Over the past century, fears of mass joblessness from automation have come and gone in waves (see Figure 3.1). During World War II, mass labor shortages led to significant advances in the mechanization of production. Firms introduced these innovations into civilian production in the 1950s and 1960s, much to the consternation of workers. In the 1980s, a surge of interest and investment in the burgeoning field of artificial intelligence, combined with the growth of the personal computer, led to a second wave of fears around job-killing machines. The zeitgeist was reflected in blockbuster sci-fi hits including Blade Runner, The Terminator, and Star Wars.
More recently, a series of breakthrough advances in the field of machine learning, alongside new imagination-capturing services such as Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri, have triggered a fresh upswelling of concern. As businesses ratchet up their ambitions for automation in light of the pandemic, these concerns are likely to continue growing (for more on the economic impacts of automation in the decade ahead, see Labor 2030: The Collision of Demographics, Automation and Inequality).
We have entered a new wave of concern about automation
So far, at least, technological progress has not led to the end of work. But it has propelled numerous cycles of profound change in the role humans play in the economy. Over the past 150 years, technology has interacted with parallel structural forces, such as globalization, shifting consumer tastes, and demographic changes, to continuously redefine the mix of work (see Figure 3.2).
The composition of the workforce has shifted multiple times
Looking ahead, it would be a gross oversimplification to imagine that the next generation of jobs will all be software engineers and data scientists. Undoubtedly, digitization will continue to propel rapid demand for these occupations, causing firms to experience labor shortages in these areas for many years to come. And increasingly, most jobs will require a basic level of digital literacy. However, growth in expert technologist roles will represent only one part of the story. This is particularly true as we head toward a world of democratized automation based around low-code and self-service solutions.
Over the next decade, a complex interplay between automation and other forces will once again dictate the pattern of rising and falling occupations. An aging population will increase the need for healthcare workers. The continued shift of domestic work into the formal economy will boost the demand for hospitality and various personal services. And the pivot to e-commerce will decrease the need for sales workers while increasing the need for transportation workers. At the same time, the automation of routine tasks will accelerate the decline of sales jobs, while keeping job growth in transportation and hospitality at lower levels than we would have experienced otherwise. Concurrently, the automation of manufacturing and administrative jobs will hasten the decline set off by globalization in recent decades.
These patterns are not confined to the US—a similar story is emerging across other advanced economies, with the same underlying forces at play. In emerging markets undergoing industrialization, the picture is slightly skewed by the continued movement of agricultural workers into other manual sectors, like manufacturing and construction.
To understand how this shifting occupational mix will affect the capabilities required by future workers, we classified more than 2,000 underlying activities across occupations into five categories (see Figure 3.3):
- Physical—work that involves directly manipulating the physical environment, such as operating machinery or preparing food.
- Information processing—work that centers on gathering and structuring information, such as compiling data or maintaining records.
- Problem solving—work that entails framing issues, assessing options, and exercising judgment, such as prescribing treatments or improving business processes.
- Creative—work that centers on imagining new possibilities and forming original ideas, such as designing products or developing a business strategy.
- Interpersonal—work that involves interacting with others to understand their needs and achieve shared objectives, such as teaching or negotiating.
The shifting occupational mix in developed economies favors uniquely human activities
While the boundaries between these activities can sometimes be blurry, the distinctions are helpful in characterizing the shifting nature of work. The more repetitive nature of most physical and information processing activities makes them prime candidates for automation. Problem solving, creative, and interpersonal activities are more variable in nature and more reliant on higher human faculties. Workers will increasingly be able to enhance their performance in these domains with AI-powered virtual assistants. But few experts believe such technologies will progress at a fast-enough pace to render human involvement obsolete anytime soon.
In the long run, we see at least one positive headline emerging from automation: The days of menial jobs that leave us feeling less like humans and more like placeholders for machines may soon be behind us.
Throughout the 20th century, popular culture often took aim at these soulless jobs. Charlie Chaplin’s 1930s film Modern Times opens with an iconic slapstick scene in which Chaplin’s character is unsuccessfully fed his lunch by a machine as he attempts to tighten screws on an ever-accelerating assembly line. The film effectively captures the zeitgeist of the era, when workers felt that industrialization was dehumanizing their once artisanal manufacturing jobs.
Similarly, Clerks and Office Space, two offbeat comedies in the 1990s, capture the drudgery and sense of meaninglessness often associated with sales and administrative jobs, respectively. These types of jobs are being replaced by ones that require workers to engage deeply with one another, solve complex problems, and put their own unique stamp on their work.
The big challenge ahead will be determining how to transition workers from declining occupations to jobs of the future. Fortunately, the list of jobs that displaced workers in lower-skill occupations can perform, when given the right training and support, is nearly endless. The Internet has changed the economics of knowledge, giving workers in many occupations access to the information they need to do their jobs with the click of a button. In this environment, a worker’s underlying capacity for problem solving, creativity, and interpersonal connection has a much greater effect on performance. So how can business leaders help workers develop these capabilities?
First, consider problem solving. The notion that intelligence is fixed from an early age, with neuroplasticity declining over time, is outdated. The prevailing belief among scientists today is that the brain is more like a muscle, and its performance can be meaningfully enhanced throughout our lives. Research shows that equipping workers with the right set of thinking strategies—including establishing perspective, disaggregating the problem, framing, and deploying analogical reasoning—can greatly improve their decision making at work. We also know that the relationship between IQ and economic success is weak, with many higher intelligence individuals trapped in low-skill jobs that prevent them from fully exercising their potential for solving complex problems.
Second, consider creativity. While true creative genius may be rare, evidence shows that the everyday creativity required for success in jobs of the future can be taught by introducing workers to the right techniques. It is even more important, however, to create an environment that allows workers’ creativity to flourish. This requires high levels of both formal and informal interpersonal interaction, as well as a clearly communicated openness to fresh ideas and tolerance of failure. In recent decades, the relentless focus on efficiency has conveyed to many workers—particularly those outside of knowledge occupations—that hard work and compliance, not creativity, are the paths to success. When we asked workers which attributes they felt their company wanted from them in their role, only 17% of US workers in manual, service, or administrative jobs ranked creativity in the top three, compared with 35% of workers in knowledge jobs. The picture is similar across other Western markets. In developing markets, however, 52% of workers across occupations ranked creativity highly, compared with an average of 30% across Western markets. The rapid pace of growth and demands for continuous adaptation in the emerging world have often fostered a culture of innovation at all levels of the firm. The focus on stable earnings growth in advanced economies typically has not.
Finally, consider interpersonal connection. Emotional intelligence is primarily determined by personality type—in particular, what psychologists call “agreeableness.” Research shows a negative correlation between agreeableness and income level, which could suggest that, in recent decades, those who adopted a more aggressive approach to interpersonal interactions have achieved more professional success. However, empathy, introspection, and behavioral adaptation will be increasingly critical in the jobs of the future. And today’s low-skill workers will have significant value to bring to the table in this respect. There is also ample evidence that interpersonal skills can be actively cultivated, particularly through behavioral modeling.