Heraclitus’ words “The only thing that is constant is change” are ringing truer than ever in today’s age of technology and information. While the memories of previous generations have always looked outdated and different, we are now finding that our own worlds are dramatically shifting from within a short span of time, often multiple major shifts within our lifetime. Today, change is visibly at work, and one of the main catalysts is technology. For those of us in the 40’s and beyond, imagine doing research right at your desk without going to a research library such as the New York Public Library; for those in their 30’s, imagine carrying the equivalent of two bricks as cell phones; for those who are younger, imagine the world without Facebook, Google, Minecraft, iPhone, or laptops that are less than 2 pounds. Technology has enabled miniaturization of devices, wider sharing, accessing, recording and analyzing of information than ever seen before. Yet every technological advancement is but a temporary achievement, waiting for the next breakthrough to further revolutionize the way we work, play, and live. This relentless pace of technological advancement is thrilling to many, generating trepidation to some, and striking fear in those whose work that they may be displaced by technology. And for those who are young and full of passion, just remember, you too will be older, wiser, but also confronting the challenges of your forbearers soon enough. What can you do?
A Distant Past
Just 30 years ago in education, the schooling system was something quite starkly different from what it is today. A teacher’s most treasured tool for facilitating learning was their chalkboard. Students used books to study and write – using a good old-fashioned pen and paper. And a ‘library’ was a physical building visited by those seeking knowledge, information and literature. Banking involved cashbooks, checks and tellers. Money could not be deposited or withdrawn without visiting another physical building, and keeping record of your balances required diligence. Phones were connected to your wall, and market research was someone standing at a shopping mall with a two-page paper survey and pencil. Then fast forward to 1999, when pagers became the latest technology1. Anyone and everyone seeking interactive pocket-sized technology for staying in touch with their business had a ‘handheld’ Blackberry.
Just 30 years ago in a manufacturing line, human laborers were busy working off of conveyor belts, assembling and packaging products or examining the flow of products carefully and removing defects. Each shift is often composed of hundreds of workers and in a peak season, the factory would run at peak capacity with work happening almost nonstop. The humming of the machines, the noise of people shouting, and the occasional bells and whistles indicated another problem found and resolved. Today, with both automation and 3D printing, much of the manufacturing plants are largely quiet. A few mechanics and machine operators look after vast sets of machines and robots, often eerily quiet not only devoid of machine sounds but also human interaction. The human labor cost as a proportion of product cost plummets.
Today, in the New Year of 2017, the past feels far more distant than 15 to 30 years away. The rate of change is accelerating. Today, teaching with technology is a commonly used term in the schooling sector. Education, both primary and tertiary, incorporates the use of tablets, clouds and interactive online tools2. Students do not have to be in a physical classroom to learn with others. The Information Professional (traditionally a term reserved for librarians) of today is every person with access to the internet. People have been empowered to source, organize, record and analyze information themselves, anytime, from just about anywhere3. Banking is largely an online self-service, and the Financial Sector has been forced to learn and adopt financial technology, including Bitcoin and the Grid4. Marketing and advertising agencies have started using Big Data5,6. Cars are learning to drive themselves, and 3D printing is reinventing flexible manufacturing and food production7. When companies are confronting the human labor cost, automation and robotics often come to their rescue, and one study shows that as much as 6% of jobs in the United States (and likely around the developed nations) will be replaced by robots and automation by 2021, merely four years away.8 Organizations have been forced to leverage technology to innovate or die.
A Fast Approaching Future
So, what does this mean for commerce? And what are the implications of this constant technological change for the human, working toward a successful career?
The truth is that technology will enable widespread automation. Artificial intelligence, fintech and robotics will all play a part of the Next Industrial Revolution9, and automation will become the solution to a relentless drive toward efficiency and productivity. This, of course, will impact every aspect of people’s lives whether they be consumers, employees, business owners, or just industry in general. 3D printing is one of the most real examples of this impact – a one-step, flexible, mass-customizable manufacturing approach that eliminates the need for assembly lines, tools and moulds5. The pressure then shifts to people, to individuals, to remain necessary in an increasingly automated world.
John Keynes once said, “In the long run, we are all dead”. This emphasis on the short term can be witnessed in political priorities and governmental objectives, usually spanning 5 to 10 years11. Even organizations seem to adopt this view, with strategic goals reaching only as far as 2 to 5 years. But the reality is that automation is taking shape now. Automation is threatening traditional work and careers now, in this lifetime. It is not a “long run” scenario for which none of us will be around to experience. This means that organizations must focus on longer term values, and shorter term goals, which will involve higher productivity, lower costs and machine-like efficiency. Now, while humans may never be quite as fast acting as automated machines, we cannot fight technology.
Our only choice is to embrace this change and adopt an open-minded attitude toward an ever-advancing environment. To start recognizing that while we do not own other people, or the company we work for, we do own our career, our abilities and skills, and our livelihood. We must accept that change will persist, that the future will be largely unpredictable, and that the science fiction of today will likely become the reality of tomorrow. This mental shift is the first step toward surviving the era of automation.
How Many Generations Between Today and When you Retire?
A proven project management technique that enables successful project delivery is looking backwards. What does success look like? How do you define it, measure it, and control it along the journey so the project can achieve it. This technique can be used on a grander scale. Ask yourself, how many years will you work between now and when you retire? For my students, the answer lies somewhere between 40-50 years, and if human longevity or the necessity of human labor productivity is extended further, then it is conceivable to envision a working life of 50-60 years.
What would the world look like at the end of that long duration? Let’s assume a generation is twenty years. That means 2, 2.5, or 3 generational shifts. For someone in their 30’s today, think of the world in the 1950’s and 60’s and the state of technology. Some would say, “That wasn’t too bad. There was cars, trains, planes, televisions, and telephones.” But technology moves faster, much faster. Thus, what is “a generation” in technology years? Let’s do a quick comparison: radio took 38 years to reach an audience of a half million, television took 13 years, computers took 16 years, the internet took 5 years, and it took the iPhone 74 days to reach a million. Let’s be generous and use 7 years as in the case of “dog years”. One dog year is equivalent to 7 human years. This means that for most of my students, their work life will space between 6 to 7 generations. From this perspective and looking back, seven generations means looking at the world in the 1860’s in the era of steam engines, horse and buggies, pony express and carrier pigeons. Worse, the speed of changing is accelerating, so even the seven years per technology generation is likely to be wrong. Now that’s different. What can you do to survive automation?
Continuous learning, growth and development will become key to the future. And people, as employees and business owners, will need to adopt a less traditional, less conservative approach to how they shape their careers. Some of the most important career moves for people today will be planning strategically for the future, continuously adapting to technological advancements, willingness to reinvent their skills, and commitment to lifelong learning.
- Plan strategically and act tactically. Most people have to work around 40 to 50 years of their lifetime (if not more). And gone are the days where a loyal employee works the same job, for the same company, for the better part of their lives. Today, as customer needs change and competition increases, so organizations change and adapt internally12. This means different jobs, requiring different skills, and different personalities. With this in mind, we need to start shaping our own careers by considering where we are going, or what we are actually working toward. And what the best course of action for achieving our near-term goals will be.
2. Become and remain techno-savvy. Yes, we have come a long way since the first handheld Blackberry. But we will go further yet. And as the old adage goes, if you can’t beat them, join them. So while automation may appear as a threat to employment, technology is ironically the secret to remaining necessary. Technology will advance into new forms, and organizations will want and require the newest technology to remain competitive. This makes it important for people to remain technically savvy, and comfortable enough to use and leverage technology in their jobs and careers. As an employee, a freelancer, or a business owner, technology of all sorts will be a valuable career tool.
3. Be excellent at something, but willing to start all over again in something new. Many of us have invested years into becoming an expert in our field, a specialist in our practice. But knowledge and skills can no longer be viewed as a filled cart. No, skills must become replenish-able. New technology will continuously require new skills and knowledge, which may mean that experts abandon and reinvent their expertise a number of times throughout their working lives13. Skills advancement will need to be guided by the demand of technology14.
4. Commit to lifelong learning. As skill sets become obsolete, and new skill sets arise, so an emphasis on adult learning and continuous development will become increasingly important15. We will need to broaden our peripheral vision to sense new opportunities and maximize their value. And it is those who adopt lifelong learning to continuously replenish their skills that will be eligible for new opportunities and roles as they arise15.
Thus, as automation continues to shape our environment, so traditional career paths will become something of the past. Successful players will be agile, strategic, and collaborative in their relationship with technology. They will recognize education as a lifelong process, rather than a one-off event. And in this way, they will continue to remain valuable and necessary in the face of automation.
If you like this blog, click here to read the prequel to this blog: Beyond Tomorrow – The Race Against Technology.
- Cruthaka, C., & Pinngern, O. (2016). Development of a Training Program for Enhancement of Technology Competencies of University Lecturers. International Journal Of Educational Administration And Policy Studies, 8(6), 57-65.
- Maceli, M., & Burke, J. J. (2016). Technology Skills in the Workplace: Information Professionals’ Current Use and Future Aspirations. Information Technology & Libraries, 35(4), 35-62.
- Holmquist, E. (2014). Bitcoin and the coming revolution in financial transactions. RMA Journal, 97(3), 23-29.
- Jobs, C. G., Gilfoil, D. M., & Aukers, S. M. (2016). How marketing organizations can benefit from big data advertising analytics. Academy Of Marketing Studies Journal, 20(1), 18-35.
- Xu, Z., Frankwick, G. L., & Ramirez, E. (2016). Effects of big data analytics and traditional marketing analytics on new product success: A knowledge fusion perspective. Journal Of Business Research, 69(5), 1562-1566.
- Weller, C., Kleer, R., & Piller, F. T. (2015). Economic implications of 3D printing: Market structure models in light of additive manufacturing revisited. International Journal Of Production Economics, 16443-56.
- Solon, O. (2016), “Robots will eliminate 6% of all US jobs by 2021”, The Guardian, , https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/sep/13/artificial-intelligence-robots-threat-jobs-forrester-report
- Brickhouse, B. S. (2016). The dawn of the new industrial era with the smart factory. Manufacturers’ Monthly, 34-35.
- Strawn, G. (2016). Automation and future unemployment. IT Professional, 18(1), 62-64.
- Cunningham, A. (2016). Are There Differences In Long-Term Commitment between the Different Generations in the Workforce? Cornell University ILR Collections.
- Smith, N. (2016). Interview: Automation threatens all our jobs, says Martin Ford. Engineering & Technology, 11(2), 50-53.
- Smith, J., & Meaney, M. (2016). Lifelong Learning in 2040. Roosevelt Institute.
- Gibson, A. (2016). Transforming the subject matter expert into an educator: Gain competitive advantage by applying adult learning principles. Journal of Protective Coatings and Linings, 33(7), 44.
- Quendler, E., & Lamb, M. (2016). Learning as a lifelong process-meeting the challenges of the changing employability landscape: competences, skills and knowledge for sustainable development. International Journal of Continuing Engineering Education and Lifelong Learning, 26(3), 273-293.