The future of employment in an automated age

Careers subsisting of creativity and human contact will survive and thrive


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The official U.S. unemployment rate is down to 6.2 percent (4.4 percent in New Hampshire). The raw number of employed workers has also recovered from the start of the recession.

So why do we still feel in a funk about the employment recovery clearly underway? Perhaps it's because the recovery is taking so long. Or maybe it's due to the poisonous political relations turning into a national fratricide. It could also be the growing mainstream realization that capital has become densely concentrated among a relative few while the middle class feels its power and influence waning.

I think all of these developments play significant and disturbing roles in our continued malaise. However, there is another factor tugging at our collective insecurity. It's an insidious threat running just below the surface and not yet apparent to most, except for those who see their jobs and careers steadily dissolving.

Call it automation, robotics, technology or robosourcing, but whatever you call it, the reality of machines replacing people in the workplace is as historic as craftsmen and artisans being replaced by factory workers during the Industrial Revolution.

I'm not talking about just low-skilled jobs that don't require much education being erased. We all know that has been going on. The news is that computers are becoming better at replacing mid-level jobs and there is no end in sight of this trend.

Here are some examples of a possible near-term future: Why hire a paralegal when computers can research and collate case histories and precedents? Let's reduce family expenses by eliminating auto insurance, since our new car is autonomously operated. Who needs mid-managers when employees are now empowered by sophisticated software to give them direction?

Examples such as these (and there are plenty more) of automation reaching into and killing traditional careers will become more numerous. No wonder we feel unsettled. Uncertainty for our jobs is the new certainty.

Looking forward

Every great story involves individuals or groups trying to handle adversity with the goal of regaining equilibrium in their lives. Among the great stories of our age will be how working people adjust, manage and flourish, given the challenge of ubiquitous career disruption. This won't be easy. There will be a lot of anguish, questioning, indecision and, yes, successes as we share in the development of a new economy characterized by new rules and choices.

How we as individuals adapt to a world in which technology handles all of the work tasks involving rote, logical, ordered and sequential attributes will be centered on one fundamental question: What can people do that computers can't do?

In answer to this question there appear to be at least two areas in which people are superior to machines. One, people can be creative, innovative and novel. We have viewpoints and experience leading us to devise new and exciting ways of doing things. We can make decisions and present new perspectives, as opposed to merely accomplishing tasks.

Secondly, Hollywood movies about falling in love with operating systems aside, people can relate emotionally with other people. We can touch feelings, inspire and comfort others, understand, bless and believe in other people. To date, no automaton can do that.

Careers subsisting of creativity and human contact will survive and thrive. They are already the basis of many careers, and jobs requiring facility in these areas will likely expand. We will have our machines, but above all we will still need and have each other. Maybe even the creative arts could actually experience a boom the likes of which we've not yet seen. Time will tell.

So yes, we feel that despite the hopeful employment numbers we're not very hopeful. Since we're not going to return to the past, let's start looking forward to and planning for a future that will certainly be different, but not necessarily bleak.

Bill Ryan, founder of Ryan Career Services LLC, Concord, can be reached at 603-724-2289 or bill@ryancareerservices.com.

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