Fri 06-Jul-2018

Hosted by Nesta’s Eliza Easton and Jed Cinnamon, the “will my job exist in 2030?” session took place at high noon of what was probably the hottest day of the year, in a modest size auditorium, under a glass roof.

To say that it was hot would be a misunderstatement: it was boiling, it was a sauna, it was Dubai. And still, the auditorium was *packed*. I know why I braved it, and I suspect everyone else in there braved it for the same reason: as white collar professionals we are mortified about the prospect of being rendered obsolete by an algo, and we want to find out:

  • How likely it is exactly
  • What (if anything) we can do about it

While the presentation echoed Nesta’s report bearing the same title, it was entirely self-contained and, as far as I could tell, told from a slightly different angle than the report.

Part of the presentation was delivered from the perspective of educating and training today’s middle- and high-school students (so only tangentially relevant to grown ups), though the skills and competencies listed as enhancing the employability of modern day teenagers’ were definitely good to know for everyone (along the lines of: do I have this? Could I plausibly argue that I have this? What can I still do in order to have this? How can I rephrase my resume in order to say I have this?). The list included:

  • Judgement
  • Decision making
  • Complex problem solving
  • Fluidity of ideas
  • Collaborative problem solving
  • Creative problem solving
  • Resilience
  • Critical thinking

I think that list alone made it worth attending the event, because the skills and competencies listed above are indeed in the Venn diagram sweet spot where analytical, creative, interpersonal and imaginative overlap; in short, those (at least in 2018) appear to be abilities relatively most difficult to automate.

Separate consideration was given to the interdisciplinary. The hosts mentioned how important it is to hone creative and artistic skills alongside modern STEM curriculum, as well as remove barriers between different, previously silo’ed disciplines (where Finland’s success was used as an example). This point echoed with me quite strongly because only a few years ago my own interdisciplinary approach towards career development (defined as pursuing a relatively wide variety of roles based on how interesting they appeared rather than how closely they aligned to my direct experience) earned rather limited support and understanding of my London Business School colleagues, most of whom spent their professional careers within one specialism (equity sales; credit derivs etc.) and were all about climbing the ranks of higher and better paid positions within their respective specialisms.

There was a somewhat fresh (and refreshingly sane) angle on the nemesis-du-jour topic of automation. While the authors echoed the general ennui of many jobs currently done by humans being automated away, they thought their conclusions over more thoroughly than the prevailing “unskilled jobs will all go, and many skilled jobs as well” and pointed out that some of the lower-skilled jobs are not only relatively safe, but also likely to grow (examples listed were agriculture and construction; I would also think that all types of non-specialised carer jobs were in the same category; basically jobs requiring body mobility and dexterity and / or emotional connection).

Another original observation was that while there is a continuity of certain occupations and job titles, the day-to-day work itself – and the skillset it requires – may have very little in common over the years (the example given was typesetter: modern day InDesign user vs. a heavy machinery operator from couple of decades ago; finance automatically comes to mind where many roles have much more to do with technology than any “pure” finance).

The final point of relevance to me was raised during the Q&A (by myself…): given my personal experiences with some employers being more open towards the concept of lifetime education than others (with few being actively hostile), I wanted to know whether businesses begin to recognise the value of ongoing education, learning and training of their staff as opposed to the entrenched view of seeing any upskilling as a distraction and / or a threat (basically a variation on: “they don’t need this for their current job… they will want more money and leave”). I was quite happy to hear that there is indeed a certain pivot happening (albeit not very fast) as we speak, and businesses begin to see the (commercial) added value of their employees gaining more skills.