Be skeptical about predictions of the future workforce

Happy Elsie. Photo courtesy of Martin Cathrae.

How much do we need to think about future job disruption and how it will affect our careers and the lives of our children? Somewhat, but don’t worry about it. There’s a cottage industry of hype and hysteria that grabs your attention and offer foolish solutions that are unrelated to the facts.

The BBC has a great audio article debunking the myth that 65% of future jobs have not yet been invented. Like the good journalists they are, the BBC looked into this “65% of future jobs” statistic and traced it back to the source. They found two authors citing a report that does not exist, at an institute which is reported to have been disbanded, in a jurisdiction (Australia) that doesn’t even recall an institute by that name ever existed. The BBC credits this discovery to blogger Andrew Old who critiques misleading statistics in the education field.

The BBC tried to re-create the 65% figure looking backwards.  Sometimes looking backwards at hard data produces better information than speculative forward-looking estimates. They found that one-third of jobs that exist today didn’t exist a decade ago. That one-third figure includes newly-created jobs where the role had existed somewhere in the labour market but not that position in that particular workplace.

An example would be new teaching jobs created because of population growth; it’s a pre-existing type of job that you could plan your career around, but the positions didn’t exist previously. Job growth allows us to move up in the world, change jurisdictions, sell goods and services to the newly-employed, and engage new labour market entrants coming from graduation, immigration, and returning to work after a break. From this perspective, it’s a very good thing that a large fraction of current jobs didn’t exist a decade prior. I hope this continues.

What Credible Sources Say About Job Disruption

Even still, there may be potential disruptions arising from automation, globalization, and demographic shifts. In an earlier post, I reviewed a McKinsey report that noted 800 million jobs will be eliminated worldwide by technology. However, 800 million is the maximum range of their forecast, and the mid-point is 400 million jobs. The time period is 12 years, so the forecast is 33 million jobs lost per year globally – small for a planet of 7.6 billion inhabitants.

Of the 400 million jobs affected only 75 million will be eliminated altogether, and the rest will have parts of their work eliminated. For many of the roles that have parts of their work eliminated, workers might become a “bot boss” of a new technology that causes people to be more productive, more valued, and experience greater job security.

In another post I reviewed a paper from the World Economic Forum about forecast job losses relative to forecast new opportunities. There is an abundance of opportunity for people to port their skills from a lost job to a new job. On average, we’re going to be okay.

To clarify, when these reports are created they say one thing, but the headlines exaggerate the findings and sell eyeballs to advertisers. Congratulations, the product is you. But wouldn’t you rather become the protagonist in this outrageous game?

How To Take Advantage of Future Work Opportunities

How do you get one of those great new jobs where you leverage the new technology? At the Young Employers’ Council at Inc.com, a helpful article advises people on How to Prepare for a Career That Does Not Exist. In brief, they assert four takeaways:

  • Develop a broad-based skill set
  • Build a large and robust network
  • Excel at whatever you are doing
  • Stay on top of the news and trends

You need to a broad-based skill set to adapt your way into anything new. When a novel challenge presents itself, it is common that there is not an existing skill to deal with it, so newcomers bring skills from their prior profession. I experienced this myself when I entered workforce analytics, bringing in two decades of experience from the compensation and labour economics fields. In addition to tools for modelling in Excel, I knew a few things about consulting, office politics, and human rights in the workplace, all applicable to the new role. By contrast, I have colleagues who bring insights from industrial psychology, mathematics, and engineering. The mixture keeps it alive, people covering each other’s blind spots. The ability to adapt your skills while working through a series of specializations can really set you up for the future.

But you also need to leverage your core education. Broad-based skill includes creating a hybrid of book learning and applied practical smarts. In a Fast Company article referencing undergraduate internships at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business, they emphasize the development of “adjacent” skills that blur the line between classroom and workplace:

“Isabelle Bajeux-Besnainou, dean of the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University in Montreal, says it’s more important to focus on experiential learning… ‘We cannot teach skills we don’t know exist yet,’ she says. ‘We need a different strategy and make sure they’re becoming lifelong learners,’ she says. [She cites a study finding] that experiential learning reinforces theoretical concepts and leads to superior performance.”

In some postsecondary institutions, the new goal is not to prepare students for their first job, it’s to prepare them from a series of jobs in a string of wins-and-losses, on the presumption that there will be plenty of disruption in the future. This scenario requires an agile mindset, high social intelligence, and a personal history of changing context and perspective. There is a call for employers to develop this new mindset as well, but from a top-down perspective, suggesting that employees quitting for better opportunities is a good sign of a dynamic workplace and that employers should empower themselves to keep tabs on former employees as a valued resource over the longer-term.

Back to the Inc article, I think the habit of excelling at whatever you do is vital because employers see the act of excelling as a stand-alone attribute. If there is a brand-new skill area and the employer wants their organization to become excellent at this skill, they may have no opportunity to find someone who already has the skill, let alone have excellence in it. But they can find someone who had recently become excellent at something adjacent. The spirit of excellence is a superpower that can be applied to the new and unknown.

Critical Analysis of the News is More Important Than Ever

The Inc article’s comment on staying on top of the news is the most thought-provoking. My undergraduate degree is in arts, and I find that arts majors can out-perform others shortly after a major change. We know things have changed in the past, and will do so in future, and that some fads are fleeting while human nature persists. And if you don’t have an arts degree, following the news for a few years can give you a really good proxy for this mindset.

Let’s get back to that dubious figure that 65% of future jobs don’t currently exist. The original source was Dr. Cathy Davidson, founding director of The Futures Initiative at NYC University. She says in another interview she stopped using the 65% figure in 2012. In the BBC interview, when pressed on her figures she doubles-down and says that 100% of jobs have been disrupted by technology. But in my former life in compensation, many jobs – particularly in the trades and service sectors – still have accurate job descriptions from the 1970s. 

Then Davidson asserts that the one thing that has not changed is our education system. But I follow the K-12 sector and over the last few decades have seen a number of impressive changes that are grounded in robust research. My three favourites are the boom in early interventions for special needs children, improved vigilance on preventing bullying, the sophisticated and nuanced use of technology in the classroom, and the shift to experiential learning built around the student’s intrinsic motivation.

Sorry, that was four favourites. You caught that, right? If you didn’t, you need to learn how.

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