Job displacement by machines is commonly referred to as “technological unemployment.” The argument that masses of human workers would lose jobs, which would not be replaced by other kinds of work, has been made many times in the past, including the dawn of the Industrial Revolution and during the Great Depression in the early twentieth century. Economist John Maynard Keynes contended that job losses during the Depression due to technological advances were leading to “means of economising the use of labour outrunning the pace at which we can find new uses for labor.”
But history contradicts that thesis: as prior waves of technological innovation led to great job displacement, thousands of new and different jobs eventually popped up and offset the losses. In the Industrial Revolution, the vast majority of farm jobs were replaced by factory jobs, so that when in 1900, approximately half of all American workers were employed on farms, today that number is just 2 per cent. Then, from the middle to later twentieth century, much of the new manufacturing work in the US and other developed nations was either automated – by the introduction of robotics technology to the factory floor – or shipped abroad to the less developed nations. But again plentiful new jobs in the service industry emerged.
Conceding this point, Martin Ford argues, however, that the current wave of technological innovation will lead to even more severe job displacement than what has occurred in the past. In other words, this time is different. Fewer new jobs will be created because machines are now able to perform not only many manual tasks as well as humans do, but can also perform some cognitive tasks, and they will be getting better at mimicking human intelligence. This is why he predicts that machines will take over many high-level, “white collar” jobs as well as manual ones.
The counterintuitive truth...is that as our technology continues to improve – and there can be no doubt that it will – cultivating our humanity, in particular the softer skills that the liberal arts foster, will be the best way to assure job security.
The strong demand for soft skills
Harvard economist David Deming’s research on how the soft social skills regularly lead to business teams performing more efficiently was mentioned in chapter two. Deming has conducted path-breaking research on the value of soft skills in the labour market, and he discovered that “the fastest growing cognitive occupations – managers, teachers, nurses and therapists, physicians, lawyers, even economists – all require significant interpersonal interaction,” which means that performing them well requires real proficiency in the fuzzy skills involved in understanding both human nature and accounting for it in interactions.
In his 2015 NBER working paper titled “The growing importance of social skills in the labour market,” Deming reported that jobs with a high importance of social skills have grown by roughly 10 per cent as a share of labour since 1980. Ironically, he also found that the market for jobs in many of the STEM fields, by contrast, declined by 3 per cent over the same period. In fact, Deming has argued that “the slowdown in high-skilled job growth is driven by science, technology, and engineering occupations,” and that among these occupations, “engineers”, “programmers and technical support”, and “engineering and science technicians” are the jobs that are shrinking the fastest.
While other jobs in STEM fields, such as computer science, mathematics and statistics are growing, they’re actually growing at far slower rates than those jobs that require strong social skills. What’s more, 92 per cent of 900 executives polled by the Wall Street Journal in 2015 stated that soft skills were “equally important or more important than technical skills,” and 89 per cent of those executives further stated that they had a “very or somewhat difficult” time finding candidates with those requisite skills.
This trend of growing need for soft-skill talent, and job losses in the STEM fields is likely to pick up pace in the coming years due to further democratisation of increasingly intuitive technical tools, and the training of large populations of more technologically proficient workers in the developing world.
Just as in the past several decades globalisation led to the outsourcing of masses of manufacturing jobs, followed by the outsourcing of many knowledge workers jobs, many technology jobs that have been performed by US workers will be shipped abroad. Consider the case of Andela, a New York–based company. They run a “technical leadership programme” in Lagos, Nigeria and Nairobi, Kenya, that trains burgeoning techies. There is such demand to be admitted into the programme that it has an acceptance rate under 1 per cent, making it “harder to get into it than Harvard,” according to CNN.
Andela received 40,000 applicants for just 280 places in 2016, and already has 200 programmers based in Nigeria and Kenya. The programme teaches high-level programming skills, and offers the services of technology teams for hire. Indeed, leading technology employers such as Microsoft and IBM have worked with the service. While Andela is only scratching the surface of what will become a huge workforce of overseas technologists, they’ve already caught the attention of Mark Zuckerberg and Google Ventures, who invested $24 million.
As education reporter Valerie Strauss wrote in the Washington Post, “Trashing the liberal arts seems to have become practically a sport.” Marc Andreessen and Vinod Khosla, whose disparaging comments about the liberal arts were quoted earlier, are part of the clamouring chorus. And as Strauss points out, criticisms have been particularly popular among politicians, no doubt singing the song that many of their constituents want to hear. Kentucky governor Matthew Bevin suggested Kentucky cut state college tuition funding for French literature majors. Former Florida governor and one- time presidential hopeful Jeb Bush outlined that universities ought to warn students, “Hey that psych major deal, that philosophy major thing, it’s important to have liberal arts...but realise, you’re going to be working [at] a Chick-fil-A.”
Florida senator Marco Rubio erroneously argued that welders make more money than philosophy majors, “because the market for Greek philosophers is tight.”
Yet, the great irony of all this criticism is that it’s the liberal arts, and their cultivation of the distinctively human abilities – which machines can’t yet even approximate – that are paving the way for the most reliable employment today and will continue to do so in the coming years. Harvard labor economist Lawrence Katz, with whom Deming has studied and collaborated, makes this point. “I actually think it may be that a really strong liberal arts education is going to be more valuable in the future,” he says. Success, he argues, will be determined by one’s “ability to deal with what can’t be turned into an algorithm; how well do you deal with unstructured problems and how well do you deal with new situations.”
Excerpted with permission from The Fuzzy And The Techie: Why The Liberal Arts Will Rule The Digital World, Scott Hartley, Penguin Portfolio