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To, Year 5: Career advice in 2018 in our automating world

by Jonathan Sanders

Senior Manager,Talent & Research 20th Dec 2017

Children now in Year Five and currently aged nine or 10, also known as Generation Z, will emerge into the workplace in the 2030s – which itself will have probably been completely re-defined in the intervening period – where one recent forecast by the Autonomy Institute has it that close to a third of all UK jobs will have been automated out of existence. I can only hope that as the ‘digitally minded’ generation, the prospect fills them with as much excitement and anticipation as it does trepidation on my part as someone who began his own career peering into a ‘green screened, dumb terminal’.

Faced with an invitation to give some early career advice to a Year Five Class it’s all too easy when preparing thoughts to dwell on the apocalyptic predictions from the more sensationalist media picking up on the march of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in this, the fourth industrial revolution. More considered texts such as Martin Ford’s The Rise of the Robots – Technology and the Threat of Mass Unemployment, - while raising provocative and troubling questions about mass unemployment and the future and very nature of work, personal fulfilment and achieving our potential, and the spectre of a threat to the Western tenet of ever growing prosperity by future generations -  points at the political, societal and cultural changes that will be necessary to mitigate the negative aspects of rapid automation.

So what will I tell these impressionable youngsters: firstly that nobody can concretely yet make a call as to what the ‘best jobs” will be and that there will even be enough of them to go around, nor can they predict what entirely new jobs might emerge in the coming decades and that, in all likelihood, they will often be recognisable versions of jobs and professions that have been with us in some form for centuries. It might not be stretching a point to say some will see us become ‘servants of the machines’, genuinely serving their needs as programmers, developers, installers and maintainers.  What is certain is that many manual or repetitive roles, as with previous industrial revolutions, will be swept away by the tide of automation although on an unprecedented scale and breadth across all sectors of the economy and with a rapidity not before seen – so I’ll have to tell them don’t yearn to be a train driver as driverless technology will decimate train, bus and taxi driver jobs; probably don’t even invest years studying to be a Tax Accountant or a Paralegal as digitisation of the tax and legal systems will do away with the need for all but the most specialist of advisers. The elimination of large numbers of these latter type roles, viewed as more cerebral, and replacement with AI is what makes the future of work so uncertain and the impact on society so potentially significant.     

What I hope to ensure resonates in these young minds is the importance of educational attainment - particularly but not exclusively in STEM subjects - and jobs that embrace and direct AI, are creative or have lots of interaction with people, have a high degree of unpredictability or need complex problems solved, will continue to have a place; I’ll flag to them that the nurturing and caring professions such as teaching, healthcare professionals at all levels and in all clinical fields, social workers and the police will all continue to offer fantastic employment opportunities. Experts in their field, pursuing applied vocational learning, such as engineers, designers and lawyers will all continue to feature in the work environment. That it is also true that performers, artists and athletes would all have enviable roles, and potentially lifestyles, in the future but that competition might be even fiercer for such coveted opportunities and careers potentially even more shorter-lived than now.      

While I’ll  stop short of sharing with the children those gloomier predictions of the consequences of AI, I feel we should be preparing them for a life where there is genuinely less work to do and which could be uniquely liberating for their generation; but perhaps also demanding of them to be more productive in their  leisure. Collectively we might need to be encouraging them to move away from conspicuous and selfish consumption instead finding purpose and fulfilment through life long study, volunteering and caring; defining themselves not, as many of us do currently primarily through work, but on making much broader contributions to the society they will grow up in.

I’ll not yet trouble them too with musings on preparing for an almost post work society, a basic income for all policy emerging - powered by the benefits of AI – equitable distribution of employment and the leap of imagination for politicians, employers, psychologists, educationalists and a panoply of experts and futurologists to steer a course that reconciles dramatic change in the nature of work while maintaining societal stability. I might venture though that they consider becoming one of those experts helping to chart that course or failing that get involved in developing AI! Opportunity awaits!

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