Jobs of the Future: A Skeptic's Response

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There is a tendency to imagine that work will someday be like today's leisure, heavy on multitasking and social media.

jobsofthefuture.png

From a 1979 book Future Cities, a vision of the future's holographically enhanced meetings.

A weak or unstable economy creates two kinds of anxiety: the acute and the chronic. People wonder whether can they get a decent job today, or keep the one they have; but they also wonder about long-term trends -- especially if they have children. Where will the jobs be a decade from now? What skills will be best-suited to the economic environment of 2025? When people ask these questions today, they tend to focus on digital technologies because they're convinced that one way or another, the economy is turning digital. But is it? I have my doubts. And I wonder whether we're not letting a species of easy futurism blind us to some important issues.

One of the most common ways this appears is in the assumption that the online activities we are most addicted to just happen to build up the skills and habits that we'll need for our jobs in the future. Consider this textbook example from comments on a recent Pew survey about American internet use:

"The essential skills will be those of rapidly searching, browsing, assessing quality, and synthesizing the vast quantities of information," wrote Jonathan Grudin, principal researcher at Microsoft. "In contrast, the ability to read one thing and think hard about it for hours will not be of no consequence, but it will be of far less consequence for most people."

This is essentially the "everything bad is good for you" argument. But is it right? Where are these jobs that will require such rapid "searching, browsing, assessing quality, and synthesizing the vast quantities of information"? We don't need those skills to drive a truck or manage company accounts or sell clothes or do IT customer service or write novels or write code or give inoculations to patients or teach seven-year-olds how to read ... so what do, or what will, need them for? And how many of us will need them?

I'm not sure that people predicting this massively multitasking future are wrong, but I do wonder whether they're not just operating in something close to blind faith that the future economy will look remarkably like today's leisure time. This rhetoric sounds all too "I.G.Y." to me.

A just machine to make big decisions 

Programmed by fellows with compassion and vision 

We'll be clean when that work is done 

We'll be eternally free, yes, and eternally young

Maybe this is just the Lent talking -- it's that time of year, after all -- but what I'd really like to see from future employers is the ability to realize that "synthesizing the vast quantities of information" is really hard and needs to be done slowly, carefully, and above all patiently. Malcolm Gladwell's Blink came out the same year as Steven Johnson's Everything Bad Is Good for You and seemed to be an allied document. "The Power of Thinking Without Thinking" read the subtitle, and the back cover was emblazoned with the slogan "Don't Think, Blink!" But Edward Sidelsky was among several reviewers who noted that the book didn't bear out its own thesis: "Billed as a celebration of intuition, it goes on to amass a heap of evidence against it. Apparent deliverances of intuition turn out, as often as not, to reflect the unconscious operation of prejudice."

It seems to me that, whatever the job descriptions of the future turn out to be, and however much they rely on the mastery of online technologies, patience and self-reflectiveness are going to be in much shorter supply than quickness of judgment.

In this light I commend to you a recent post by Jason Fried of 37signals, in which he relates an anecdote about something that happened to him in 2007:

I was speaking at the Business Innovation Factory conference in Providence, RI. So was Richard Saul Wurman. After my talk Richard came up to introduce himself and compliment my talk. That was very generous of him. He certainly didn't have to do that.

And what did I do? I pushed back at him about the talk he gave. While he was making his points on stage, I was taking an inventory of the things I didn't agree with. And when presented with an opportunity to speak with him, I quickly pushed back at some of his ideas. I must have seemed like such an asshole.

His response changed my life. It was a simple thing. He said "Man, give it five minutes." I asked him what he meant by that? He said, it's fine to disagree, it's fine to push back, it's great to have strong opinions and beliefs, but give my ideas some time to set in before you're sure you want to argue against them. "Five minutes" represented "think", not react. He was totally right. I came into the discussion looking to prove something, not learn something.

This was a big moment for me.

I don't know what kinds of jobs people will be doing in the future -- though I doubt that they'll be all that different than the ones people do now -- but I'm sure of this: especially in fields that deal largely in information, there won't be nearly enough people who know how to give it five minutes before making their judgments.

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Alan Jacobs is Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the honors program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

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