This weekend I was interviewed for a delightful show on the use and abuse of statistics broadcast by the BBC World Service, “Have 65% of Future Jobs Not Yet Been Invented?” Good question. And one that tells us much about data, statistics, and the power of numbers to seemingly illuminate without really doing so at all. The short answer is that, I haven’t used that figure since about 2012. I now believe that “65% of jobs” is a pretty vague figure and, indeed, I would guess 100% of our jobs have changed in some way, if not in the actual methods we use, then in their economics, delivery systems, or their future.
I’ll talk about that in a bit. But, first, let’s look at that 65% figure once again.
It is the statistic that I’m asked about most often from Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn (Viking-Penguin, 2011). The figure didn’t originate with me. I first read this figure in futurist Jim Carroll’s book, Ready, Set, Done (2007). I tracked his citation down to an Australian website where the “65%” figure was quoted with some visuals and categories of new jobs that hadn’t existed before. “Genetic counseling” was the one I cited in the book.
After Now You See It appeared, that 65% figure kept being quoted so I attempted to contact the authors of the study to be able to learn more about their findings but with no luck. By then, the cite was down and even the Innovation Council of Australia had been closed by a new government.
Big Data . . . And After
I’ve not used the figure since about 2012, when I realized the Australian government site no longer existed. But I stopped using it for another reason. There had also been a revolution in data analysis, with new techniques and methods for analyzing big data and I began to rethink what the category of “job” even means. And here is where the BBC producers raised the same questions, with wisdom, about how we use numbers like that at all. Why 65%? What does it mean to say a job won’t exist in the future?
The BBC researchers’ answer, though, was different than mine. They did rough calculations by looking at jobs that exist now and jobs that existed in the past and compared job titles. They found that maybe 1/3 of all jobs today are actually “new,” even by the most generous count. 33% not 65%.
But is a “job title” the same thing as a job?
I don’t think so.
By my non-data analysis but simply by intuition, I’m saying that closer to 100% of all jobs have changed in some way.
This is more than semantics. My point is that, even when we think a “job” is the same as it once was, when we look at the underlying conditions of its organization, infrastructure, support, labor relations, and and all the rest, we are likely to see vast changes.
65%? 33%? I venture to say that 100% of us have experienced some kind of massive change in the way we do our work, whether we’re still working at what is called the same job or not.
In Now You See It, I use the example of going to a small Amish store in the middle of very sparse North Carolina country side. You can buy handmade jams or quilts there. But the cashier uses a high-tech computer to check you out and that automatically communicates inventory levels back to a central store elsewhere. The store looks as quaint and pre-industrial as ever but everything about its infrastructure (including who it employs–programmers as well as book-keepers), costs, and reach has changed.
Two Jobs That Still Exist . . and are Utterly Changed. And No One Knows their Future . . .
First, taxi driver. If I used to own a medallion in NYC and I was a member of the 50,000 strong New York City Taxi Worker Alliance in 2011, am I still a “taxi driver” if, in 2017, my company has folded and I now support myself by being an Uber driver? On the one hand, I’m still driving a car for hire. On the other, all the conditions of my labor have changed. I’m at the beck and call of someone else all the time, with no set hours, no benefits, and without even car insurance. Is that the same “job” or a different one?
Second, college professor. As with the taxi driver, my profession has changed radically. A generation ago, about 30% of college courses were taught by adjunct faculty who had no job security, no promise of future employment, terrible low wages, no benefits, and no structural relationship to the institution and therefore no voice in governance or institutional change. Now the estimates run as high as 50% or even 70% contingent labor. I mostly teach graduate students now. If I teach them as if it were a generation ago, I am not a responsible person. Is “college professor” the same job now that it was a generation ago?
How Do You Prepare for a Career in an Era of Automation and Outsourcing?
That is a better way of asking the question about the future of education to prepare youth for the future of work. The system of education we have inherited was created for the industrial revolution, basically between 1860 and 1925.
It was the great educational project of the 19th century to train farmers to be factory workers and shop keepers to be corporate middle managers or professionals. That doesn’t mean farmers and shopkeepers no longer exist but they exist in smaller numbers and in a radically different economy than previously, and there are lots more requirements to be part of new operations of trade, labor, safety, licensing, and beyond.
Here’s the main issue: the Puritan college was remade in the US in the 19th century as the modern research university to specialize and credentialize a new professional-managerial class. If those professional and middle-class occupations are now being outsourced or automated so they no longer resemble what they once were, maybe it is time to rethink the complex apparatus for higher education designed for its no longer useful purposes.
Grading, entrance exams, majors, minors, graduate school, professional school, disciplines, departments, fields, requirements: do these things still match our society as they did when they were put in place in 1925? Or is it time to rethink over-specialized, over-professionalized, over-credentialed production-model forms of higher education?
Montessori and Dewey certainly thought so at the time. Add Freire and hooks and Gardner and Dweck and we have an alternative to the industrial age university. How? Why? Who give us the best, most inspiring models to learn from?
I want to thank the BBC for their thoughtful interview and for keeping a space where such intelligent public conversation can happen. I’m very grateful for the opportunity to think. At whatever statistical percentage, I’m 100% positive it is a free flow of deep, meaningful ideas that is what really counts in the modern world.