Without a doubt, automation is the future. From car factories to self-learning robots, each day brings with it the increasing mechanization of tasks, as humans are relegated to roles on the sidelines.
The media has taken note of this trend as well. Some, like popular historian CGP Grey, have stated that robots will soon lead to human-free workplaces; others, like Professor James Livingston, have explored the economic, political, and philosophical dimensions of a world where humans will not have to work.
The two approaches are very different, but they come to the same conclusion: soon, humans will be replaced entirely by machines, and it’s past time to re-think the nature of work and society as we know it. In a nutshell, technology is fast making humans obsolete.
But is it, really?
Automation is not always the solution
Actually, there’s good evidence against a fully-automated future, where the majority of humans are either broke and starving or living lives devoted solely to their interests and pleasure. As usual, the truth will fall somewhere in the middle: automation, as useful as it is, has its limits.
Key to this idea is that automation cannot be applied to every industry and occupation. Even with advances in technology, there are many areas where machine learning and programming cannot replace human intuition and judgment.
But what qualifies a job as being more susceptible to automation? According to a McKinsey report on business functions, the key lies in the nature of the tasks associated with a job, and not necessarily the job itself. In short, jobs that involve lots of rote, repetitive tasks which can be easily learned and quickly programmed, are first on the chopping block.
This category includes plenty of predictable work, physical and otherwise. Think of workers who pack merchandise for shipping in giant warehouses, temps who input data into computers and databases, or workers on assembly lines (many of which are already automated).
Making your way through a brave new world
So what skills should you focus on? What work will be safe from our robot future?
As the previous McKinsey study explains, tasks that are unpredictable, require management of others, and utilize decision-making, planning, and creativity, are less susceptible to automation. These areas include jobs like skilled construction trades, education, healthcare, politics, and law.
A study by the University of Oxford predicted that low-skill, low-wage jobs were most at risk; this included workers in transportation, logistics, and office administration. These researchers also found jobs that both require a higher level of post-secondary education (both college and vocational) and pay higher wages are less likely to be automated, specifically “tasks requiring creative and social intelligence.”
While trends can (and do) change, these findings provide some interesting tips for future-proofing your education. First, realize that even as robots automate some tasks and take away some jobs, they will still create many more. Just as the rise of the web brought into existence jobs like technicians and web developers, robots too will need people to design, maintain, program, and upgrade them.
Even then, not everyone will be directly employed in fixing or building robots. One study by the International Federation of Robotics found that robotics will actually drive job growth in several sectors, including renewable energy, food and drinks, automotive, and electronics, where humans will still have to help build, design, and conduct quality control.
In fact, the rise of robotics will create millions more jobs that actually have nothing to do with robotics, as the following chart will show.
Source: Metra Martech, via IFR.
Pick a skilled profession that requires a secondary education, creativity, and problem-solving tasks, and doesn’t involve rote, repetitive work as a matter of routine. STEM is a safe bet, especially given the tech explosion that we’ve undergone and will continue to undergo in the future, and robotics is perhaps the safest bet.
Most of all though, it seems that high-level problem-solving, management, and other human-centric abilities are safe. One example of a fantastic, future-proof job is that of a system integrator, who codes robotic behaviors, integrates many disparate components into a single assembly line, and tests and repairs robots. Alternately, an advertising copywriter, who utilizes creative problem-solving, wit, and imagination to capture audiences, will likely also be safe.
Whatever the future may bring, humans will still be wanted.