Don't Predict the Future of Work; Prepare for It

Rothstein, Arthur, photographer. Mowing hay. Ada County, Idaho. Ada County Idaho United States, 1936. May. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2017760640/. (Accessed April 04, 2018.)

Rothstein, Arthur, photographer. Mowing hay. Ada County, Idaho. Ada County Idaho United States, 1936. May. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2017760640/. (Accessed April 04, 2018.)


Imagine telling a farmer in 1900, that the number of people working in agriculture in the U.S. would decrease from 40 percent to 2 percent in the next 100 years. Professor David Autor posed this hypothetical scenario during a TED talk in 2016. What kind of jobs are those people going to do? Will there be enough food?

There would be no way to predict employment in jobs that don’t exist, especially in industries that didn’t exist (computers, aviation, television, etc.). Even with the power of hindsight, the transformation is almost impossible to comprehend and fully appreciate. Our predictions of the future are often rooted in extensions of the edge of what currently exists, so it’s very hard to imagine a world more than a couple of decades away.

Why Worry? The dreamers, makers and doers will design the future of jobs by simply ‘being.’

So, how is it that we have more people working today than 100 years ago? How did we prepare workers for jobs that didn’t exist? The high school movement was key in preparing Americans for this new work. Economists will refer to this as investing in human capital, but it’s probably more accurate to think of this as better preparing people for jobs.

But, how did we create those jobs? No one person saw the future in its entirety, but hundreds of thousands of entrepreneurs—the dreamers, the makers, the doers—created the future by adding their vision to our collective existence.

I do not know what jobs we will have 100 years from now, and that’s okay. Future generations of entrepreneurs will figure that out along the way as they innovate and improve the human condition with their endeavors. Each entrepreneur succeeding or failing by trying out new ideas advances society without coordination. If anything, interventions in this process may create barriers that stifle innovation and stagnate growth.

The Future of Ambiguity: Forget the conventional structure of full-time work and educate for an entrepreneurial mindset.

What if 100 years from now much of the work is once again available in jobs and industries that don’t currently exist? How do we prepare people for that? Once again, I think the answer will be through education. More specifically, it should be education that better prepares Americans for the future of work.

So what is the future of work? Instead of firms and jobs we should be thinking of people and work. Instead of rebuilding infrastructure tied to formal work arrangements, we need to decouple health care, retirement, and status from traditional full-time jobs. We must prepare people to work under ambiguity, be agile, and use technology to augment rather than replace.

Hero of Our Own Story: This digital revolution gives us the opportunity to stand on the shoulders of technology, not be trampled under it.

David Autor, in that same TED Talk, asks why automation hasn’t killed the jobs of bank tellers. Their numbers have roughly doubled since the ATM was introduced. The fact is, the efficiency of ATMs freed up tellers to be relationship builders, sales people and problem solvers. Their roles shifted and banks opened more locations to better serve customers.

That same technologic efficiency is being applied to radiology. Artificial intelligence can enhance the role of radiologists by reading radiographs, MRIs and CT scans flagging what radiologists should examine in seconds. The time saved gives radiologists more capacity to examine and analyze results, for example, while the efficiency itself improves client care, service and costs.

And let’s be real, these are familiar jobs enhanced by technology. There are emerging jobs like XRP Markets retail infrastructure manager we couldn’t have imagined five years ago, let alone the jobs yet to be imagined.

We must focus on what makes us human. Humans must create, learn, trust, connect, make, dream, and love. These are the attributes of successful entrepreneurs today, but they will be the necessary attributes for everyone to achieve economic independence in the future. Simply put, we must change education and training to empower everyone to be entrepreneurs.

Technology is changing work, but it is on us to prepare people for work by changing mindsets and increasing the entrepreneurial capabilities for everyone.

Technology can replace us, but it can also empower us by augmenting human activity. We can let technology stand on our shoulders or we can stand on its shoulders. I’ll take the latter. It’s probably easier to get a glimpse at the next 100 years from up there anyway.

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