I find it quite hard to imagine a world in which almost all work is automated and only a select few privileged people get to hold a job. I am nevertheless of the opinion that those who fail to continue learning throughout their lifetimes are going to end up on the peripheries of the job market.
That machines have an edge over people does not have to mean they will once become our doom. The way smart technologies will assert their advantage over people (provided they have one in the first place) will be much more subtle. They will simply force us to keep learning. People’s openness to new information will be vital for their survival in the technology-driven world. This adaptive skill of engaging in continuous education is precisely what people will need to stay employed.
Going forward, employers will put more store by social and emotional intelligence, communication skills, intercultural competencies, the willingness to do remote and virtual work, and general mobility. I fully support this view. However, if I asked to name the single most critical competence in the next dozen plus years, I would pick employees’ willingness and capacity to learn. This particular ability will be essential across all sectors from auto manufacturing to software development, school education to customer acquisition.
I like the analogy between the individual facing new demands in the labor market and the stock exchange investor. An investor would be typically wary of placing all his eggs in one basket. The more diversified a portfolio, the more likely an investor is to benefit from his investment. The same applies to employment prospects. Both current and aspiring workers need to acquire new competencies and skills as soon as possible.
Change will be the new constant in employment. A long career in a single workplace will be an exception rather than the rule. Instead, people will regularly migrate from one employer to the next. A dozen or so years ago a resume revealing that an employee frequently changed his jobs would raise suspicions, suggesting he or she had no staying power. Today, a cv of a forty-year-old showing a bunch of employers is the new normal. I think that by the time our children turn forty, they will have had worked for over a dozen companies. Some recruiters go as far as to claim that, in the future, hardly anyone will spend more than a year with the same employer. In other words, the future labor market is going to be highly volatile. What really matters to me though is something entirely different — the important thing is that our children will acquire new skills and knowledge throughout their lives.
One of the problems affecting us even today and one likely to get a whole lot worse going forward, is the mismatch between conventional schooling and labor market demands. The problem is mentioned in, among others, a McKinsey report on “Technology, jobs, and the future of work”. In it, James Manyika, head of the McKinsey Global Institute, argues: “Educational systems have not kept pace with the changing nature of work, resulting in many employers saying they cannot find enough workers with the skills they need. In a McKinsey survey of young people and employers in nine countries, 40 percent of employers said lack of skills was the main reason for entry-level job vacancies. Sixty percent said that new graduates were not adequately prepared for the world of work.”
Things get even more complicated from the viewpoint of those fortunate enough to hold a job. In the same report, James Manyika refers to a LinkedIn survey of job seekers in which an astounding 37 percent of respondents said that their current job did not fully utilize their skills or provide enough challenge.
The problem could likely be solved by significantly reforming education systems. University programs, which today take years to complete, will gradually grow shorter. Employers will become increasingly adept at educating and training their employees. Effective companies of the future will respond rapidly to changing circumstances by “connecting” their workers to appropriate sources of information and helping them to acquire and use such information in their work. Forced by the market, employers will organize training courses. Employees, in their turn, will incorporate learning into their daily work schedules.
Learning will no longer be readily associated with a dignified university process. Education will resemble launching a YouTube video and learning the way one might learn how to cook or invest in cryptocurrencies or look up the latest technology news. Perhaps education will increasingly have video bloggers sharing their professional experience and labor market assessments. Future employees will constantly use multimedia gadgets in their work and engage in new relationships (e.g. on social networks). Gradually, the boundary between play, gaming, social relations on the one hand and work and education on the other will blur.
Much about the “ease” of gaining new knowledge and various way of accessing new information be can learned from millennials.
The volume of information in existence in the world has grown multiple times since the day before I wrote these words. According to an IBM study, this volume is set to double every 11 hours for the next few years. As this mad proliferation continues, people will greatly improve their cognitive skills. Given the continued effort of science to prolong human life, get better at manipulating our genes and improve people’s overall physical fitness, knowledge acquisition will certainly be possible until old age. This may well increase human productivity and diminish the importance of age in recruitment.
All this brings my to some fairly trival conclusions. The people who feel coerced to learn are likely to resist and therefore flounder in their careers. Success will belong to those who view continuous education as a part of life that is as natural as shopping. The mission of future companies and governments will be to retrain workers and equip them with tools for effective self-education. Failing that, we may have to ask ourselves again if we are in danger of becoming victims to machines that run on algorithms. And such victims we will become as soon as the machines “sense” that learning is not our top priority.