Futureproofing your career
In an increasingly fractured, automated and environmentally precarious world, what jobs will we be doing in the decades to come?
The jobs required by society are constantly changing. These days, butchers and bakers are niche artisan professions, candlestick makers almost non-existent, and there isn’t much call for blacksmiths, bowyers, bodgers or buddlers.
Who would have guessed that printing – a sought-after, well-paid and highly skilled profession only 25 years ago – would be an endangered job, along with those skilled workers in the British coal industry? Who can tell if black-cab drivers – for whom “doing the knowledge” once ensured a respectable living – will be usurped by smartphone-friendly, sat-nav-assisted cab firms like Uber? Will cycle couriers, postal workers, librarians or typists all go the way of the switchboard operator?
Conversely there are job titles – social-media consultant, resource scheduler, head of analytics – that would have been incomprehensible to us only a few decades ago. “Many of the jobs we do today were not even invented 30 or 40 years ago,” Rohit Talwar, the Chief Executive and “global futurist” behind Fast Future, an organisation that helps businesses “future proof” themselves. “And likewise, many of the jobs that today’s children will be doing in a couple of decades’ time do not exist at the moment.”
“Two hundred years ago, around three-quarters of us lived and worked on the farm,” says Kevin Kelly from Wired magazine. “Today automation has eliminated all but one per cent of those agricultural jobs, replacing them (and their work animals) with machines. But the displaced workers did not sit idle. Instead, automation created hundreds of millions of jobs in entirely new fields.” It figures then, says Kelly, that robots might replace our current jobs and give us new jobs that we can scarcely imagine.
Rise of the robots
In the early 19th century, Luddites vandalised textile machinery that looked set to take their jobs, while economists such as David Ricardo and Karl Marx warned that machines could soon replace labour. If these fears proved wrong in the short term, in the long run they have been realised. Some car factories have been almost entirely automated since the late 1970s; many computers and tablets are being assembled by robots; and, where each large supermarket used to employ dozens of checkout staff, they now have a single employee monitoring a huge bank of self-service machines (cleverly passing on the checkout job onto the customer).
There is much fear, then, that robots will not only destroy existing jobs but will be better than us at all the tasks required in the future. Uber, the app-based, on-demand cab service, is already looking at the logistics of running a driverless cab service in the future. “The service would be a whole lot cheaper,” says Travis Kalanick, Uber’s Chief Executive, “if you weren’t paying for the other dude in the car.”
And it’s not just relatively low-skilled, low-paid, highly automated jobs that have fallen by the wayside. Victims of new technology have included administrators, travel agents, bookkeepers and secretaries. Even highly skilled, knowledge-based jobs – law, medicine, architecture, journalism, accountancy – which were once regarded as safe careers can no longer be guaranteed.
Professor Richard Susskind, who describes himself as a “legal futurist”, examines the idea that high-skill professions will become subject to what he describes as “decomposition”, where a jack-of-all-trades general practitioner or lawyer might be split into several distinct roles. In his books Beyond The Professions and Tomorrow’s Lawyers, Susskind envisages the legal profession, for instance, being made up of various new roles at the junction of law and IT: legal knowledge engineer, legal technologist, project manager, risk manager, process analyst and so on.
“Until the economy fell off a cliff in 2008, most people in major law firms and indeed in-house counsel were quite happy to continue working the way they had done for a couple of centuries,” says Susskind. “Tomorrow’s legal professional is likely to be part software engineer, part lawyer.” Computers, he argues, would be perfect for trawling through case histories, legal documents and legislation, with the ability to list legal citations and note recommended reading.
In the world of journalism, robots could start to replace skilled professionals. Even today, a sports story on the Associated Press feed or a corporate earning report on Forbes is likely to have been written by a robot. Using software such as Quill, robots are able to take data and turn it into something understandable.
“There are some areas, like finance and sport, where the data is not open to interpretation, and so the writing can be done by machines,” says Kristian Hammond, chief scientist from the company Narrative Science, which has been developing software technology such as Quill in order to do this. “We estimate that 90 per cent of news could be written by machines in 15 years’ time. This doesn’t mean that 90 per cent of jobs in journalism will go – it means that journalists can extend their reach. The world of news will expand.”
Of course, not all future jobs will be in hi-tech industries. Anyone who believed the postwar vision of the future – where we’d all be travelling around on anti-gravity scooters, wearing shiny space-suits – might be surprised to hear that some of the “safest” jobs will be in surprisingly familiar sectors: healthcare, education, construction and waste disposal.
A looming ecological crisis means dirty work in the form of waste and resource management will be central to the economic well-being for the foreseeable future. Initially, one growth area might be reducing human environmental impact. Firms might start to employ “traceability managers” who can examine a supply chain to check which clients might be excessively polluting the environment might thus be “carbon costly” to buy from. We might need “water footprint managers”, to monitor how much water a business is using, and “retail energy specialists” and “green call centre advisers” to research and provide informed advice on which appliances are more energy-efficient. And some experts predict that we will start having to employ “landfill miners”, tasked with ploughing through old landfill sites to retrieve buried materials that have increased in value.
Alternative fuels are likely to become more common, and we might see jobs like a “hydrogen fuel station manager” who will produce hydrogen on site (requiring both science and retail skills) or a “uranium recycler” (who can convert weapons-grade uranium into low-enriched uranium for use in nuclear power plants.
There are also likely to be jobs in the world of climate-change management – that is to say, technology designed to counteract some of the most harmful impacts of global warming. “There are some key experiments taking place by organisations such as NASA and CERN which could turn our thinking on the causes of climate change upside down,” says Ian Pearson, a futurist who established BT’s futurology practice.
The Seattle-based invention and patent company Intellectual Ventures, headed by scientist and entrepreneur Nathan Myhrvold, is working on a geo-engineered solution to global warming that creates a “stratoshield” over the polar regions, using a steady series of controlled injections of sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere to cool ground temperatures – something that could be achieved through a series of hot-air balloons. Other solutions include the building of vast “space reflectors”, creating “artificial trees” to capture carbon dioxide, and using algae to stimulate the uptake of carbon into the ocean.
The agri brigade
The need to feed a growing international population will also require an expansion in the world of agriculture and food production. Agriculture, according to the business bible Forbes, remains the world’s biggest industry, worth $4.8 trillion annually, and there is no reason to assume that this will change as the world’s population looks set to rise from 6 billion up to a predicted 9.6 billion by 2050.
Terms like “smart farming” and “precision agriculture” are already being used of the industry, with corporations and small farmers alike using ever more sophisticated ways to acquire information on crop yields, soil-mapping, fertiliser applications, weather data and machinery. Specialists in the field of precision livestock farming (PLF) will be using sensors and smart-technology to monitor and detect animal activity, tissue resistance, pulse, temperature and global positioning system (GPS) position in order to foresee reproductive events and health disorders in farmyard animals.
New jobs in farming look likely to emerge. “Vertical farmers” will ensure the most productive use of land to grow enough crops to feed the planet’s population as it rises past six billion; “insect farmers” might be required to maintain a raise huge stocks of insects which could provide a healthy and plentiful form of protein for a growing population.
The longer we all live, the more care we’ll all need in old age – and much of that will have to be provided hands-on by orthodox nurses, doctors and care workers. But an ageing population also means rapidly rising demand for products designed and produced by a medical devices sector that will bridge biology, mechanics and chemistry.
In the world of medicine, robots might not have a good bedside manner but they are skilled at ploughing through data to find possible treatments. Certain types of doctor might find themselves obsolescent: radiologists, for instance, are routinely outperformed by pattern-recognition software. One Silicon Valley investor, Vinod Khosla, has predicted that algorithms and machines could replace 80 per cent of doctors within a generation.
And scientists are working hard on this. Dr Pete Diamandis, the American writer, physician, engineer and entrepreneur, has even established the X Prize Foundation, a series of competitions that offer awards of up to $10 million for specific inventions. One challenge is to replicate the “tricorder”, the handheld device used in Star Trek that is capable of diagnosing 15 separate diseases without the presence of a medical professional.
Already there are companies developing technology in this area: Newcastle-upon-Tyne-based biotech QuantuMDx is developing a “hand-held DNA lab” which aims to diagnose diseases; Silicon Valley’s Scanadu has developed a “scout sensor” that can deliver readings for heart rate, core body temperature, blood oxygenation, blood pressure and respiratory rate data; Owlstone in Cambridge has developed computer chips with sensors that are able to detect gases, pollutants and certain diseases. Dr Diamandis predicts that someone will succeed in producing a working tricorder in the next five years.
Predicting the future
Several organisations have attempted to quantify how “future-proof” a profession can be. The BBC, in association with researchers from Oxford University and Deloitte, recently created an online search engine (www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-34066941) to determine how susceptible a job is to automation.
At the top of the list were jobs like telephone salesperson, typist or financial accounts manager, each of whom had between a 97 and 99 per cent chance of being replaced by automation in the next decade. At the other end of the scale were positions like a speech and language therapist, psychologist, publican, hotel manager or teacher, who had between a 0.4 and 0.7 per cent chance of being replaced. In the middle were a huge range of jobs – plumber, florist, architectural technician, electrician – who were all hovering around the “too-close-to-call” 50 per cent mark.
Some of these findings conflict with a government-commissioned 2014 report by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) which suggested that the construction sector offers good prospects, with architects, carpenters, chartered surveyors, plumbers and heating and ventilation engineers all making the “futureproof” list. Also high on the UKCES list was the medical profession (doctors, nurses, nursing auxiliaries, care workers and dentists), education (teachers, teaching assistants, senior education professionals), police officers and more technology-focused positions such as mechanical engineers and software developers.
Where humans beat machines
One obvious advantage comes in the form of social interaction. Robots do not have emotional intelligence. Nor do many humans, for that matter, but motivated people who are sensitive to the needs of others make perfect managers, leaders, salespeople, caretakers, nurses, teachers and negotiators.
Another advantage comes in the form of physical dexterity and mobility. If you’ve ever seen a robot trying to climb a staircase or pick up a pen, you’ll see just how slow and clumsy they are. It’s why jobs like gardening, cooking, hairdressing or housekeeping will always need human interaction.
Creative endeavours – from creative writing to entrepreneurship, from scientific discovery to invention – are the raison d’etre of the human. Roles requiring employees to think on their feet and come up with creative and original ideas – for example artists, designers or engineers – hold a significant advantage in the face of automation. It’s also the way in which an entrepreneur today can use technology to leverage his or her inventions.
The last bastion for human employment will always come from our imagination, and our strengths of flexibility and creativity. Computers can create new things within an existing genre, but they will always struggle when it comes to creating anything new, or even solving problems that they haven’t been specifically programmed for. “Computers are very good at pursuing what they’re programmed to do, but they can’t think outside of the box,” says Nathan Myhrvold. “In the same way, a candlestick maker would never have come up with the idea for the light bulb. That’s where human creativity and blue-sky thinking come into play.”
What’s clear is that the job for life is becoming a thing of the past. “A student coming out of university today could easily have eight to 10 jobs in their lifetime, across several different careers,” says Rohit Talwar from Fast Future. “Technology is advancing so fast and industries are changing so fast that what looks like a solid job today disappears tomorrow.”
IT project management
You don’t necessarily need any computer programming skills for this role. It’s more about communication, planning and organisation. It accounts for around on in every seven jobs in the industry.
Programming, coding, and all the skills of the software developer will be crucial as more areas of industry becomes computerised.
Some have predicted that online translation tools will replace interpreters. This looks unlikely. In a globalised world, speakers of languages – particularly growth languages such as Arabic, Russian, Chinese and Japanese – will have a head start. And, when it comes to negotiation, a multilingual businessman will always have an advantage over one who speaks just one language.
Some areas of the building trade can be automated. Carpenters, bricklayers and joiners, however, are looking pretty safe, as are architects, chartered surveyors and project managers.
Nurse or care worker
The medical profession will always require people to care for people of all ages – including the very young, the unwell and the those with disabilities. But an ageing population will make this a growth area. We are likely to see “Elderly well-being consultants” who specialise in holistic and personalised care for the elderly.
Jobs of the future
Designs a selection of virtual buildings for advertisers and retailers to market their products.
These experts will be tasked with hacking systems in order to pinpoint data security problems before their less ethical counterparts get the chance.
Creates living body parts for amputees or the physically disabled, including athletes and soldiers.
Creates very small implants for health monitoring and self-medication. Scientists are also predicting the development of a “nano boat”, which could navigate the body, destroying cancerous cells and addressing other diseases.
Farms crops upwards rather than across flat fields to save space.
Waste data handler
Disposes of your data waste in a responsible way.
Manages and modifies weather patterns, perhaps using artificial clouds or sun-reflective panelling.
Designs and manages holograms of virtual people.
Memory augmentation surgeon
Helps preserve and improve memory in an ageing population.
Handles time banked by customers in lieu of money for goods or services.
Personal branding manager
Develops and manages your personal brand.
Genetically manipulating offspring to fit parental requirements.
Personal medical apothecary
Provides a bespoke range of alternative therapies.
Develops technology around the science of touch, such as gloves that make your hand feel warm, or wrapped in velvet.