It’s almost impossible to anticipate which jobs will thrive in years to come. The parents of today’s shared data experts and search engine evaluators couldn’t possibly have known those roles would exist when they were helping their children decide which subjects to study at school.
So how do we prepare for jobs that don’t yet exist?
One clues is that jobs seem to grow more abstract. As we spend more time in the virtual world, we see more new occupations arising. Making and operating those very digital platforms, for instance.
But whole ecosystems are also emerging. Advertising on Google used to be something a small business owner could do herself, but has now become so complex and specialized that millions of consultants make a living from managing online advertising services. Facebook, meanwhile, created the social media consulting business. Video games gave rise to “gold farming” and the increasingly massive eSports industry. There are students earning their rent cheques by walking people’s smartphones around to hatch eggs on Pokemon Go.
But if you think these aren’t proper jobs, ask yourself what someone growing up in the 19th century would have made of the fact that, in 2016, some of the world’s highest-paid people would be running around after footballs. What would they make of job titles such as psychologist, space lawyer or brand consultant?
At the same time, there’s a movement in the opposite direction, towards the tangible and authentic. The food industry is abuzz with enterprises that extol the virtues of local, seasonal, farm-to-table products and services – among them pop-up restaurants, street-food trucks, microbreweries, urban farms and cooperative shops.
Much like the Arts and Crafts movement, born as a reaction to industrialization in the 19th century, the resurgence of artisanal, “old world” values signals not only a nostalgic desire for handcrafted goods, but a desire for a different model of social and economic progress.
Nonetheless, one really knows which jobs will be automated in the future. But one thing is clear: as machines become more important, so too do the humans who teach and interact with them.
As we’ve already seen in the airline business, autopilot didn’t put pilots out of a job; instead it foreshadowed an increasing collaboration between human and machine on complex tasks.
As automation gains ground, the human workforce has the intriguing possibility of further developing uniquely human skills that machines cannot match or replicate. In an unusual twist on industry practice, automotive giant Toyota is removing robots from its factories because human workers can, unlike their machine counterparts, propose ideas for improvement.
Machines, it seems, are not very good with innovation. They’re not very good at certain types of agility, either. Watch Parisian waiters in action and ask yourself how long it would take for robots to put them out of a job.
Then there’s empathy, creativity, leadership, intuition and social intelligence. If I were to give younger people an idea of the skills they’ll need, these would be on the list, as well as advice to pay attention to how machines function and think.
A piece of wisdom I gleaned from the father of a friend who once fled from the USSR was: “Learn your enemy’s language.” If machines are coming for us we need to understand how they function.
Laurent Haug is a contributor for the World Economic Forum.