Race Against the Machine.
January 23rd 2021
The Job Market Moves Faster Than Us.
The job market is a complex ecosystem where we all have a role to play. Some of us are close to the beneficiaries of our projects and meet them in daily life. Others won’t ever meet those whose lives we influence. Some of us get salaries from taxes, while others need to actively generate revenue every month to stay afloat. However, regardless of our role, we tend to wonder: what will the job market look like in the future? Is it going to be a race against the machine? How can we keep up with its development, especially given how fast it develops? How we should work on professional development? And given that we are naturally ageing? How can we secure positions as professionals 10 to 20 years from now?
These are all valid concerns. Today, the job market is changing faster than we can adapt and requalify from one profession to another. We can’t just say to ourselves, “There is a demand for neurosurgeons right now, so let’s become a neurosurgeon!” Or, “It seems that the stock exchange goes down in recent months. I’ll probably lose my job as a broker… But hey, YouTube is growing fast in the pandemic, so let’s be a YouTuber now!” Growing in any new discipline, getting a following and/or recognition needs time. It’s hard to “time the market” and learn the exact skills that will have the highest market value soon. So, how do self-navigate the job market well and live without fear in this uncertain environment?
Unpredictable, Global Events: The Non-Predictable Part of the Job Market Dynamics.
Rapid changes in the job market happen due to two types of factors. The first one is unpredictable, global events. As Nassim Taleb argues in his seminal book, “The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable,” multiple crucial steps in the evolution of mankind happened because of such random and improbable events – despite we usually try to find causes and patterns in them.
Is the corona crisis such an unpredictable situation? Well, research in bats conducted a few years before the pandemic has warned us about the possibility of the global pandemic in humans. Namely, coronavirus is similar to the one detected in horseshoe bats in China in 2013, Ge et al., 2013, and 2016. The virus also turned out to be deadly to humans (Menachery et al., 2016). However, these findings went completely under the radar. They were noticed only after the pandemic has already broken out.
How Did the Corona Crisis Change the Job Market?
Thus, one can still classify the corona crisis as an unpredictable event. After all, for the vast majority of the world population (basically, for anyone who is not familiar with epidemiological studies over bats), it was unpredictable. The corona crisis largely affected the job market. It prompted businesses to move online much faster than they would otherwise do. It also changed the way remote working was viewed by public opinion. Namely, working from home has suddenly become the default option rather than one of the alternatives.
So, how can we limit the influence of unpredictable events on our professional lives and our professional development? Well, we can’t do too much, simply because we can’t brace ourselves for events that we can’t even imagine. The only possible precaution is to acquire some sort of financial cushion. In that case, even if these global calamities change our professional plans, they still cannot shake our sense of personal safety.
New Technologies: The Semi-Predictable Part of the Job Market Dynamics.
The second group of factors are the global moves in the job market triggered by the development of new technologies. Tech is a double-sided stick. On the one hand, it facilitates the creation of new jobs in the job market. On the other hand, it makes many professions obsolete.
For instance, today, millions of people work remotely from home including work on their professional development. It is not necessarily because of the crisis, but because they consciously chose online jobs. Some of them followed Tim Ferriss’ philosophy introduced in his famous book, “The 4-Hour Work Week.” They aim to reduce their working time to the minimum and become “the New Rich,” namely, the individuals rich in quality time and not necessarily in cash. Others choose remote jobs just because they enjoy the flexibility that remote jobs offer.
The Internet created thousands of new professions, from (social) media, through e-commerce, online banking and payment systems, to online education and coaching. However, as the machine of globalization, the Internet also eliminated thousands of professions. For instance, as of today, you probably use Google to plan your vacation rather than walking into the office of the nearest travel agent. In the era of apps such as Uber, taxi dispatchers are no longer necessary. Instead of telemarketers, we have online campaigns optimized per user based on Cookies and online activity. And so the list goes on.
So, How To Predict How New Technologies Will Shape the Job Market?
Are these factors predictable? To a certain extent — yes! When new technology becomes popular, it usually leads to the birth of new services and products. For instance, a few years ago, virtual reality and associated gear such as head-mounted VR goggles were created in the gaming industry.
Today, VR serves to stream online conferences in 3D (for example, check out Beemup in the Netherlands), create audiovisual arts, or train soldiers in the military. In the times of digitization in business, further progress in VR adoption is predictable. As soon as the tech giants such as Apple or Google will produce an affordable, pocket version of the VR headset (in the range of 100 EUR/USD or less), its use will be massively adopted around the globe. For instance, with the purpose to:
- Present real estate to (foreign) buyers so that they can purchase properties online without the necessity to visit the property in person,
- Give more efficient online dancing classes,
- Create an alternative to travelling to people who are physically handicapped.
All these future services are easy to predict. It’s just a matter of time before they will appear on the market.
Why Is It Important to Follow the Progress in New Technologies?
To put it bluntly, whoever understands technology AND psychology/sales, will also understand (and partially predict) the job market. It is not only because new technologies drive the demand for new products and services. It is also because what will be of value to future employers is the direct opposite of what the machines and algorithms of the future will be able to do. This trend can be summarized by three simple principles:
- Every process that can get automatized, will get automatized,
- Any process that can get decentralized, will get decentralized,
- Each process that can get standardized, will become an algorithm converted to the software of some kind.
Why is that? Well, the human brain might be the most creative machine in the universe. However, there is one issue with it. Namely, it burns a lot of energy and minerals. For worse, there is some annoying body next to it (which not only needs feeding but also buying items such as vacations, iPhones, Starbucks coffees, et cetera.). Thus, it will always be more costly to use the human brain as labour compared with its silicon substitute. Plus, computers constantly become smarter and smarter (or, you can say, cheaper and cheaper).
What Is Creativity?
Mind that some of the human jobs viewed as creative — such as many research jobs — are not as creative in fact. They could go even today. For instance, when you take a closer look into Data Science, there is a huge difference in the potential for automatization between simple data science jobs and advanced jobs. Simple jobs are those that involve cleaning data in standard ways and applying classic algorithms such as clustering schemes or linear regression. Advanced jobs require some fundamental knowledge about the modelled process and/or engineering skills. It is easy to predict that simple data science jobs will disappear within the next decade. They just cost employers way too much per value that they create.
Yet another example might be translating text. In recent years, the quality of translation by Google Translate improved to a large extent. Just a few years back, the translated text was laughable. Today, it often resembles human translation so closely that it’s hard to even tell the difference. Computers are also getting better in tasks traditionally viewed as a domain of humans, for example, in assessing sentiment (or, emotions) in the text.
Conclusion: Is the Race Against the Machine Coming Up?
It is important to learn the difference between real innovation and apparent innovation. The apparent innovation is to offer what is already out there, just bigger, faster, and better packaged. The real innovation is putting together two pieces that were not originally meant to be put next to each other or looking at a problem from a new angle. The difference between the two is like the difference between repeating a sentence faster and louder, and rephrasing the sentence using a sense of humour. Computers are terrible at detecting and producing humour (especially, sarcasm). And it will stay this way for a long time.
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