Job survival in the 21st century

Cross posted from The Conversation:

by David Tuffley, Lecturer in Applied Ethics and Socio-Technical Studies at Griffith University

It is a sobering thought that in ten years, around 65% of the jobs that people will be doing have not even been thought of yet, according to the US Department of Labor.

In Australia, there are reports that up to half a million of existing jobs could be taken over by robotics or machines run by artificial intelligence.

So with smarter computers taking on more of the work that people currently do, we are left to wonder what jobs there might be left for us humans.

Could a robot do your job?

Almost any job that can be described as a “process” could be done by a computer, whether that computer is housed in a robot or embedded somewhere out of sight.

Robots have already taken over many jobs – here 1,100 robots in a new car manufacturing plant in the US.

So if intelligent machines can take over many of the jobs of today, what can you do to ensure your job prospects in the future?

Some jobs will always be done by people. The reasons can vary greatly: economic, social, nostalgic or simply not practical for robots to do.

If around 65% of the jobs in 10 years have not been invented yet, we cannot be sure what those future jobs will actually look like, though futurists are not shy of making predictions.

While we may not know what outward form these jobs will take, we can still make a catalogue of the generic skills that will be valued highly.

Thinking skills for future workers

In his book Five Minds for the Future, the Harvard professor Howard Gardner makes the case for cultivating a disciplined mind, being someone who can bring their attention to a laser-like focus and drill down to the essence of a subject, perceiving the simple truth of it.

Then to take this clarity to the next level by combining multiple ideas in new ways to create something interesting and perhaps useful. This done by the synthesising mind and the creative mind.

Gardner describes the respectful mind that values diversity in people and looks for positive ways to interact, thus overcoming the “us and them” instinct that still creates so much conflict in human affairs.

Building on this is the ethical mind, of one who thinks about the big picture and how their personal needs can be brought into alignment with the greater good of the community. Skills for a globally connected world.

Mastering the new media

The future will see a host of new technology for creating and communicating content. In-demand workers will be able to critically assess this content and find ways to communicate it to good effect.

Communication skills have always been important and will remain so.

Knowing how to deal with large data sets will be a handy skill; finding ways to make sense of the data and turn it into useful information.

This could involve devising new, multi-disciplinary and perhaps unconventional approaches to the challenges.

Managing the information

We already filter a deluge of information every day. Our grandparents were lucky, they had to deal with a lot less.

People will need to be even better at managing the cognitive load, they will have the thinking skills to filter the deluge and find optimum solutions to problems.

When good collaboration tools exist for virtual project teams, there are few limits to what can be achieved. More projects will be done by such teams because the technology that supports them is getting better every year.

It allows the right people, with the right skills at the right price to be employed, regardless of where they live.

So it will be that people with the right virtual team skills will be in high demand.

Virtual environments

Speaking of the virtual, Procedural Architects will be at a premium. These are people who can design virtual environments and experiences that allow people to get things done and perhaps have some fun.

This is what the minds behind Google, Youtube, Facebook, Amazon, Wikipedia, Twitter, eBay, LinkedIn, Pinterest, WordPress and MSN have done.

All of this leads us to the question; what actual jobs are likely to be in demand?

Employment specialists compile lists of what they think will be in demand, based on trends. These are some of the jobs that appear on multiple lists.

The IT sector is likely to need:

information security analysts, big data analysts, artificial intelligence and robotics specialists, applications developers for mobile devices, web developers, database administrators, business intelligence analysts, gamification designers, business/systems analysts and ethicists.

In other disciplines, there will be a need for:

engineers of all kinds, accountants, lawyers, financial advisers, project managers, specialist doctors, nurses, pharmacists, physical therapists, veterinarians, psychologists, health services managers, schoolteachers, market research analysts, sales reps and construction workers (particularly bricklayers and carpenters).

Both lists are not exhaustive.

On the downside, occupations likely to shrink in demand include:

agricultural workers, postal service workers, sewing machine operators, switchboard operators, data entry clerks and word processor typists.

The bottom line

To position yourself favourably for the jobs of the future, become someone who can look at problems in unorthodox ways, seeing different angles and finding workable solutions.

Be a multi-disciplinary, insatiably curious person who knows how to use the tools to model ideas and create prototypes.

Possessed of an open mind and few fixed ideas about how things should be done, you nonetheless have a strong conscience and can operate outside of your comfort zone to achieve win-win outcomes. You are known for your integrity and resilience.

All of these qualities can be cultivated or perhaps rediscovered, since children often exhibit them in abundance. They have always been the way for creative, high-achieving people and they are still the way today and into the future.

In the brave new world of the coming age of intelligent machines, it is these essentially human qualities that will be more important than ever. Some things will never change because human nature is what it is.

Latest posts by Chris Becker (see all)


  1. Its not a matter of will a robot or artificial intelligence in the form of applied software take my job, it is a matter once robots and AI move into the market place, the cost to operate and maintain them will set the remuneration level of the remaining jobs which are routinely undertaken by humans. There will always be the exceptions as there are today in banking and finance etc but generally robots and Ai will drive wage levels lower.
    So unless the cost of living falls in accordance, there is going to be many more people unable to meet their commitments than there are at the moment.
    Should the move into automation move quickly, many humans will not get a period of income grace to settle their debt, and will slide straight down the gurgler. Can / will robots carry the can?? WW

    • What i don’t get is once all these jobs have been lost to robots, who is going to be able to afford the products they make ?

      • Muz, I wouldn’t worry too much about the products, what about the roof over your head and the social commitment to your family.
        Plenty of the bright sparks out there will know better, but the transition to a society using automation will not be linear, ie if its going to occur in 10 years, 10% change a year.
        It will cascade, probably this year many people will understand their job and lifestyle is at threat (within the next 10 years, maybe even the banks will put the heat on them to repay loans earlier than a 10 year term) people will have to revert ot subsistence farming and an agrarian society.
        Nothing we think as tangibly valuable today will be valuable in 10 years time. Trouble is we’ll be too far down the road before most realise there is an end.WW

      • Market price will correct to non-inflationary pricing as supply will far outweigh demand. Devaluation of currency globally, impacting first, countries with higher technological saturation. People’s income will stagnate or fall accordingly, but not standard of living as CPI would presumably be non-existent.

  2. People should not be worried because the speed we generate bullshit jobs is incredible.

    It is a sad thing that we see robots taking our boring repetitive jobs as a bad thing.

    Our society could easily afford to cut workweek to 4 days and keep wages. The only “shortcoming” of this approach would be inability of rich to increase their profits (they would still keep current profits anyway)

    • People should not be worried because the speed we generate bullshit jobs is incredible.

      Not incredible enough. Real unemployment is in double digits and employers frequently use needlessly inflated job requirements to restrict the number of eligible applicants to more manageable levels when they advertise for vacant roles.

      As you allude to, the problem is not that robots replacing people is bad, the problem is “justifying” welfare for all those people who consequently become unemployable.

      • migtronixMEMBER

        Hard to believe Australia would have a hard time coming up with bullshit jobs. Maybe we crossing guards on both sides of the street?

      • …and those that are underemployed.

        I’ve been cranking out work for the best part of 30 years waiting for the 4 day work week and all that ever happens is unemployment and underemployment gradually head northward while my hours (and now, thanks to technology, after hours) are fully allocated.

        On the upside, my job is one of the ones you can’t necessarily replace with software but it can be replaced with cheaper overseas labour.

        The remark that we won’t be able to afford the fruit of our labours is the most insightful one: private debt can’t keep growing to make up the gap from stagnant wages. It’s stupid and shortsighted.

      • We already have those Mig – they’re called traffic lights.

        I’ll tell you one truly disturbing thing about underemployment and it’s horrible things like Etsy. People gluing together frou-frou pieces of junk and selling them to each other in an endless circle of soon-to-be landfill.

      • Uteman: I fail to see how junk on Etsy is any worse than mass manufactured junk. A rather high percentage of manufactured goods are pretty useless… singing mounted fish, anyone?

      • underemployment is not a problem (working less hours is good for people well-being). we have problem with low wages relative to cost of living so people are forced to work more to earn enough

      • DoctorX – Etsy and the like is like a plaque in your arteries. It seems like it’s somewhat productive (turning trash into trinkets) but the circle is closed and the products are worse than useless as the eventual disposal costs overtake the value of the work that went into creating and shipping trash, usually to the same circle of people who create their own trash.

        It’s not like the talking wall mounted fish – that thing requires at least some research, a factory, a production line and an external market. It might not be tasteful, or particularly useful, but as a productive enterprise it has more merit than the underemployed westerners painting everything white and calling it shabby chic.

    • Great Idea, so all I need is a stack of robots to hire out and sit back and enjoy the rent…. “Robots for hire, no job too small or too big, great rates. Call our robots now and we’ll drone one in for you”

  3. Since so many jobs in Australia revolve around government and complying with government regulations is it possible that Microsoft can produce a special build of Windows to give us artificial dumbigence. This software could then be programmed to replace most Australian jobs.

      • Woudn’t it be easier to begin with an automated opposition leader? Just program the robot to say no.

        The political interviewee robot just says nothing in particular in response to any question asked.

  4. I understand that scientists, inspired by the work of H Simpson controlling a nuclear reactor, have been attempting to create a robotic voting machine that automatically selects the prefered party of the average Australian voter.
    The robot is yet to be patented so they can’t reveal too much, however the design is understood to incorporate a drinking bird, a pencil and a stationary ballet paper.

  5. The post is trite and simplistic. It makes a standard appeal to a synthesis of capabilities yet working for several years will demonstrate that people do not have those abilities and employers shun them as being maverick qualities; it is safer to engage someone who has striven to add widget one to widget two. That is true of middle and senior managers too, who also lack creative abilities. When automatism encroaches it will be painful and neither government nor employers have the slightest idea.

    • migtronixMEMBER

      These guys are hiring:

      #ISIS Jobs openings:
      – Munshid
      – Hackers
      – Programmers
      – 3DMax artists
      – Audio engineers
      – Media tweeps
      #Syria #Iraq

      Actual tweet

  6. This article by Tuffey is utter hogwash.

    The twin problems of climate change and energy depletion will bring expensive food and fuel, and will mean the best jobs to get into are small scale farming (permaculture) and small scale energy generation.

    Ironically, Tuffey says that “occupations likely to shrink in demand include agricultural workers”. With most farmers over 50 and most food produced by extremely fossil fuel intensive methods, he could hardly be more wrong.

    All this garbage about robots and “creating prototypes” just includes giggles. What an arse! Another “techno-cornucopian” as they are known. 🙄

    • Play the ball not the man. If you disagree with an author’s position, great, fine – articulate that and move on.

      Calling someone an “arse” or labelling them as you have, negates your disagreement as just trolling.

      First and final warning.

  7. Give me a break, word processor typists?? Have these existed since 1986?

    Our grandparents were lucky, they had to deal with a lot less. Lucky enough to get the sh*t bombed out of them and never see their families again, yeah life was simple back then. Maybe a few less things to deal with, but slightly greater in magnitude.

    This bloke needs to take a (non-virtual) walk down Main Street.

  8. This could have been so much more. Word processor typists… haven’t seen one of those since 1986.

    Our grandparents were lucky, they had to deal with a lot less. Like getting the sh*t bombed out of them and never seeing their families again. Less problems yes, but slightly larger in magnitude.

    If you’re a technical person, you better hope you’re client facing otherwise your job is going offshore. That includes lawyers and accountants, not just engineers.

  9. “Be a multi-disciplinary, insatiably curious person who knows how to use the tools to model ideas and create prototypes.”

    I think what he really means to say is “Make sure you select your grandparents very carefully.”

    Here is the thing that concerns me about some of these Robots and Jobs articles that are popping up. No one seems to be addressing the fundamental issue of whether it is plausible to expect jobs to be created to replace the automated ones. Are work and money inviolate? How can we find out?

    The idea that every person has the innate ability to “work” and create value is a fundamental assumption of our social and economic system. Anything else would seem unthinkable. However, if 50% of the population have nothing of value to contribute to society, how can the ideas of work and money survive that? Do we want a government that makes up “cottonwool jobs” to maintain the illusion of the work ethic? I can’t see that working for very long.

    For what it is worth, here are two ideas that may be worth considering.

    First, when [Robot + Solar Panel] can produce more than itself before it wears out, we will have a singularity and subject to energy constraints, that turns “work” on its head. Energy will be the principal resource and most people will be excluded because they have nothing to trade for energy.

    Second, the most likely “job” that most people will end up with is being content for Google (and its ilk). Google will provide people with the basics of life and in return google will get content. A type of bizarre neo-feudalism.

    I was watching a an interview with William Gibson the other day.

    He “gets it”. He “gets it” 30 years ago!

    • gauntfaceMEMBER

      “The idea that every person has the innate ability to “work” and create value is a fundamental assumption of our social and economic system”
      – a fundamentally flawed assumption too. Even if everybody could work and add value there is no valid reason that enough jobs should exist for all. There will naturally be fewer jobs into the future because that is the definition of increased productivity. Humans always try to be more productive, therefore fewer humans will need to be employed.
      We’ll all end up doing bullshit jobs eventually because our social and economic system will allow nothing else. George Jetson and Homer Simpson here we come!

      • “We’ll all end up doing bullshit jobs eventually because our social and economic system will allow nothing else.”

        That type of situation would likely result in a massive increase in mental illnesses suicide and drug abuse.
        The more enlightened humans will end up realizing that something is wrong with the system and decide to go off the grid.

    • (As I posted before)

      The key to understand the issue is land rent.

      Consider a small island with no humans on it. A ship wrecks and a few humans swim to the island. They share the land, the natural fruits and they share the work that “must” be done. They will be happier if there is more land, more fruit and less work. Don’t forget that – LESS work.

      Now imagine that more and more ships wreck and more and more humans swim to the island. This will make land and fruit scarcer and labour more abundant. Perhaps I don’t understand markets, but to me, if these things are sold under a market regime, then I would expect to see rent rise and wages fall.

      This would be great for any person who collects rent, but bad for a person who works a job and must pay rent.

      For fairness, a new person swimming to the island really needs to be given a fair share of land upon his arrival. He should also be expected to do his fair share of work. But land-owning elites might spread the dogma that they “own” the land and need not share it. The elite might spread the dogma that the new person actually needs a “job”. Once a person is denied land, but unable to pay rent from a job and still survive, this person must be given “welfare”. This undeserved payment is to be minimised and despised, unlike the rent collected by the elite – which is deserved.

      Once the population is convinced of the need for jobs, then all kinds of moronic make-work schemes, such as government departments, and making regulations, enforcing regulations, and following regulations, become widely supported by the population.

      Now a person striving to lead (eg politician) does not promise to create something useful, eg “I will create a new boat so we can catch and eat more fish”, he instead promises “to create 100 new jobs”. Of course, as every mother of young children knows, it is much easier to do something that creates work than it is to do something that makes ones life easier.

      • This is it exactly. Class warfare didn’t stop, we lost. Rent is back to being the most desirable and socailly valued income and labour is somewhat tainted while those whose job it is to push down wages by being surplus labour are reviled.

        Joe Hockey can say with a straight face that deficit spending is generational warfare while promoting policies that strengthen the real estate bubble.

        The rest of us got a share of the proceeds of industrialisation through fighting for it largely via the union movement. Our modern unions have been hollowed out into superannuation companies whose role is to keep the Union itself alive with no care for actual workers. If we want to see any improvement from automation instead of just increasing bullshit jobs and a growing unemployment we will again have to fight.

        I’m not looking forward to it.

  10. Hmmmm these futurist types don’t have a great track record do they?

    As usual it is utopian, with talk of special and valuable ways of thinking, completely contrary to most peoples experience of current corporate working life.

    Im predicting the prediction of the rise of the robots to turn out a bit like the flying car, where we all end up on electric bicycles instead.

  11. Nah! These recommendations won’t help none.

    Two good jobs for the future: (1) marry someone rich (no matter how fugly, old, despicable, fat, dumb), (2) become a politician.

    Basically, you need the same skills:

    (1) strong stomach
    (2) ability to suck up
    (3) ability to lie
    (4) psychopathic personality

    To marry a rich person has two additional requirements: you’ve got to be very good-looking and good in bed. That’s why politicians rarely marry really rich people.

  12. To be honest what concerns me most about this approaching Robotics revolution is that politicians and adversely affected parties will join forces to push Australian businesses / work practices right back to the 20th century.

    Face it its impossible for most people to embrace change, heck its hard to even accept change when life throws it at us, yet here we have a problem where we will all need to become the vectors of change if we are to remain relevant and valuable in the work force. This combination of skills and attitude is down right un-Australian, so enter the politicians unafraid to make detailed promises solutions for a problem they simply cant comprehend. Trust me AWG will look like a trivial problem when compared with this upcoming robotics revolution.

    • Trust me AWG will look like a trivial problem when compared with this upcoming robotics revolution.

      AWG has always been a trivial problem. Ask someone or use a micrometer if you can’t judge the gauge of the wire. Struth!

    • Can’t you see the logic train – if we don’t lower the minimum wage, the robots will take our jobs.

      • I cant see that lowering Minimum wage will do anything but slightly delay the adoption of robotics, a far better solution is to allow the market dynamics to properly reward those that take the initiative and gain the required skills so that the can lead the nation through this change. To remain globally relevant we need Australia at the forefront of this trend, so politicians need to acknowledge this and but aside their bipartisan platforms to deliver (through education) the foundation skills that we’ll require.
        It’s probably too late already, especially given the decade long trend away from Science and Math skills however maybe not, If we could immediately start on a decade of focused educational reform then I’m sure we’d be well positioned to leverage this revolution…we wouldn’t be leading the change but we wouldn’t be simply victims of change either.

      • The great thing about automation, is that whilst it doesn’t yet exist, it can still be used to excuse why current fiscal policy doesn’t create jobs.

      • “Doing the exercises does not do you any good whatsoever. The only thing that does
        you some good is to do an exercise and then think about what it has to do with
        anything. And if you don’t do that second part, then all you’re doing is you’re
        building a very, very second rate computer. Your abilities as a computer are about
        the same for the most part as the computer in a coffee maker. You are really not up
        to what a TV set does anymore. I mean, TV sets can do so much computation that
        they’re way beyond your abilities at this point. So the only edge you have, the only
        thing you can do to try to make yourself worthwhile is to understand these things
        because computers cannot do any of that understanding at all. So you’re way
        ahead of them there. ”

        Comment made a MIT Probability lecturer.

        A hefty proportion of STEM students in my experience (not just my experience actually) never get beyond that calculator stage, and carry that lack of understanding with them into the workforce. It will take a very concerted effort to avoid producing graduates who actually have the understanding that makes extra focus on science and maths worthwhile.

  13. I expect the rapid advent of AI to decimate the middle class job sector – including most of the categories the author advises as safe.

    Most routine type jobs requiring neither manual dexterity nor higher cognitive processes will go: routine accounting, legal, insurance, much engineering including software, etc, probably many secondary teachers and university departments will be defunct.

    The divide between capital v labor will exacerbate and greater returns to capital at expense of labor will continue. At some point attempts will be made to redistribute percentage returns to favour labour but mostly labour will have to make do with crumbs…and virtual reality. Corporates will continue behomoth rise and a dislocation may erupt within markets where consumers are largely excluded from the consumption process.

    Opportunities will exist, but not in the area the author supposes!

    • 3D you are right about the job classifications, what we have to do now is to put a time scale on that redundancy.
      Should this occur in less than 10 years, many wont be able to pay out their debts, and will be an additional burden on those working.
      Taxing the work a robot does will be interesting to watch and even more interesting will be taxing the work software carries out.
      The Govt will be out of cash in 3 years. WW