

  • Biotech enhancements for mind and body.
  • Conquering mortality.
  • Eugenics.
  • Societal fragmentation, isolationism, and populism.
  • Oligarchs becoming more powerful than nation-states.
  • Transcendence and the singularity.
  • Unlimited pollution-free energy.

This was a universe where anything was possible for those of means.

Yet for the many, their day-to-day lives were little different to the present day.

The struggle to earn a living. Raise a family. Find happiness and contentment.

Or to just survive.

Journey into space. Image credit: Free-Photos.

Journey to the stars. Image credit: Free-Photos.

Predictably inaccurate

These three distinct imaginings of what the future may hold illustrate the nature of predictions.

Precise timing is impossible.

Accuracy in the minute details is unlikely.

However, correctly calling the long term general direction of travel and anticipating high-level themes is certainly possible.

Indeed, there is more overlap than divergence between these three separately imagined futures for humanity.

We can apply a similar lens to the future of employment.

Will the exact specifics of the Institute for the Future’s headline-grabbing prediction that “around 85% of the jobs that today’s learners will be doing in 2030 haven’t been invented yet” prove to be true?

Almost certainly not.

However, does the theme ring true that in a decade’s time many of the jobs available to school leavers and graduates will differ from those available today?

Yes. Yes, it does.

Change is constant, yet nothing really changes

Over recent history, there have been a number of readily apparent employment trends.

Automation and technology have improved productivity.

Concurrently lowering the prices of many goods while reducing the number of workers required to perform many business activities.

Consider the simple example of planting crops.

The goal of this business activity has remained unchanged since the earliest farmers tired of their uncertain and nomadic hunter-gather lifestyle.   

However, the process via which that business activity gets accomplished has evolved. Growing ever more efficient over numerous generations of innovation.

Crops were once sewn by hand using shovels and hoes.

Horse, cattle, or human-drawn ploughs sped up the process, reducing the number of workers required to perform the task.

Tractors replaced the living engine of the plough, increasing productivity and reducing cost.

Remotely operated tractors further reduced the number of workers required.

Autonomous vehicles combined with visual recognition and machine learning technology are in the process of removing the need for human involvement almost entirely.

Once upon a time nearly everyone worked on a farm. Soon hardly anyone will.

With each successive generation, economies of scale have grown while the cost of production has fallen.

This translates into some combination of higher profit margins for producers and lower costs to consumers.

Not your father's way of farming. Image credit: Rodolfo Clix.

No longer your father’s concept of farming. Image credit: Rodolfo Clix.

Identify the pattern to predict the future

A similar innovation timeline can be traced through many professions.

Carpenters once needed to cut down trees, saw, sand, and nail timber manually by hand.

Today the hardware store does same-day delivery of correctly sized pre-cut lumber, which can be quickly assembled using electric tools.

Huf houses, assembled IKEA style out of a box, and the 3D printing of entire low-cost houses readily provide a glimpse into the foreseeable future. Working with timber will eventually becomes a quaint artisan skill, like stone masonry is today.

Programmers once painstakingly wrote out algorithms by hand. They had to book scarce processor time to execute their creations. Their code needed to be efficient, elegant and exacting just to function.

Today programmers enjoy virtually unlimited resources. Efficiency long since traded for convenience.

Programming languages and frameworks have abstracted away the need to consider or understand how the machines that the algorithms run on actually work.

The majority have become like drivers of cars, operating machinery about which they have scant little knowledge or understanding. For all intents and purposes, it work by magic!

Just like carpentry and farming, the combination of automation, modularisation and standardisation has steadily improved productivity. Achieving the same business outcome requires ever fewer programmers.

Inevitability of change

Stepping back up to the levels of themes, the already existing trend towards automation and efficiency will inevitably continue.

Over time we will get better at being able to articulate the precise nature of the problems we wish to solve. As a result, machine learning algorithms will get better at figuring out the answers for us.

This means that any role that can be distilled down to a set of pre-defined and repeatable decision-making rules will eventually be performed by a computer.

Cheaply.

Consistently.

Reliably.

That includes many of the knowledge based white collar professions that are so popular today.

Accounting. Building. Engineering. Healthcare. Logistics. Retail. Programming. Teaching.

It won’t happen overnight.

It may not happen by 2030.

But it is most certainly a question of when it happens, not if.

Case study: the future of teaching

Let’s apply that lens to teaching.

At first thought, the idea that all students could be consistently taught seems ridiculously naïve.

However, standardisation is already widespread.

  • Centrally defined curriculums.
  • Inspections measure how consistently each school and teacher adhere to officially accepted methods.
  • Standard tests and assessments constantly rank and sort the students.  

Now let’s decompose the traditional teaching role into its constituent parts.

Firstly, they teach the standardised curriculum. One size fits all, at least in theory.

Secondly, they provide remedial assistance to those students who need it.

Thirdly, they supervise the students. Breaking up fights. Making sure the kids don’t light the classroom, or each other, on fire.

These represent three distinct and separate problems.

Problem 1: Teaching

The teaching part can be readily fulfilled in a standard way.

Massive Open Online Course participation highlights that millions of students are willing to embrace cost-effective standardised teaching, particularly where it is taught by a world-leading educator.

A single inaccessible and remote teacher concurrently educating an infinite number of students.

The eyewatering withdrawal rate of students from MOOC courses also demonstrates that standardised teaching alone does not guarantee a successful learning outcome.

Problem 2: Remedial learning

Remedial assistance is only required by exception.

A tailored need for those students who don’t fit the standard mould.

This service is already widely provided by private tutors, but only to those with means to afford it. Coaching their students to overcome learning difficulties, pass exams, or gain university admission.

At the moment the state school system purports to meet the needs of all students. However overworked and underpaid teachers struggle to cope with the competing demands on their time.

It only takes one disruptive or needy student to monopolise the teacher’s time and attention,  consequently stunting the progress of the remainder of the class.

Problem 3: Supervision

The supervisory role is an unskilled one, little different to a neighbourhood childminder or supermarket security guard. It doesn’t require a university degree or any particular qualification. Just a high noise tolerance and infinite patience.

Employability

Bringing those threads back together, technology and standardisation will greatly reduce the demand for qualified teachers.

Some will transition into highly skilled tutoring roles, bridging the gap between the standardised learning received by the majority of students, and delivering tailored supplementary or remedial learning to the much smaller number of students who require it.

The majority will eventually need to find an alternative line of work.

A similar outcome can be predicted for many other knowledge-based professions. A simple continuation of the same automation journey that saw robots replace production line workers a generation ago.

The timing will vary, but not the end result.

A seldom discussed truth is that this is actually a good thing. A mark of progress.

We no longer have hordes of lamp lighters lighting our streetlights every night. Nor do we have legions of night soil collectors and chimney sweeps roaming the city streets.

Those jobs became technically redundant.

Then obsolete.

Just like those of the scythe wielding fieldworker and the mainframe programmer.

But here is the thing: the vast majority of workers formerly engaged in those professions re-skilled and moved on to new jobs in alternative fields.

They had to. It was a matter of survival. Most lacked any other means of providing for their families.

The same will hold true for the workers in the endangered professions of today.

Their jobs will get outsourced to lowest cost providers. Then off-shored to workers with lower living costs.  Before eventually being eliminated altogether, by the irresistible forces of automation, progress, and standardisation.

This is not a new phenomenon. It has even been thus.

As inevitable as it is inconvenient when it directly impacts us.

Part of the same evolutionary cycle of innovation that will one day see those futuristic imaginings realised. Conquering the ageing process. Flying cars. Travelling between the stars. Unlimited free energy.


To hear some alternative points of view check out the other responses to SavingNinja’s thought experiment:


References


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9 Comments

  1. SavingNinja 15 October 2019

    You paint an exciting prospect of the future. I like the notion that humans are more adaptable than people think, as the past illustrates. A lot more pleasant thought that my “those people will die eventually” theory, ha!

    I failed to realise the reduction of programmers, as like you said, has already happened! Maybe the influx of new programming fields and jobs opening up will balance out the optimisation of programming in of itself? Of course, it’s bound to eventually decline with increased population and further optimisation.

    Good job we’re all pursuing FI 😉

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 15 October 2019

      Thanks SavingNinja.

      Short term I think the prospects for programmers is pretty good.

      Medium term, I wouldn’t want to be living somewhere expensive, as geographic arbitrage will cruel market salaries. Concurrently, frameworks and tools will increasingly make it possible for non-technical folks to do stuff for themselves without coding.

      Long term, computers will program themselves.

      • The Rhino 15 October 2019

        @SN

        A lot more pleasant thought that my “those people will die eventually” theory, ha!

        You’re theory is actually correct, the humans are dead

        @IDBLY
        Are these positive short term prospects why you are re-training as a programmer? I am eagerly awaiting your indeedably/drip git-hub page containing more than a solitary .md file..

        • {in·deed·a·bly} 15 October 2019

          Lol, thanks for sharing the video Rhino.

          I used to enjoy programming when I was a kid. Hacking into Commodore64 games, working out how the developers made the magic happen.

          Once I made the leap from accounting to IT, I served my time as a programmer for hire.

          Having to do something is a pretty good way to crush the joy out of a once pleasurable pursuit. There is a lesson there somewhere for all those misguided “do what you love” passion chasers out there!

          I climbed the greasy pole, ensuring that I kept my hand in and helping out when my project teams might briefly require an extra hairy smelly techie. Until one day my developers mutinied and took away my development access. They complained (rightly) that when I was having fun tinkering with code, I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to be doing, such as finding us new projects to keep them and their families fed, clothed and housed.

          Eventually I stepped back, adopted my seasonal working pattern, and discovered more leisure time than I’d enjoyed since childhood school holidays. I read somewhere that a good source of inspiration for discovering new hobbies or pastimes was to go back to what you’d enjoyed as a child. So I ventured back to coding, just for chuckles. I still enjoy solving the tricky problems, but don’t find the coding experience nearly as fun or immersive as I once did.

          Not sure if that is a result of having gained an awareness of how things “should” be done, as opposed to just happily hacking away in blissful ignorance. Or perhaps it is the trauma of the accumulated scars from working on valueless corporate coding death march projects. Most likely I just have a lower boredom threshold and a shorter attention span!

          Whatever the reason, I doubt I’ll be selling my services as a coder for hire again anytime soon. That is a young person’s game, in a low cost of living locale.

        • OthalaFehu 15 October 2019

          The first episode of FOTC was a perfect half hour of comedy.

  2. [HCF] 15 October 2019

    This topic picks my mind a lot recently.

    I think that our generation is in a very strange situation. In our childhood the outdated processes you wrote about were still well and alive. In my homeland the picture about “our father’s concept of farming” is still reality but I admit it is slowly fading. As kids we were wandering around the town, forests and riverbanks but also played on computers for 5-6 hours on other days. I like to think that we had some kind of balance which I see fading in our kids childhood. To be honest I am puzzled about this. Should we resist that digitalization or should we embrace it. Or should I try to educate them to use technology wisely and try to keep that balance? Sounds like a looser’s game…

    Your points on education is pretty accurate and I honestly think that this is where we should start everything. I am not sure that I can properly adapt to the changed world in the long run. Maybe you need a different wiring for that. I don’t know if our generation will be the one who has to lead this adaptation process but at least we have to provide everything to the next one to be able to do so. If only I know where to start…

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 15 October 2019

      Thanks HCF.

      For mine, computers and phones are simply tools like hammers and hoes. We owe it to our children to equip them with the knowledge of when, where and how to use the tools at their disposal. These days being able to drive a computer is as much a core life skill as being able to do multiplication or spell our own name. Those that can’t might as well be illiterate.

      There isn’t much point burying our heads in the sand and wishing for a fondly remembered time long since past (if it ever really existed at all) when free range children was a noble and acceptable parenting approach… as opposed to today’s perception that it is neglectful and possibly dangerous.

      The thing is our parents, and grandparents had to navigate similar changes.

      I remember my grandmother describing her experience as an eight year old the first time she saw a car, and how people used to walk or ride horses (if they were rich enough to own one) everywhere. Girls were property, not worth educating because they would only be married off and have children. Imagine how different the world must have looked to her 50 years later?

      Our parents generation started out in the work force pre-computers, but by the time they retired they were using the internet to book flights and do their banking.

      I think the big challenge our generation will face is the speed and frequency at which we become redundant. Automation and machine learning is going to render a lot of the lesser skilled “do-ers” and their middle management supervisors out of work and unemployable. That will create some huge social problems, making the unaddressed inequality issues that led to Trump and Brexit look tame by comparison.

      • [HCF] 15 October 2019

        You are right. I assumed that the world has changed that’s why free-range kids approach is not an option anymore. We are living in a more dangerous world these days. Or… do we? Or we are just more aware of the dangers which surround us?

        With kids, my intent clearly wasn’t locking them away from technology and I also count these skills as essential next-gen knowledge. I meant to postpone jumping into the digital world with both feet at an early age, have some level of supervision on what and when do they do and prevent a “digital drug addiction”. I have no problem if they can think about these gadgets as tools but I have seen some strange behavior in cases of similar aged kids like mine (3-6) which I definitely do not want to reproduce.

        My grandmother was telling us stories about how they built homes from earth back in the time and they made their beds from straw and that running water and toilets were not accessible in the house for a long time. And miraculously these days they handle smartphones indeed.

        It is out of the question that some will drop out and left behind in the process. But if we think about the level of adaptation our parents and grandparents showed us shouldn’t we be positive about their willingness and ability to evolve? I hope so.

        • {in·deed·a·bly} 16 October 2019

          Most people will adapt. They have to, it is a basic survival skill. Turning back the clock has never been a viable option.

          Those who don’t become like the technological equivalent of a migrant who cannot speak or read the local language, and is unwilling to make the effort to learn. They are forced to rely upon the generosity of others to assist them in accessing basic services like banking or paying taxes as the world moves towards a default of self service access via the internet.

          As for the digital dependency challenges, I think the answer is finding a balance. Most kids are just as content to play dress ups, build forts and cubby houses out of couch cushions, play with toys or pets or in the yard. They just sometimes need a push to get off the screens first!

What say you?

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