Prepare Yourself Now for the Work of the Future

Can you be replaced by a robot?

“When we are out of sympathy with the young then I think our work in this world is over.” – George McDonald

Recently, I ran into a former colleague and her high school aged son. As we caught up, I asked the young man about his plans following high school. He replied: “College, of course!” He’s an intelligent fellow with intelligent parents so I’m not surprised. What was pleasantly surprising was that he’s seriously thinking about taking a path we’ve discussed here before — taking his first two years at the local technical college before transferring as a junior to a state university. Since he’s thinking about a career in healthcare, this is a sound plan.

The changing nature of work

As the end of 2015 approached, I read many articles predicting the future technologies that will affect our lives this year and beyond. Some are amusing. Some are alarming. Some seem beneficial, and some are hard to categorize. The fact is that due to technology, economics, politics, and demographics the kind of work we do and how we do that work will change. The question is, what can a man do today to be prepared for the likely changes?

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Working hard or hardly working?
Photo by Joseph Booth

Seek education

One of the ways you can avoid poverty is to stay in school. According to 2012 data (the most recent I could find), high school graduates earn a median income (that is, the middle of the range of incomes) of just over $29,000 per year. Add a two-year Associates Degree, and the median income increases to nearly $38,000/year. The median income for a bachelor’s degree is over $50,000/year. Not only does having a degree lead to higher earnings, unemployment among those with a bachelor’s degree remained low throughout the worst of the great recession.

Now for the disclaimer: A degree is not like a lucky charm. You have to work to earn it, and once you have the job, you have to deliver a consistent return to your employer that is greater than your pay. To do this, not all degrees are created equal.

STEM the tide of unemployment

Degrees in the STEM fields — that is, Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics — will put you in demand. The US lags behind in educational attainment in science and math, and this is creating problems for companies that will hire you if you have what it takes. If you’re suited to it, I recommend pursuing a two or four-year degree in a STEM-related discipline. Hint: These majors don’t usually end in the word “studies.”

As you consider your formal education, think first about the career you want as it fits within your life’s purpose. Then investigate the educational prerequisites for that career, and evaluate how your interests and your giftedness line up with these fields of study. Then pursue a degree with the best fit. You’ll fare better this way than if you pursue a course of study based on the starting salaries of holders of a given degree. Yes, getting paid is important. And earning enough to recoup the cost of your education is also important, but life is about more than what you earn.

But also seek wisdom

While STEM degrees are needed in our increasingly technologically saturated marketplace, and the STEM departments in most institutes of higher learning are blessedly free of the corruption of political correctness, you must also make time to cultivate the architecture of your soul. No doubt there is wonder in the periodic table, and grandeur in the laws of physics, but you owe it to yourself to read the great works of western civilization under the leadership of a wise and honest instructor.

So I strongly recommend that you also study literature, language, history, philosophy, and the arts. Read Aristotle, Homer, and the Bible. In doing this you will, to paraphrase novelist Tom Robbins, furnish your mind like a comfortable living room instead of like an office cubicle. This will also make it possible for you to think more broadly and insightfully about the work you do and to understand the times in which you live — a valuable thing when technologies rise and fall within a short span (remember Blockbuster video?) leaving the less flexible stranded as they struggle to adjust.

Professor Gelernter explains it

Yale computer science professor David Gelernter wrote an essay recently for the Wall Street Journal titled “Machines That Can Think and Feel” in which he explained why artificial intelligence was not close to replicating human consciousness. The reason was not that computer scientists lack the skill or desire to do so, it was simply because they are currently focusing solely on the logical and computational functions that our brains can perform, while ignoring the emotional component entirely. His critique of this approach is that it is like “trying to get to California (so to speak) without ever leaving I-95.”

I would add that an emphasis on STEM disciplines that excludes the arts and humanities, faith and values would seem to be an attempt to make men more like their robotic counterparts — the same error, only in the oncoming lane. And as C.S. Lewis said, “Education without values, as useful as it is, seems rather to make man a more clever devil.”

Avoid turk work

Note the lower-case “T” indicating I’m not referring to a nationality. Turk work is anything that can ultimately be replaced by automation. These are often pay-by-the-piece tasks that pay very little for each repetition. If you want to see an example of this, click here to see Amazon’s Mechanical Turk job board. Similarly disappointing (in my opinion) experiences are available through gig economy staples such as fiverr.com or taskrabbit.com. As I’ve written before, we should all be looking for work that exists at the apex of our purpose, passion, and potential.

For the time being, driving for one of the ride-sharing companies, such as Uber or Lyft, may provide some income, but once self-driving taxis take off, that work will also go the way of the video store. Over the road truck drivers are similarly vulnerable, by the way, as are the sign twirlers outside the tax preparation offices.

But by all means work

I know several men in my age bracket who are changing or have changed jobs. The decisions aren’t always easy, as at least one friend is having to uproot his family to start over in a new city and state. However, this move is wise as it will provide a better income and a more humane work environment. Another young man I know has taken on seasonal work as a laborer while he pursues an additional certification. I’m betting on him to come out of this ordeal stronger. If you have the choice between working and not working, work. You’ll gain credibility if your next boss sees you have a bias toward action.

Rise above the gig economy like a boss

Changes in health care and tax law have dried up full-time employment opportunities for a lot of you. Some of you are having to stitch together two or more 20-hour-a-week part-time jobs to pay the bills. The hard part is these jobs under 30 hours don’t come with health insurance. If you’re in this situation, working as a contractor, you may want to consider forming your own personal services company. One young man I know did this and was able to increase his income significantly, as his client pays the contract rate he charges. You can file an LLC in many states for as little as a couple hundred dollars. If you’re stuck in gigland, you might want to consider it.

Here’s how I’m doing it

For my part, I earned a degree in Spanish from a liberal arts college, took a sales job out of college and worked for a couple of years before going to graduate school in an applied science (STEM), which led to my working in the textile industry from graduation to the present. I also formed a general partnership with my wife to manage and operate the band we own. And, as you’ve no doubt noticed, I blog. The things I’m doing are the fruit of getting an education, going to work, delivering results, and continuing to learn. You can do these things and more — just stay aware that the market will continue to change and be ready to change with it.

So how about you? How are you preparing for the work environment of tomorrow? Add our comments below.

 

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic. Bring your best manners, please.

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2 thoughts on “Prepare Yourself Now for the Work of the Future

  1. One of the gentlemen I work with is assisting his daughter by financially helping her attend George Washington University (~$60k cost of attendance/year less any of her scholarships) to major in…social work. I’m no CFA, but the ROI for that is a very long run. Thankfully for him, he has plenty of money to work with.

    All that to say, this article would segue nicely into an article about balancing degree choices with earning potential and what makes sense.

    • Ryan:

      Thanks for weighing in. The issue you raise is a very important one. Piling on debt to earn a degree with insufficient earning potential to recoup the investment is, to put it biblical terms, folly. In your colleague’s case, his daughter should emerge with a degree from a fine school and no debt. Good for her — and good for dad in that he was able to plan, save, earn or otherwise foot the bill.

      For others not so fortunate, it’s too late to choose more fiscally savvy parents, so what should they do? I advocate the approach I referred to in the opening paragraphs. Although I was not a fan of the Education Lottery (because it taxes the ones who play it — those who are most often the least able to afford it — and creates an incentive to bet rather than save), it does at least make it possible to earn an Associate’s degree at near zero out-of-pocket cost. A family friend is planning to be a pharmacist by working and studying at Tech for the first two years and transferring to State U to complete his major.

      Your larger point is a great one: It is wise to consider how one will use that degree to earn a living before signing up for a pile of debt to seek a degree in rainbow husbandry or glitter studies. Unless there is a sudden demand for rainbow architects or glitter wranglers.