The Future of Employment: Going Back to Basics

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Written by Félix Quintero

A “Post-Employment World”. The sheer uncertainty the phrase transmits can reasonably send shivers down the spine of the most self-confident employees. Perhaps even down employers’ spines as well. The good news is that we have all been put on notice so that we can brace ourselves and prepare others from what will surely come. Or, rather, from what is currently taking place. But how do we go about such a challenge? By acquiring or strengthening—and facilitating others to acquire or strengthen—basic skills that will still be useful despite an increasingly automated employment landscape.

We must begin by understanding what a “Post-Employment World” means. It is undisputed that technology is continuously transforming the way we live. As it happens, the employment landscape is not an exception. The World Economic Forum’s “Future of Jobs Report” accurately describes this on-going process by stating as follows: “[a]s entire industries adjust, most occupations are undergoing a fundamental transformation. While some jobs are threatened by redundancy and others grow rapidly, existing jobs are also going through a change in the skill sets required to do them”. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. This does not translate into inevitable unemployment for everyone.

Different industries will react differently to the evolving employment landscape. This applies to cities, countries and regions as well. The ever-creative and multi-disciplinary minds of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab developed a user-friendly software that allows people to learn which professions and skills are most likely to be least useful in the future in major U.S. cities. The visual maps the software displays are revealing. When analyzing, say, automakers in Detroit, the results are heartbreaking. Assemblers are and will continue to be put to the test, to say the least. By contrast, CEO positions in financial organizations in New York City seem, unsurprisingly, quite resilient. Anthony Goldbloom’s August 2016 TED talk pinpoints the issue when he alerted, “we have no chance of competing against machines on frequent, high-volume tasks. […] Where machines have made little progress is in tackling novel situations.

It is clear that everyone will not be affected in the same way. Likewise, it would be pretentious to assume there is a one-size-fits all solution. Notwithstanding, it seems reasonable (and prudent) that both employers and employees invest time and resources in learning how best to create, identify and tackle “novel situations”. So it all goes back to education and training. But we cannot expect everyone to pursue a four-year degree or an advanced degree to stay ahead of the curve. At the same time, we could benefit from identifying a starting point. Why not focus precisely on what sets us apart from machines and each other? Acquiring or strengthening skills associated with basic human brain functions could be the best way forward. Consider the following:

  • Writing: Fareed Zakaria, an accomplished scholar and journalist, advises in his book “In Defense of a Liberal Education” that “[w]hatever you do in life, the ability to write clearly, cleanly, and reasonably quickly will prove to be an invaluable skill”. Zakaria stresses the connection between writing clearly and thinking clearly. Alas, it is not enough to be able to write, it is about writing in such a way that you can explain yourself and persuade others while doing so.
  • Oratory: several surveys and articles explain how people are terrified of speaking before a crowd and yet we hardly take advantage of this reality. We are also often told that leadership and communication skills go hand in hand. Being an eloquent and persuasive speaker can set apart an employee not only from his peers, but also from seemingly all-powerful machines.
  • Languages: although Google Translate has made all of our lives remarkably easier, there is hardly a better way to engage with someone (be it in person, through Skype or any other means) than speaking in her own native language. Naturally we all feel more comfortable communicating in the language we dominate the most. It therefore should come as no surprise that the ability to make others feel this way could prove invaluable in fields like diplomacy, business, and education.
  • Creativity: identifying and creating Goldbloom’s “novel situations” requires a genius that only dwells in the trained human brain. It is that elusive spark (regardless of whether artistic, scientific or both) that leads to innovation, which, in turn, may take the shape of new technologies. Creativity is always the driving force behind someone that identifies hidden “insights” for the marketing industry, creates disruptive apps, sets bold fashion trends, designs a revolutionary business plan, comes up with an audacious legal strategy or creates a fantastic dish.

The aforementioned skills, of course, are by no means an exclusive list and cannot by themselves ensure success and stability for an understandably anxious work force. There will be always be other useful skills, tools and areas of expertise than can equip people in the race against each other and against machines. For instance, being tech and social media-savvy, knowing about personal branding and having a good understanding of the intellectual property realm can also be extremely helpful in our time.

Acquiring or strengthening skills associated with basic human brain functions may not allow us to outperform IBM’s Watson, or even some colleagues. It can, however, help us distinguish us from them, which could potentially translate into staying relevant in an ever-chancing employment landscape.


About the author: Félix A. Quintero-Vollmer is a Venezuelan-born international civil servant based in Washington, DC. He is currently working as an Attorney at the Inter-American Development Bank’s Legal Department. Félix holds an LL.M. from Georgetown University, as well as a LL.B. and B.A., both from the Universidad Metropolitana in Caracas.