Economy & Budget

The future of jobs: More rock-climbing than ladder-climbing

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The new report, “Will Robots Steal Our Jobs?” from PricewaterhouseCoopers U.K. is the latest in a deluge of academic and think-tank studies on the likelihood that many of the jobs of tomorrow will be done by machines rather than by human beings. These reports explore whether automation is coming soon and whether that timeframe will accelerate as machines get smarter and smarter.

What is clear in all of these reports is that automation is accelerating the creative destruction of jobs, occupations and even industries. Each job is less secure today than yesterday and even less secure tomorrow than today.

{mosads}That means that the notion of a career ladder — predictable and linear steps upward — in a world that is constantly changing is obsolete. Rather, people will need to be like rock climbers — constantly adjusting to new opportunities and challenges. They must also be resourceful so they can take advantage of those opportunities. 


The reality is that changes in the work humans will do and the way work will be organized are being driven by forces stronger than policy. In other words, government doesn’t have the power to stop these changes. Globalization and smarter machines are megaforces that, no matter what our politics are, will continuously reshape the economy.

What we desperately need is for both parties to acknowledge this reality. There is no way back to the prosperous American economy of the 20th Century. We must get to work on ideas on how to have a prosperous economy — with a broad middle class — in the context of these new realities. Good-paying jobs are going to be predominantly knowledge-based and jobs and occupations are going to be less and less stable.  

Yes, this is really scary. All of us would choose the old, more stable economy over the job market that is described in all of these reports. But that is not a choice we have available to us. Both trying to make the old economy work again and leaving it up to each of us to fend for ourselves in this radical transformation is almost certainly a recipe to make us worse off financially.

What we need are politicians from across the political spectrum advancing ideas as big and disruptive as those that, in the words of Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), “spawned progressivism in American politics that transformed both the Democratic and Republican parties under Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.”

That policy response, by both parties, was essential in helping Americans thrive in the transition from an agrarian to an industrial economy. We need the same kind of bold policy transformation to help us thrive in the transition from an industrial to a knowledge-based economy. 

First and foremost, that means we need public policy to prepare us to be rock climbers, which means a complete transformation in how we approach education. Education can no longer be about building occupation-specific skills, nor can it be limited to pre-K through high school. 

The reality is that none of us know what the jobs and occupations of the future will be. Today’s jobs are not a good indicator of what jobs will be when today’s K-12 students finish their careers in the 2050s or 2060s. We simply don’t know how smarter machines are going to change labor markets. So, the purpose of K-12 education (maybe even K-16) is to build foundational skills that allow all children to have the agility and ability to constantly switch occupations. 

In their book, “Becoming Brilliant” learning scientists Roberta Michnick Golinkoff and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek label these skills as the “Six C’s”: collaboration, communication, content, critical thinking, creativity and confidence. These are the broad — dare we say, liberal arts — skills each of us will need in order to complement machines, rather than be replaced by them. These skills will help us solve today’s problems and create new solutions to problems we can’t yet envision. 

In addition, we need ideas from both parties on how to support citizens in what will almost certainly be, for many of us, episodic periods of job loss requiring the mastering of new skills. Because there is little reason to believe going forward that there will be a higher proportion of good-paying jobs, ideas from both parties on how to increase the amount of work, along with the pay and benefits of that work for those with low-education attainment will also be critical. 

Lou Glazer is president and co-founder of Michigan Future, Inc., a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization focused on creating new ideas regarding how Michigan can succeed as a world-class community in a knowledge-driven economy. Its work is funded by Michigan foundations.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill. 

Tags Automation Education Globalization knowledge-based economy Technology Unemployment vocational training

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