It’s hard to predict what the future will look like. Back in the 1960s, many people thought we were headed toward a Jetsons-inspired future full of flying cars and robot housekeepers.
Yet, here we are, still ground-bound in our vehicles and without the option of conversing with an endearing robot helper (naming and talking to your Roomba vacuum doesn’t count). We work as much as ever, and Siri is as likely to mishear you as she is to give you helpful information. Maybe the idea of robots working with us — and potentially taking even more of our jobs — is a long way off?
The World Economic Forum sees it differently. In a recent report, they predicted that “robotic automation will result in the net loss of more than 5 million jobs across 15 developed nations by 2020.” The World Bank predicts an even bigger crisis: They expect that “roughly two-thirds of all jobs in developing nations are susceptible to replacement by automation.”
It goes on and on. Accounting and consulting firm PwC predicts that “38% of jobs could be at risk of automation” by 2030. Researchers at Oxford concluded that 47% of the jobs in the United States are currently at risk of being lost to machine labor.
You get the point. The academic types have a gloomy outlook. But what about the people working in tech, who would presumably be tuned in to the trends in their industry? What jobs should we be pushing our kids towards? No one wants to steer their child toward becoming the equivalent of a master horse-and-buggy driver back in 1908, just as the first Ford Model T was released.
Let’s check in with some folks who have excellent track records of predicting, and often building, the future. Maybe their insights can allow us to position ourselves for financial success in an increasingly volatile environment.
Mark Cuban, the enigmatic tech entrepreneur, Dallas Mavericks owner, and “Shark Tank” investor, doesn’t agree with the dogma that says getting a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) degree will set up a college graduate for a successful career.
He cites a coming “automation of automation” as the problem. Sure, we need humans to write all of our code now, he says, but what about when computers can write their own code? He sees that as putting a ton of people out of work.
But, he also identified an area where the robots won’t be encroaching any time soon: creative thinking. He predicts that liberal arts majors will be the new STEM majors. (See, Mom? I told you it wasn’t a waste of time to take a college course on hieroglyphics!)
Cuban expects liberal arts majors will be highly valued for their ability to use different and diverse perspectives as they parse through data and try to make decisions. He predicts philosophy and foreign language majors to be especially prized recruits in the workforce.
Cuban’s thoughts are backed up by some heavyweight academics, such as MIT professors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee. They argue that the jobs of the future will go to those who are good at “generating creative ideas and actions in a data-rich world.”
Jeff Weiner is the CEO of job networking site LinkedIn. He spends all day trying to figure out better ways to help people find jobs online. Thus, he’s probably a good person to look to when you’re trying to identify trends in the job market.
Weiner recognizes that technology will continue to impact the roles of human beings in the workforce in a negative way. But, he differs from the other visionaries on this list in that he sees a bright future for blue collar workers as long as they get the proper training.
He sees vocational training, not four-year degrees, as being the saving grace for those who want to stay relevant in the workforce. He thinks we need to “go all in on vocational training” because it’s important for people to “have access to an education where they can learn a skill.”
Weiner thinks that while it might be simple for a robot to take your order at McDonald’s, it’s quite a bit harder for a robot to fix the wiring of your house if you have an issue with your electricity. Learning a trade is always valuable, but it might become even more so in the near future.
Elon Musk is as close as you’re going to get to the definition of “tech guru.” Musk is most famous for running the car company Tesla, which makes the world’s most successful all-electric vehicle. But, he is also a solar panel pioneer and has another company, Space X, that proved it can launch a rocket into space and land it on a platform in the ocean. This guy knows his tech.
If you’re looking for one person who might predict the future, it’s hard to find a better bet than Musk.
When it comes to the future of work, Musk steers clear of any particular advice on what field to enter, and instead considers the question more esoterically. Basically, he thinks jobs won’t be an issue for most people because, as he has said, “There is a pretty good chance we end up with a universal basic income.”
A universal basic income would mean that every person is paid a basic living wage, regardless of their income or whether or not they work at all. Musk is of the mind that a universal basic income will change the whole notion of what work is. What sort of human potential could we unlock if we were free to pursue anything we wanted?
The folks at consulting firm McKinsey & Co. think that under such circumstances, we all might be better off. According to their analysis, automation combined with a universal basic income-type system has “the potential to generate a greater amount of meaningful work.”
If you hate your job, this might sound like a welcome relief. Who wouldn’t want to get paid a fair wage to do whatever they want all day? But it also presents a conundrum for people who find meaning in their work. If your job gives you a sense of purpose, how are you going to fill that void?
These are questions that government leaders, employers, and researchers will have to start thinking about sooner rather than later.
Marc Andreessen, founding partner of Andreessen Horowitz, is one of the most well-known and successful of all the tech-focused venture capitalists. An early investor in Twitter and other startups, he seems to have a preternatural ability to spot small startups that are about to blow up and reach the mainstream.
He’s also unabashedly optimistic about the worldwide job prospects for all humans. Is it typical Silicon Valley bluster, or is he on to something?
Andreessen’s argument is compelling because he’s only using the tangible numbers that are right in front of us. Did the U.S. as a whole gain more jobs than it lost last year? Are we on pace to gain more next year? The answer is yes and yes. He notes that “every year in the U.S. on average about 21 million jobs are destroyed and about 24.5 million are created.” So, he insists, a constant flux of available jobs is nothing new.
Andreessen also argues that the job market is robust and growing. In his estimation, the technological revolution has been happening for two decades, and yet there are more people around the globe working jobs for higher wages than ever before. According to Andreessen, “If technological change were going to cause elimination of jobs, one presumes we would have seen it by now.”
He dismisses the notion that we will see a job drop-off in the near future as too many people having a pessimistic, doomsday-inclined mindset. Much like Mark Cuban, Andreessen thinks critical thinking and problem solving skills using our (human) minds will be more in demand than ever.
Interestingly, the number crunchers over at the U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics might agree with him. Their latest report defies the technophobic prognosticators who think self-driving cars will put human drivers out of work. The BLS predicts a big future increase in the need for truck drivers by the year 2024.
The famous college dropout and co-founder of Microsoft might not be on the ground floor of the tech revolution anymore, but as the wealthiest person alive, he is still a force to be reckoned with.
Gates largely agrees with the premise of the World Economic Forum and others in that he sees job automation as a major issue affecting the American workforce. But, he’s not in the Mark Cuban or Jeff Weiner camp of thinking that the automation will ultimately decrease the need for STEM majors. In fact, he argues the opposite.
Gates thinks those who will have the best chance in the future will be workers with “knowledge of the sciences, math skills, and economics.” He also feels that computer engineers will be “revolutionizing industries” long into the future.
But, he doesn’t go as far as Elon Musk, imagining a future where robotic automation will require a universal basic income. In fact, he emphasizes that “teaching, elder care, and helping kids with special needs” are jobs with massive shortages that will need to be done by humans for the foreseeable future.
With smart people and billion-dollar organizations offering up contrasting views of the future, the best course of action might be the same as it’s always been: Try to find a good job that is meaningful to you, work hard at improving your skills, and hope for the best.
That being said, it’s also important to consider trends that might point you in a more lucrative or rewarding direction. It’s never a bad idea to listen to advice from those on the vanguard of a technological revolution.
Finally, as we march toward an uncertain and potentially scary future, it’s more important than ever to focus on reducing debt, establishing an emergency fund, and automating your investments. If the robots do take your job, you’ll be better off if you have a solid financial base to fall back on while you figure out what to do next.