The World in the Year 2020

Back to my post of June 22 about the Class of 2020. Are there any common factors involved in the disappearance of these jobs? The answer, in my view, is yes.

Automation and intelligent systems mean that if a job involves the acquisition and subsequent distribution of ‘fixed’ knowledge then it might be in trouble. Equally, if a job can be broken down into a set of formal rules that can be applied by a thinking machine of some kind, then this could be short lived.

Another question to ask is whether a can a job can be outsourced to somewhere else where it might be done better or at a lower cost? In other words, does your job depend upon your physical presence? Again, if not, trouble could be brewing.

One additional factor, highlighted by Andy Kessler in his book “Eat People and Other Unapologetic Rules for Game-Changing Entrepreneurs” is that many of the jobs under threat involve physically moving things from one place to another without adding any value (e.g. looking at a form, stamping it and then giving it back to a customer does not really add value).

Other types of jobs under threat are those where some kind of professional qualification limit new entrants. In many cases this is a good thing (would you use an unqualified airline pilot?), but often (e.g. real estate agents) it’s not. These jobs are similar in many ways to salesmen that have a monopoly on the supply of goods that enables vast mark-ups. Open up the supply and many these jobs become threatened.

Other things to look out for include very intelligent systems. For example, robots are actually better surgeons than humans (they are more accurate and make less mistakes). Aircraft flown by computers rather than pilots might be another example. Whether we trust machines to do such things is an interesting question and, in many instances, the answer currently is no. But our attitudes can change over time.

So where does this leave students thinking about future career choices? First I’d suggest that students think about whether or not a job can be replaced by a machine or moved to another country. Plumbers, for instance, will always be in demand, although back-office support services and materials supply may migrate somewhere else.

Equally, whilst distance learning is a big trend I do not foresee teachers, especially in early years education, being replaced by machines anytime soon because physical presence and empathy are important. The same would be true with doctors, nurses, policemen and lawyers, because whilst much of what they do can be automated or sent to another low-cost country in an email, it is the empathetic relationship these people have with patients, clients and members of the public is what matters the most.

Finally, any job that involves a high degree of problem finding, problem solving, or creative thinking looks pretty safe to me, especially if it also involves persuading other people to fund such thinking. Thus, any creative field from architects and engineers to scientists, mathematicians and designers looks reasonably solid. Also, watch the big trends. What is going up and what is going down in terms of demand?

Anything to do with ageing is very solid, whereas anything linked to a high fertility rate is less so. So think geriatrics not pediatrics and also think about the application of technology (e.g. remote sensing) to aged care. Similarly, anything linked to clean energy is good (but watch for possible bubbles) and the fields of robotics, internet, nanotechnology and genetics are all strong too.

Some additional reading can be found in ‘comments’ below.

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3 Responses to The World in the Year 2020

  1. Richard says:

    Oh, by the way, sex workers!

  2. “So where does this leave students thinking about future career choices?”

    Only students? I’d say if you still have 20 or more years still left in the workforce, you need to be thinking like a “student” and whether your job will still be around, otherwise you’ll be in that “long-term unemployed” category.

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