Job Advice: Just Be Cool

The secret to a successful career may be good social skills.

These guys (Larry Downing / Reuters)

What does it take to get ahead in today’s job market? While it might seem like specialized technical skills are the only way to compete in an increasingly difficult economy, that’s not the case. To really get ahead, what a worker needs is social skills.

How’s that? Over the next two decades, nearly half of U.S. jobs may become obsolete due to automation, one recent study found. What are workers to do? Become more human, suggests David J. Deming of Harvard. Deming argues that social skills have already become increasingly important in recent decades, especially for those looking for high-wage, competitive positions.

According to Deming,  positions that require both cognitive and social skills have shown more wage growth in the past few decades than those that require high-levels of mathematical or analytical training but little social prowess. And those wage gains hold true across all levels of employment.

In the future, the jobs that are least likely to be automated increasingly are those that demand lots of interaction with coworkers or clients, not just the performance of rote analytical tasks. These jobs also call for the ability to perform innately human exercises—like pondering another person’s point of view. These nuances of human interaction are something that computers have yet to master.

Social skills have the most value when it comes to the ability to work on a team, trading off tasks based on skill sets or ability. “Human interaction in the workplace involves team production, with workers playing off of each other’s strengths and adapting flexibly to changing circumstances,” Deming writes. “Such nonroutine interaction is at the heart of the human advantage over machines.”

The paper also suggests that the heightened value of social aptitude might be responsible, in part, for helping bridge some of the gender wage gap, since women tend to exhibit higher levels of emotional intelligence than their male peers. In conjunction with increasing educational attainment, that might mean that better social skills have helped women thrive in the workplace.