If you’ve been paying attention at all, you know massive changes are coming to the world of work. Specifically, a huge technology wave is roaring our way, poised to wipe out tens of millions of jobs. In fact, researchers at Oxford University predict that 47 percent of all jobs in the United States are likely to be taken over by technology in the next five to fifteen years. And the chief economist of the Bank of England predicted in 2015 that the U.S. could lose upwards of 80 million jobs during that time frame.
Whether or not these predictions pan out to the exact numbers, the massive job loss will surely be huge and will impact many of us in profound ways. So why aren’t we doing what we need to do to prepare? We seem to be suffering from a severe case of denial.
For the most part, we—and by we, I mean individuals, organizations, and other institutions—seem to be on autopilot, doing what we’ve always done. I think it’s human nature. Like a couple on the verge of a catastrophic divorce, we’re avoiding the tough conversations that we need to have now, and the sooner the better.
Here are five of the vital conversations we need to make happen.
CONVERSATION 1: What can I do to stay valuable and employable in a world where jobs are scarce?
Simply put, you must start today upgrading your skills so that you can excel at tasks that smart machines won’t be able to do well. Those skills involve thinking critically and creatively, diagnosing and solving non-routine problems, and rendering customized personal services that involve emotions to other human beings.
For example, learn a trade skill that requires real-time complex problem solving and complicated human dexterity; train for a service job where you have to emotionally engage one-to-one to meet people’s individual needs; train to repair smart robots; learn to excel at working as part of a team thinking creatively to solve problems; or get into a technology job and upgrade your skills every year. Start today building your “Lifelong Learning Toolbox” because technology will keep advancing and you will need to excel at constantly upgrading your skills to stay ahead of it. All of these require a fundamental change in the way most of us operate. We tend to be driven by ego and ruled by our emotions. We have to be able to quiet our ego and stop being emotionally defensive so that we can conduct experiments like a scientist, think critically, and learn how to effectively collaborate with others and really reflectively listen. This is where the notion of ‘humility’ comes in.
CONVERSATION 2: What can I do to raise kids who will be viable workers in the Smart Machine Age?
It can be very tempting to parent your kids the way you were parented. But now that the world has changed, you need to be very conscious of the messages you are sending. Role model a love of learning and data-driven thinking, teach kids how to think critically, how to manage their emotions, and how to iteratively learn every day by trial and error and to not be afraid of making mistakes so long as they learn from them. And teach them how to work in teams rather than going it alone. (In the Smart Machine Age, this is how work will get done.)
Use the Internet to expose them to new places, to the mystery of science, to making stuff, and to different ways to learn so they learn how to be comfortable in figuring out how to proceed in new situations. Teach them to be curious, to learn something new every day, to read every day, to have the courage to try when failure is a possibility. All of these things require that you role model them; don’t just preach them. Of course, teach them practical life skills. They need to learn how to take care of themselves: how to grow food, how to cook, how to save money, and how to use technology to learn how to do these things.
CONVERSATION 3: Why are school systems—which are built on the Industrial Revolution model—still forcing students to conform to the old definition of “smart”?
To thrive in the future, employees will need to be willing to make mistakes. Yet our educational system discourages mistakes simply by forcing students to get the answers right in order to get the highest grades. (This also drives competition rather than cooperation, which is antithetical to the needs of tomorrow’s workplace.)
There are many institutional, political, economic, and personal reasons why many of our public schools are stuck in the Industrial Revolution model of educating. They will have to change because they are vital to the creation of opportunity for every child in our society. That is what our country has stood for from its founding. We can’t lose that. It will take leadership; more funding for public schools; and a coalition of passionate, concerned politicians, school leaders, teachers, and parents to drive the needed change—to transform our public education system to prepare students for the Smart Machine Age. Education transformation needs to happen now because technology is advancing very fast. Some schools are doing this today. Every school needs to be doing it.
CONVERSATION 4: What do organizations need to do differently in terms of culture and leadership?
The Smart Machine Age will require most businesses to make four big transformations:
Installing smart technology in every part of their business and training their employees to use it effectively. Creating a humanistic people-centric work environment (culture and processes) based on three psychological principles: Positivity; Self-Determination Theory; and Psychological Safety. This will enable the highest levels of human cognitive and emotional performance in concert with technology.
Transforming leaders and managers from directing and commanding people into enablers of human excellence. You can’t command and control or direct humans to excel at the higher-order tasks that technology won’t be able to do well.
Transforming their employee training programs into human development programs focused on not only teaching specific job skills but also teaching workers how to think; how to use data to make decisions; how to quiet their egos; how to be non-emotionally defensive; how to reflectively listen; how to relate and emotionally engage with others in ways that build positive regard and trust; and how to create and work effectively in teams.
CONVERSATION 5: When 80 million jobs are lost to technology, it stands to reason that a lot of people won’t be working. In the absence of work, how can they live meaningful lives?
This will be one of the biggest existential challenges the Smart Machine Age will lay at the doorstep of the United States. We are a culture dominated by individualism and the survival of the fittest. We will need a different approach that promotes a “we all are in this together” community mindset if we’re to maintain social tranquility and our way of life. We must answer the question: In a world of smart machines, what type of society do we want to be? We will need a new story—an American Dream 2.0. That will require leadership and an inclusive national conversation. That conversation needs to start now because the smart machines are coming soon.
We will have to learn from our ancestors—how did they find meaning in the ‘hunter-forager’ days? How did they find meaning in the Agricultural Age? How did they organize? How did they choose their leaders? How did they govern themselves? How did they appeal to and promote the best of what human beings were capable of doing?
Without thoughtful and meaningful new stories that are humanity-centric, we run the risk of growing income inequality, lack of upward social mobility and opportunity, and, thus, social divisiveness and strife. Maybe we will need to govern ourselves in more regional ways. Maybe we will need to redefine the concept of work and success, taking the best learnings from history.
I do not have all the answers. No one person possibly could. What I do have is a mission to get these conversations started so that together we can come up with the answers.
People shy away from these subjects because they feel scared and threatened. That’s understandable. No one wants their way of life disrupted. The good news is that we humans are endlessly inventive and resilient. Unlike machines, we can imagine new realities and reinvent ourselves. We can choose to look at this as an incredibly exciting time for humanity—but first we have to be willing to talk about it.