Ask an Economist: How Can Today’s College Students Future-Proof Their Careers?

A panel of experts gives some (pretty dispiriting) advice to a generation that will come of age as automation does.

Aly Song / Reuters

It is by now close to certain that there are millions of people currently in high school and college who are fine-tuning their skills for steady-looking careers that will, following technological breakthroughs, dissipate by the time they retire. A 2013 study out of Oxford—the one that’s most frequently cited in any discussion of the future of labor—estimated that just shy of half of American jobs were at risk

of being swallowed up by advances in automation. In anticipation of changes like this, is there anything that today’s college students can do now to future-proof their careers?

I surveyed experts from a variety of backgrounds—including one of the authors of that ubiquitous Oxford study—asking them which skills they’d focus on if they were about to start their first year of college this fall. (Of course, one assumption embedded in my question, which some might disagree with, is that the first step to long-term job security is graduating from college.) Their responses are below, and have been lightly edited for clarity.

Julia Kirby, a contributing editor at Harvard Business Review and the co-author of Only Humans Need Apply: Winners and Loser in the Age of Smart Machines

Studies are famously declaring that, with the encroachment of smart machines into knowledge work, something like 40 percent of U.S. jobs will go the way of the passenger pigeon. The implication: You’d better find a robot-proof line of work. Don’t be misled. Virtually every kind of work will be affected—but every kind will still be available.

Whether you’re an actuary or an activist, a scientist or a soldier, you’ll work in an augmented way, with software relieving you of a lot of cognitive heavy lifting and tedium, and you doubling down on the human strengths that will still be the key to moving your enterprise forward. So the thing to focus on in college is gaining experience in working with smart machines—learning what they’re capable of and what you’re capable of. Choose your class projects with an eye to this. Ask: What problem could I solve in this field if I had a tireless, number-crunching fiend as a teammate? What if I had a partner capable of retrieving from memory instantly, and discerning patterns in seemingly chaotic information? When you arrive in the workplace, that’s exactly what you’ll have. And you’ll rise fast if you know how to do big things with it.

Joel Mokyr, a professor of economics at Northwestern University and the author of A Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy

There are three skills that will count in the future. One is to learn how to access information. Because no set of skills will be unaffected by continued and probably accelerating technological progress, it is important to be able to find out that what you know is obsolete, and keep updating. To do that you have to know where to find that information quickly, cheaply, and effectively, sorting the reliable from the crackpot websites.

The other skill is learning to unlearn. People tend to learn certain skills and rules of thumb and then cling to them more rigidly as they grow older. It’s important to condition people that they have to be able to unlearn and start over, though that is a tall task.

A third skill is how to survive in the gig economy. As more and more economic activity will be carried out by small independent operators, the ideas embedded in a corporate culture will become increasingly irrelevant. The corporation of the future will be a much looser association of various flexible, mostly small-scale, units. As 3-D manufacturing and on-demand services proliferate, I think Uber- or TaskRabbit-like outfits are more plausible than General Electric. Remember, the big corporation is a modern invention—there were very few of them in 1870. They are not a natural necessity.

My last dream is that people will also be educated (as opposed to trained) to make more of their leisure. Why really is it that we teach people math and computer skills but not how to read Herodotus and Proust, or enjoy Bach and Schoenberg? In the fairly near future, we will basically get rid of boring routine jobs, and in the end only the people who want to work because their work is fulfilling and fun (like my job) will work. Just as nobody sells subway tokens or sorts suitcases anymore, people will do things that, on the whole, are fun. I hope people will not be just playing Pokémon Go. But even if they do (or play some virtual-reality version of it), it beats selling subway tokens.

William A. Darity, Jr., a professor of public policy at Duke University and the director of Duke’s Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity

I take issue with the framing of the question. The question presumes that college students individually can make choices that insulate them from the adverse effects of an economy rife with job insecurity. Of course, students could choose majors that offer better odds of low unemployment and higher pay, presumably in the STEM fields. But we would be a poorer society intellectually, culturally, and productively if everyone became an engineer or a physician. Plus the much larger numbers of STEM majors would create an overabundance of folks with those skills, thereby raising joblessness and lowering wages in those fields.

Furthermore, under existing conditions, the job security in STEM fields is strongly connected to race. Blacks with engineering degrees do not receive the same level of job security as whites with similar degrees. Between 2010 and 2012, black engineers had a 10 percent unemployment rate and a 32 percent underemployment rate.

True insurance against a fragile economic future will require policy changes at the national level, which could include a federal job guarantee that would ensure that all Americans, regardless of educational attainment, have access to employment opportunities and the strong enforcement of anti-discrimination measures. In addition, the risk of pursuing higher education could be reduced by dramatically lowering the cost of obtaining a college degree.

Erik Brynjolfsson, a professor of information technology at MIT’s Sloan School of Management and the co-author of  The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies

Machines are learning to do things that once could only be done by humans, and I see no obvious endpoint to their progress. That means there may be nothing you can do to truly future-proof your earnings. But there are a few things you can do to improve the odds that your skills will still be in demand and that you’ll enjoy the journey even as technology evolves.

The first industrial revolution was all about replacing muscles with machinery. The second machine age is about augmenting our minds. And machines will keep getting smarter, faster and cheaper.

So it's a wise thing to think about tasks that are substitutes and complements for increasingly intelligent technology. You want to avoid occupations where computers are increasingly substituting for humans. Don't compete with a computer that can work 24/7 and gets ten times cheaper every five years. The tasks to avoid include routine information processing tasks like booking airline tickets, most middle management, basic bookkeeping, and any rote, repetitive activity.

But not all tasks are technology substitutes. There are also tasks which are complements, or at least neutral. Seek to master those. As data becomes cheaper and more abundant, people who ask new questions with data, like analysts, scientists and entrepreneurs, will be increasingly valuable. Another increasingly important set of skills involves connecting to other humans, such as coaches, counselors, leaders, therapists and tutors, especially in growth industries like healthcare. Human empathy is an area where machines are at a disadvantage.

A second principle is to understand that the relative strengths of humans and machines are rapidly evolving. The old days when a person could go to college and never have to study again are gone. So embrace life-long learning. There are more and better tools for this than ever, from Udacity and Coursera to MITx and Khan Academy. But simply making a habit of reading at least five hours a week is a good start.

Last but not least, digitization and networks create winner-take-all markets. They also make it possible for winners in even the most obscure niches to find a following. In a digital, networked world, it’s far more rewarding to be one of the top people in the world at your passion, however narrow, than an also-ran in a bigger market. Following your passion makes it more likely that you’ll put in the thousands of hours of effort needed to become world class. And there’s never been a better time in history to be a person with unique talents, insights or skills to offer the world.

Ryan Avent, a contributor to The Economist and the author of The Wealth of Humans: Work, Power, and Status in the Twenty-First Century

Over the last few decades, technology (and outsourcing made possible by new technology) has taken bite after bite out of employment in routine sorts of work, from jobs on factory floors to office tasks like bookkeeping. As machines get smarter, what counts as routine will come to include ever more sorts of work, from driving trucks to writing reports. Over a long enough career, just about any job might be put as risk. Yet I can imagine two approaches to try to future-proof a career.

One strategy is to try to be among those creating the disruption. One of the constants of industrial history has been a steady rise in the demand for highly skilled people, those working on the frontier of scientific or technological or economic change. In recent decades, the wage premium one receives from completing a college degree has stopped growing; however, the return to finishing advanced degrees keeps rising. And technological progress that helps automate routine tasks will tend to boost productivity, and earning potential, for those conducting high-level medical research or building new businesses.

An alternative approach is to build a career in a field in which human involvement is key to the value of the job. Many jobs in the arts fall in this category; theater actors face plenty of economic risks, but automation isn’t one of them. Businesses providing artisanal goods and services are similarly protected from change in technology (if not taste). Some professions might also enjoy such insulation: People are likely to prefer many of their consultants and therapists (physical and emotional) to be human for some time to come. These kinds of work bring an additional advantage: The social connections developed in such roles could help facilitate professional transitions, should economic change demand them.

In the end, skill sets are probably not as important to develop as habits of mind. Creativity, discipline, conscientiousness, and a bit of daring are more important to maintaining one’s relevance than a particular narrow expertise. Those lucky enough to have such qualities will do well in the future whatever technology brings.

Saadia Zahidi, the head of education, gender, and employment initiatives at the World Economic Forum, and a member of its executive committee

Forecasts show that some of the highest growth in jobs will occur in two types of roles: roles that require STEM expertise and roles that are based in the “care economy.” So if you are choosing your college degree today, STEM subjects are a good bet for future job prospects. But so is specialized preparation for care-related roles that have been created by changing demographics, family choices, and consumption patterns: nurses, childcare workers, early-education specialists, eldercare workers, and therapists, among others.

However, a single skill set or narrow expertise is unlikely to sustain long-term careers in the new economy. So regardless of the subject you choose to major in, expect to need some level of competence in areas that go beyond your immediate domain once you get started in your career. So if you are majoring in natural sciences and planning to have a research career, think about taking an economics or finance course: You may have to think about your department’s bottom line in a few years’ time.

Digital skills will be critical no matter what you want to do in the future. For example, if you are majoring in a language and planning to be a professional editor, you may find yourself accessing your market through an online platform even if the actual work will require in-person collaboration. A high degree of comfort combining digital tools with strong social skills will be critical to future-proofing your career.

Finally, across nearly all industries, the impact of technological and other changes is shortening the shelf-life of employees’ skill sets. So no matter what you choose to study today, expect to have to keep learning throughout the course of your career. This requires governments and companies to give people learning and training opportunities throughout their lives, and, done right, could provide deeply fulfilling careers to future workers.

Carl Frey, the co-director of the Oxford Martin Programme on Technology and Employment and the co-author of “The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs to Computerisation?

I would emphasize the need for teaching creative and social skills, in combination with technical skills, which are also least susceptible to automation. As creative, interactive, and social skills are likely to increase in importance over the next decades, online learning thus needs to be complemented with face-to-face interaction to foster the skills needed to compete in the 21st-century labor market. To achieve this, more investment in tutorial-style teaching and problem-based learning, or PBL, is needed. PBL revolves around small groups of students being taught by tutors in sessions, receiving direct feedback on their work while being required to analyze, critique, and defend the work of fellow students that directly fosters creative thinking as well as social skills. PBL has in a similar way been shown to foster critical thinking, problem-solving, and interpersonal skills.

Henry Siu, an associate professor of economics at the University of British Columbia and a faculty research fellow at the National Bureau of Economic Research

Economists think of technology as having two effects on human labor: It complements certain skills and substitutes for others. Future-proofing your career means developing skills that will be complemented, aided, and enhanced by new technologies, regardless of your niche.

Rapid advances in machine learning mean we will be able to answer many more challenging problems than in the past. But deciding what questions to ask and how to approach and tackle them is a fundamentally human task. This means heightened returns to being a “problem solver.”

At the basic level, this requires analytical skills such as logic, critical thinking, and a high degree of comfort with empirical research. For these reasons, I think there will continue to be payoffs to degrees in the fields of engineering, computer science, economics, and applied mathematics. Being a problem-solver—in the sense of being able to see the big picture—also requires imagination and ingenuity. So there is value in gaining some exposure to creative writing, music appreciation, and other activities to develop mental agility.

Finally, we will always hold a comparative advantage in being “human” relative to machines. There is already evidence that those who benefit most from a college degree are those with good people skills. So I would make efforts to further enhance those skills: being a good listener and an effective communicator, developing empathy, and collaborating with others.

Lisa D. Cook, an associate professor of economics and international relations at Michigan State University

The advice I would give to students to future-proof their careers and earnings would be to insert large doses of economics and mathematics into their curriculum for three reasons. First, the empirical revolution in economics and the availability of large amounts of data on everything mean that we can answer interesting and important questions we could not answer before, or
only with great difficulty. The questions that could be answered could be infinite.

Second, students need the tools to be able to answer these questions. Such inquiry requires an increasingly technical skill set with an economics framework.

Finally, many of these questions are being answered at tech firms, like Amazon, Google, and Microsoft Research, and these are some of the places with the highest salaries for technical jobs. These jobs and similar jobs in the innovation economy are increasing. Besides the innovation economy, it would be my hope that there will always be universities and that someone would actually need to teach these skills in the form of professors employed at colleges and universities.

As a final note, good writing skills have to be a complement of the skills in economics and mathematics. These skills are not much use if the results of these (social-)scientific investigations cannot be communicated.

Richard  and Daniel Susskind, the co-authors of The Future of the Professions: How Technology Will Transform the Work of Human Experts

As our machines become increasingly capable, they take on more and more of the tasks that have been performed in the past by human beings. Historically, this has meant transformation in administrative work and in factories. Today and in years to come, it is clear that much of the work of doctors, lawyers, teachers, accountants, and other professionals will also be undertaken by machines. White-collar, professional work will also be replaced.

In response, students who are embarking upon their college studies should embrace one of two possible career strategies. The first is to look for jobs that are likely to favor human capabilities over artificial intelligence—jobs that depend less on having great swathes of technical knowledge than on having creativity and strong interpersonal skills, such as the ability to empathize. The second career strategy is to aim to be directly involved in the development and delivery of these increasingly capable systems, for example as a systems engineer, a data scientist, an AI specialist, or a knowledge engineer. In short, students can plan to compete with machines or to build the machines.