Who Won't Be Replaced By a Machine in 2034?

Over several decades, computers have replaced workers who perform routine tasks, notably in the manufacturing sector. This trend is expected to continue and to increasingly impact occupations where workers perform non-routine tasks.
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Over several decades, computers have replaced workers who perform routine tasks, notably in the manufacturing sector. This trend is expected to continue and to increasingly impact occupations where workers perform non-routine tasks. With fast-moving technological developments, which jobs will be least likely to be replaced by a computer?

A 2013 study by Frey and Osborne ("The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs to Computerisation," PDF) revealed that 47 percent of U.S. jobs that currently exist are at high risk of being automated within the next two decades. A sobering question for a student entering college this fall: Will your intended profession exist when you're 38 years old?

Frey and Osborne's study, based on U.S. Department of Labor data from 2010, analyzed over 702 occupations to determine which were at risk of being computerized. They predicted that three types of jobs are least likely to be automated in the next two decades.

Those "computerization-resistant" jobs involve:

Complex perception and manipulation tasks. Those positions that require tasks to be performed in an unstructured work environment, involve handling irregular objects or need tactile feedback may not be as susceptible to elimination as others. An example of a profession requiring complex perception and manipulation tasks would be that of a surgeon.

Creative intelligence tasks. The authors note that it is difficult for computers to be creative. Computers can easily generate novel alternatives, but, by definition, creativity involves both novelty and value. For a computer to generate creative outcomes, programmers would need to write a set of procedures clearly reflecting human values. This would be challenging as values vary by culture and over time. Examples of professions that require creative intelligence include fashion designers and biological scientists.

Social intelligence tasks. Human social intelligence is critical for those professions that involve negotiation, persuasion, leadership or high touch care. Those positions demanding high social intelligence tasks might include public relations specialists, event planners, psychologists and CEOs.

How can an 18-year-old select a career that has a long shelf life? While no one can predict the pace at which technological innovations will be introduced, here are some recommendations for students to consider:

Go to college. Frey and Osborne's study indicates individuals in poorly paid jobs with minimal education requirements are most likely to be replaced by a computer. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics annually distributes employment projections for full-time workers who are 25 years old and over. The unemployment rate in 2013 consistently dropped with higher levels of education. More specifically, 11% percent of workers with less than a high school diploma were unemployed vs. only 2.2% of workers with a doctoral degree. Similarly, median weekly earnings in 2013 increased with more education. Those workers with less than a high school diploma earned on average $472 a week vs. $1,623 a week for those with a doctoral degree.

Get broadly educated. An education that spans the arts and sciences will help prepare students for 21st century challenges. According to the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), a liberal education offers students essential intellectual and practical skills, including: inquiry and analysis, critical and creative thinking, written and oral communication, quantitative literacy, information literacy and teamwork and problem solving. These skills, promoting flexibility, innovation, empathy for others and a value framework, will give graduates a continuing advantage over computers.

Be prepared for change. The U.S. Census Bureau reported that Baby Boomers have held an average of 11.3 jobs by the age of 46. While many of the high risk jobs that currently exist will be replaced by computers, Frey and Osborne contend that new job growth will counterbalance the demise of high risk jobs. To be prepared to take on these new jobs, faculty need to encourage students to stay current with employment trends, to refine their creative and social skills and to constantly expand their knowledge base.

Finally, what should one advise students who simply want to follow their passion? Some may contend that society places an overemphasis on monetary outcomes from a college education and, instead, students should seek to carve out a path that leads to a meaningful and fulfilling life. While the future is hard to predict, it is reasonable to guess that a computer will be challenged to replicate the devotion of individuals who are passionate about their work. Therefore, perhaps the best advice for those students who want to follow their passion is simply to try to do their job better than anyone (anything) else.

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