In my view, one of the most pressing questions facing the average human being, especially young human beings is: what can I offer the world? Yes, of course, the implication is that the world doesn’t owe us a living. Even if it did, it wouldn’t give it to us anyway. As currently constructed, our world is a global capitalist market system, however imperfect, and you have to pay for every aspect of your life, from the food you eat to the entertainment you enjoy.
Specifically, then, the question is: what value will I be able to exchange in the global capitalist market economy in order to survive in the future?
It’s a hairy question, and we’re not asking it enough. If you look at the trends developing in the world around us, it’s clear that most tasks are being automated at an exponential rate. It’s not just the robotics in factories, it’s most everything. Tax returns, banking, car detailing, you name it. Gone are the days when a high school, or even college, graduate could walk out of commencement and into a programmed profession, into a human resource pool (blue- or white-collar) and thereby secure a living. Those labor structures simply no longer exist.
The result of all this automation may be driving what economists call “structural unemployment,” which is basically the idea that, due to the structure of the economy (i.e., the nature and quantity of jobs available) and the size and skill base of the population, there will always be a good chunk of the population who are unemployable. And many futurists see this chunk getting bigger in the future, as more automatable jobs get automated.
My favorite example, one that I have used this year in a class I teach on Innovation and Creativity in Business, is Foxconn, the Chinese electronics manufacturer that was in the news last year because of worker suicides. Last December, Foxconn broke ground on a fully automated “robot” factory that, they said at the time, would eliminate up to 500,000 jobs. My students are often shocked by the human implications of such an automated factory. A half a million jobs is a stunning number, and it may not pan out for Foxconn, but it’s nothing to the aggregation of small automation-driven layoffs that happen every day in a myriad of industries.
On one hand, history has shown that humans can adapt, even back to the earliest days of the industrial revolution. Automation of English textile mills then changed the workforce, yet mass unemployment didn’t follow. But the coming pace of automation will be intense and widespread. I suspect that every human being will be impacted by it.
So what should we do? As a collective species, or even as a society, I don’t know that we can stop the trajectory of this particular change. As individuals, however, we can become astute students of labor and value. We can develop effective answers to the question of what value we provide that robots or algorithms can’t. You simply won’t be able to just learn a trade and plug into the economy like a cog in a machine.
Creativity, innovation, the human touch. Design. Integration. Strategy. Meta-thinking. Whatever it is, we all need to find that thing that helps us add value, that is irreplaceable, and we’ll be fine. The future will require adaptation, constant learning, and an abandonment of old mental models in regard to work.
I think, more than anything, it will be liberating.