By Ng Wei Li:
Technological advances have always caused upheavals. This is an undeniable truth of human history.
The creation of the printing press revolutionised the way information was disseminated and paved the path for the Reformation. Henry Ford’s assembly line threw open the gates for mass production and ended the days of the small shop. And now, the digital revolution is poised to revolutionise the global economic landscape as much as the Industrial Revolution had, if not more.
With the rate technology is advancing, palpable paranoia surrounds the global job market. With so many duties digitised and automated and so many roles rendered obsolete by technology – how secure is anyone’s job?
Technological encroachment is already underway. Nearly half of the existing jobs are expected to receive an automaton replacement, according to a 2013 American study.
Self-driving transportation, the new obsession of Silicon Valley companies like Google and Uber, will edge out the need for taxi drivers, chauffeurs, and truck drivers. Internet-automated administration tasks may have made the life of an office administration assistant easier – until it put him out of the job. Labour markets will suffer most with simple tasks being easily programmable.
The internet has also made it possible to do much more with infinitely less manpower. At its peak, the imaging company Kodak hired 100,000 people. In comparison, Instagram achieved its current position as the dominant photo-sharing platform with only a staff of 13.
Despite this, job prospects for the future are not completely doomed. The advantage humans have over well-programmed automatons is their endless capacity to learn and adapt. And until Artificial Intelligences are able to consistently pass the Turing test, that is the advantage that humans will keep.
The key to surviving in a fast-changing job market is to keep learning. Never in history has it been easier to learn a new skill or a new trade. Open-learning platforms like Udemy and edX offer free classes online, teaching everything from the history of the book to Java programming. Current employers demonstrate a high preference for workers with programming knowledge. So learning coding online would not be amiss in ensuring further job security.
What this means is that the skilled workers require continual education complementing Silicon Valley’s interests to thrive. But the less competitive may always rely on social skills and specialisation to retain jobs that automated tech would never be expected to replace.
Many sites have predicted professions that will see the largest growth in the coming decade. A brief glance at these lists reveals a demand for more medical practitioners, software developers, and highly-skilled specialists like engineers and accountants. A Bachelor’s degree is a minimum requirement for jobs such as these.
But there is also a call for daycare providers, elder care specialists and social services coordinators. Regardless of progress, technological or otherwise, human empathy is valuable. It is not something that technology can replicate.
Professions under the fields of humanities and arts also suffer no threat from the technological revolution. Automatons are far from replacing artists, writers or actors. Jobs in the arts sector are competitive to begin with. They are also the ones that parents dissuade their children from pursuing. How ironic is it that these same professions are safe from machines!
The truth is that technology is advancing and changing the previously established order at a rate which the world beyond Silicon Valley finds it difficult to keep up with.
This is reflected in the contemporary anxiety over the future of the job market. New technology has always opened avenues to new types of professions. The introduction of electric lamps made lamplighters obsolete in the 20th century. At the same time, the use of electricity opened up the doors for other professions such as camera technicians and switchboard operators.
Similarly, plenty of high-paying jobs today did not exist thirty years ago, like SEO specialists, bloggers, and Zumba instructors. Economic pessimism only makes sense if the focus remains exclusively on an older template of the job market, instead of looking forward to the new opportunities opening up.
The caveat now is that job-seekers will have to employ creative thinking. It’s better to ‘invent’ a job, rather than find one as traditional careers keep disappearing. “Today because knowledge is available on every Internet-connected device, what you know matters far less than what you can do with what you know. The capacity to innovate and skills like critical thinking, communication and collaboration are far more important than academic knowledge,” says Tony Wagner, the Harvard education specialist.
Anxiety is the expected outcome to any sort of change. The lamplighters of the 20th century feared for job security as well. Instead of holding on valiantly to their older professions, they should have sought newer ones.
Technological advances and efficient automatons will make for some ‘uncomfortable shifting’ in the existing job markets. Many old professions will die out. However, jobs will always be up for grabs – provided that job seekers are willing to keep learning, be creative, and hang on to their empathy.
The author works with the iPrice group, a meta-search engine in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines.