No wonder millennials are so disaffected.
Everywhere we look, machines are encroaching into our lives, invading the workplace, and doing what we used to do, only better, cheaper and more reliably. Jobs are disappearing as a result, and any hopes of building a decent long term career are shrinking rapidly.
“Rise of the Robots” was last year’s FT business book of the year, and well worth a read. It’s just the latest in a rapidly expanding series of volumes to lay out this Dystopian future where the insane pace of technological change will leave fewer and fewer jobs immune to automation.
We long ago accepted that robots, not humans, should mass produce cars. We love how our devices can run our lives for us. Streaming from Netflix is more and more our favourite way to watch TV, and we happily store our data in the Cloud. We pay for lattés with our “phones”. Banknotes are soooo last decade.
We also know that driverless cars are real, and that in the next couple of decades we’ll probably be ordering up a RoboTaxi on our phone to take us to the local restaurant. We’ll think this is cool because we can have a drink and chat away in the car while we’re ushered there and back in total safety. We know that this is bad news for human taxi drivers, but since most of us aren’t taxi drivers, we’re not that bothered.
Why? Because we are White Collar Workers (WCWs)! We’re safe, because we operate in the knowledge economy and we can think! We can perform complex cognitive tasks which can’t be programmed into a computer, right? We have experience, intuition, creativity. And our crowning glory, our brain! The most complex, sophisticated machine on the planet, packing 100bn neurons of organic firepower. We’re totally safe!
Hmmm. Think again.
I won’t go into details – you need to read the book – but suffice it to say that there is enough astonishing innovation happening at the cutting edge of technology and computer science to make perhaps any WCW fear for his/her longevity.
It might just be that any role requiring regular analysis and processing of information – the preserve of middle managers worldwide – is under threat.
The most unsettling thing of all is that many of the companies pushing the envelope today didn’t even exist 10 years ago. They have been founded because technology has improved so much – not just raw processing power but also the advent of Cloud computing and ability to get value from Big Data – to make viable what seemed fantastical just a few years ago.
So it is a fair bet that in 10 years time there will be companies that we’ve never heard of doing things with technology which even today seem pure fantasy.
I’ve already mentioned in a previous article the HK-based VC firm which appointed artificial intelligence to its board. The tech entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley and elsewhere have unlimited ambition (and plenty of VC-dollars) to create the next ground-breaking technology, be it in robotics, neural networks, Big Data or SaaS.
The FANG companies – even after steep declines in the last 6 weeks – still command a combined mkt cap in excess of $1trn. They are spending tens of billions on R&D, trying to build the winner-takes-all products and services of the future.
The point of Singularity, when machine intelligence matches (and then surpasses, of course) human intelligence, may even be looming over the horizon. One thing is for sure: Moore’s Law isn’t set to be repealed anytime soon.
One potential weapon to fight off this relentless technology attack is of course government intervention. Politicians need popular support, and if the vast middle classes in the likes of the US and the UK start to buckle under the pressure of high and rising long term unemployment, declining real incomes etc, politicians will eventually listen.
Intervention can take the form of regulation (no licences for driverless taxis, no AI teachers in schools etc) to simply block automation of existing white collar jobs. Or it could take the form of aggressive redistributive taxes to pull wealth away from the techno billionaires, perhaps funding financial incentives for firms to employ humans rather than machines.
However, whatever help comes from government, it will likely be a long time coming, particularly given the power of the elite in the US to lobby Washington.
So, faced with this unstoppable technological arms race, and without relying on government support, what on earth can we, the WCWs, do to fend off the robots?
Sadly I don’t have all the answers – who has? – but I’ve got a few suggestions as to how we can shield ourselves for a while longer.
I chose the year 2030 in the post title for a couple of reasons. Not only is it a nice round number, but being just 14 years away, it is probably also the following: well ahead of preferred retirement age for most of you reading this post and yet far enough over the horizon to induce immense uncertainty as to what our working environment will look like.
If you can’t beat them, join them!
It’s a little bit flippant, but perhaps the obvious answer is simply to join the predators. If you are out there creating the products and services of an automated future, you are less likely to have a robot train his sights on you.
All you have to be is incredibly entrepreneurial, talented, risk loving, connected to financiers, living in or close to a tech hub, and most likely a computer science or maths PhD.
Doesn’t sound like you? Me neither. I know a couple of these people, but they are a rare bunch and for every successful tech entrepreneur there are dozens of failures. That’s the statistical reality. If you are this golden startup person, then fantastic, but it’s not really a great solution for the vast majority of the white collar world.
So what’s next?
Don’t work for a large organisation – find a boutique
This might sound like odd advice – particularly from someone who has spent decades working in huge organisations – but think about it this way.
Big organisations typically have big costs. Any firm with big costs is a prime target for someone selling a solution which reduces costs. With the global growth outlook most likely dismal for the foreseeable future (thanks in the main to the persistent erosion of real incomes of the WCWs, but that’s another story), the best way for companies to improve the bottom line is to shrink costs.
Big organisations are all over ways to automate, outsource, offshore, you name it. Technology has made the world smaller – thereby ramping up the global supply of labour – and is usually the biggest facilitator of cost cutting and streamlining. It has been since the industrial revolution and it will only become even moreso in the future.
Moreover, big organisations have layer after layer of middle managers performing the kind of analytical work that to date has been largely shielded from the silicon chip. However, with machine learning capability accelerating at impressive speed, these analytical WCW roles seem to be vulnerable to automation in the coming decades.
Large organisations have perfected the science of division of labour. All the workers at the bottom of the pyramid are required to perform very specific, detailed, repetitive tasks. Usually without challenging or asking “why?”. Sounds like the sort of thing a robot might be good at? Indeed.
Conversely, think of a small organisation.
Everyone knows everyone. They work well together because the owners value the human touch – literally. For their clients, their human face is their calling card. They thrive on having personality and building personal relationships and trust. They differentiate themselves precisely because they are not giant faceless (and soulless) corporations.
They don’t have large and unwieldy cost structures. They are typically entrepreneurial, nimble and innovative themselves – no monolithic, complex structures that change at a glacial pace. The economies of scale of an investment in an automation programme that accrue to a large organisation simply won’t apply to a small one.
Required skill sets tend to be broader too. Small firms have very flat structures and often need employees to be capable across roles, to be flexible and able to contribute across multiple dimensions. They have not gone down the route of division of labour precisely because there’s not much labour to go around. Labour-saving technology tends to be best at replacing very specific tasks, rather than general purpose activity. Hence the jobs in a small firm are less likely to be replaced by robots.
So find a small organisation – a boutique if you will – where that collaborative spirit will shine through and you are likely to be less exposed to the march of the machines. Of course, small organisations often sell services to large organisations, and your biggest customer might just find a solution which makes your entire value proposition pointless. So there is not total immunity here.
But at least you won’t be in a firm carrying around any deadwood that is just begging to be digitised into obsolescence.
Become a world class relationship builder and networker
Humans build relationships with other humans. We’re social animals. That’s how we’ve evolved, and it has served us well. We’re at our best when we collaborate and seek win/wins (the principle of comparative advantage).
In the main, humans don’t build relationships with computers. You might be addicted to your phone, but you don’t have a relationship with it. I understand that some geeks would disagree with me, as might those addicted to Apple products who queue for days to be the first to get the next iPhone. But most WCWs are not geeks.
However brilliantly useful our gadgets and software services become, they will surely stand lower in the pecking order than the business relationships that we build with our colleagues and our clients.
Great relationship builders bring value to organisations simply because of their ability to compel others to act.
Whether it is compelling clients to do more business, compelling suppliers to improve terms, or compelling colleagues to contribute more on a project, it is a brilliant skill. They build powerful networks which they then leverage to get results. They are charismatic and persuasive.
Now, I’m happy to be proved wrong, but I think we’re a long way from a world where machines learn to become charismatic. They might be able to crunch enormous amounts of data to tell you the logical or correct course of action, which is tremendously helpful, but it’s not the same as persuasion.
We ask Siri for information or help or recommendations, but we are a million miles from Siri trying to persuade us to order a pizza takeaway, when we don’t like pizza. Persuasion is when someone says “no”, and then you dig more, find out their pain points, reframe your offer, and go again, using all your charm and charisma, until they say “yes”.
Expert networkers are purposeful about building relationships, and find opportunities. They put two and two together, and get ten. They tend to be passionate – which is why people are drawn to them. They plan, they socialise, they even scheme – all in the name of pulling resources towards them to help them achieve their goals.
Computers might operate in networks, but they are a long way from becoming networkers. So build your immunity to automation by developing these skills.
How? Read some books on the topic – here’s a nice list to get you started. Pro-actively seek out new business relationships. Learn how to listen well – a key skill if you want to be truly persuasive. Go to conferences. Use LinkedIn!
You know all this stuff – it’s not rocket science. But be professional and purposeful about it. Make it a habit, and a core skill. A powerful network is a hugely valuable personal business tool if you make the right investment in it – so start today.
Be entrepreneurial and creative!
“That’s easier said than done!” I hear you cry. Well, yes and no.
When we think of entrepreneurs, we think of standout successful business people like Richard Branson or Steve Jobs. Not laden with academic qualifications, but people who somehow had the vision to see opportunities and make money pour into their bank accounts.
Of course most WCW have strong academic credentials, and it would be pointless trying to turn into the next Richard Branson or Steve Jobs. However, being entrepreneurial is also a mindset. It is the ability to ask yourself “Hey, could I do my job a better way?”. It’s to think for yourself, and pro-actively seek out better ways to get things done.
You don’t need to be told to do it, you just do it because you know it will add value. And if you add value, you bring value. In a well-run organisation, that translates into recognition, which can mean promotion and better pay. If you are working in a badly run organisation, you may not feel you get the recognition, but do it anyway. If the CEO has a list of people who are ripe for automation, you will be keeping off it.
The same goes for being creative.
Challenge the status quo. Be open-minded about ways to get things done. Take the time to force yourself to think deeply about how your area brings value to the business, and see what can be improved (something usually can). Team up with your buddies and brainstorm possible alternatives.
Explore what is happening in parallel or related businesses. Read voraciously. Here’s a book about Creative Thinking right here. You can feed your intellect just as well as any computer can double its processing power. I promise you, the more you exercise your brain, the more you’ll think of new and exciting ways to be effective in your role.
What’s more, most of your peers won’t be doing this, so they’ll be first for the chop when it comes to swapping out some humans for silicon. A little ruthless perhaps? Or just a survival strategy?
Be a leader
“But I’m not the CEO!”. It doesn’t matter – that’s a poor excuse.
Leadership is not a job title, nor is it the exclusive preserve of the CEO. Anyone from a senior executive to an operations analyst can choose to lead, simply by taking responsibility, raising their game and elevating the performance of the people around them. Being a leader is a decision to think, take action, inspire and motivate, and anyone can do it.
All WCWs have the opportunity to show they can lead. It’s one of the best ways to highlight that you are ripe for promotion, or at least more responsibility. Own your decisions, don’t point the finger of blame at others, and try to help your colleagues.
I’d be shocked if you felt that you had no room to show these kind of behaviours in your current WCW role. I certainly doubt there are that many organisations that are so full of brilliant leader types that they actually just need some more people to say yes and get on with the job in hand.
Organisations are of course staffed with competitive types who want to get ahead. But often they try to get ahead by trampling on their peers, and that is obviously not what leadership is all about.
If you want to learn some leadership skills, there are a couple of good routes for you.
One, you guessed it, is to read some of the many books on leadership – a current favourite of mine is “Turn the Ship Around!” by David Marquet. Pick a company that impresses you, and read about who built it and how they became so successful at running a business.
Another tip is one that I used during my career and it helped me. Look around at the best performers in your firm who are visible to you regularly – and with each of them identify which behaviours are most impressive to you. Maybe one is very calm under fire. Maybe another listens to his/her WCW troops. Maybe a third is great at delegating and giving his/her best WCWs room to grow. Assemble these desirable traits all together and that’s your prototype for great leadership.
If you show some leadership qualities in your organisation, I suggest you’ll stay out of reach of the robots for a good deal longer than those who don’t.
Whatever you choose, please don’t choose complacency
These survival tips above are just a few suggestions of how to preserve your WCW value. I’m sure you can think of some more.
But, as the image at the top of the post suggests, sticking your head in the sand and hoping this is all science fiction is not a viable career strategy. Evidence of the astounding pace of technological innovation is all around us, and there is little reason to believe it will grind to a halt anytime soon.
What seemed impossible 10 years ago is normal today, and many things that seem impossible today will be commonplace in coming decades.
Do whatever you can to future-proof your career. Then, when 2030 rolls around, the machines might be marching past you but at least you won’t be trampled underfoot.