Of course I knew that robots take jobs. Robots build cars. Robots check out your groceries. Robots dispense cash. All those things used to be done by people. But I am a writer. Robots can’t write. I assumed I was totally safe; then I learned about robot journalism. Sure, today robots cover stock prices and high school football stats, but what about tomorrow? I envisioned a robot Hunter S. Thompson, a cigarette dangling from its communications port, wearing aviator sunglasses, and wracking its circuits for the right metaphor.
Depending on which report you read, robots are going to take over somewhere between five and 50 percent of jobs by 2025. Every few months somebody publishes a list of which jobs are likely to get the ax, and which are likely to survive, like something out of The Hunger Games. And every day somebody else writes about a robot who does stuff you never thought robots would do, like tending bar and harvesting fruit, and delivering medications in hospitals. In fact, there’s a website, Will Robots Take My Job?, that you can go to and tap in your profession to find out how likely you are to be replaced.
At this year’s SXSW, John Hagel III, co-chairman for Deloitte’s Center for the Edge, spoke about robots and humanity. Hagel said there are two arenas that everyone is touting as “jobs of the future,” but both are directly in robot crosshairs. One is STEM—science, technology, engineering and math. There will always be jobs for innovators, creators, and researchers in these areas, but if the job just requires knowing how to manipulate data sets in a predictable fashion, AI and machine learning have it covered. The other is the gig economy which largely comprises jobs that require repetitive activities—like driving cars and delivering stuff. Robots are so much better than humans at repetitive, predictable activities.
Is there a robot-proof career?
Of course, all jobs have some tasks that are repetitive and predictable and robots will probably wind up doing those parts of most jobs, according to a study by leading consulting firm McKinsey & Co. That leaves people to do the stuff that robots can’t do. People are much better at empathy, for example, and currently we’re a lot better at managing the unexpected than robots are. A robot nurse can drive around with a cart of meds but they can’t make an intractable patient take the pill. When things don’t follow a pattern, robots are at a loss. A good example was the self-driving Volvo in Australia that couldn’t figure out how to respond to kangaroos. Life is full of kangaroos.
Humans are also better at managing and developing people, deep expertise around decision making and planning, creative work and complex human interactions, according to McKinsey.
“Humans are experts at inefficiency,” Hagel pointed out. “But all art, innovation, and creation are inherently inefficient… We need to embrace inefficiency… imagination, curiosity, social intelligence, and emotional intelligence—that’s where human beings are going to create value.”
Anyone who has seen an Inspirobot.me meme knows he has a point. An inspirational meme designed by a robot says things like, “In every famous person there is a stomach.” Inspirobot doesn’t have a clue about the human condition.
“We need to embrace inefficiency… imagination, curiosity, social intelligence, and emotional intelligence—that’s where human beings are going to create value.”
- John Hagel III
What are some human jobs? Well, for one thing, people are losing their appetites for mass market standardized products. Consumers these days love one-of-a-kind items with a story. So you can craft and sell your own items, or build a company where customers can design custom clothing online that you deliver, or run a 3D print shop that makes unique things.
Or you can be someone who makes life bigger through wellness and new experiences. This includes artists, writers, and composers. But it also includes people focused on wellness, like personal development gurus, experts in meditation, therapy, emotional health, and leadership training. These are people who inspire us and motivate us to pursue higher consciousness and achieve our potential. Along similar lines are people who design experiences like adventure travel, cultural encounters, and retreats.
Okay, but that leaves a lot of jobs out in the cold.
Where humans have robots beat
Whenever he talks about the jobs of the future, Hagel said, people make two arguments:
Not all human beings are capable of doing creative work.
Most human beings need to be told what to do.
To the first one, Hagel said, “I respectfully object. Go to a playground and watch children of six or seven years old and tell me they have no imagination, risk-taking, or curiosity. We’ve created a whole set of institutions, starting with our school systems explicitly designed and created to take that out of them. They’ve succeeded. We have to get back to those inherent instincts. We have to nurture them so we can become human again.”
And that’s connected with the second one: people need to be told what to do. People need to be told what to do because they were told there’s only one right answer. They weren’t told to go try things and figure out creative solutions and take the chance that they might fail. And these days, it’s easy to find the “right” answer and avoid a lot of failure. Thanks to the internet we can always find the most acceptable solution and do that, rather than invent something new that sprung from our own imaginations and experience.
My friend Richard Newton wrote a bestselling book (in England) a few years ago called The End of Nice: How to Be Human in a World Run by Robots. Richard has been a journalist, a marketer working with the likes of Dr. Who, a startup founder, and a book author.
He points out in the book that it’s easier now than ever to avoid the pitfalls of originality.
“Much about the internet has been bad for thinking…the practice of thinking has been replaced by the search for an answer. And we are plugged, through an abundance of apps, to so much data that we can easily get by without an original thought… Cruelly, just when original, idiosyncratic, deep thought becomes critical to a good life, it has become exponentially easier to do the reverse.”
The people who do remarkable things, he wrote, are often single-mindedly passionate about one thing and focused on it to a point of being considered unbalanced or inappropriate. “This is the future: passion, focus, determination, and indulgence of the things which interest us.”
But at the same time, Newton, Hagel, and others say you can’t get stuck drilling down in one area. As Newton says, humans are expanding their lifetimes to match the Galapagos turtle while companies increasingly have the lifespan of a mayfly.
“You must be prepared to become a noob over and over—that’s the only way to learn a new skill,” Newton said. “A programmer must learn to be a noob every time a new set of computer languages coming along. So you will constantly be a student; constantly learning. When you study jazz or improv, you take a stance that allows openness, a rock climber or a martial artist is always advancing into a position of maximal opportunity. The path to the good life is the opposite of premature optimization. This is not to say that you can’t carry learning and experience with you, but you should be prepared to keep learning new skills. Perhaps the way to develop expertise will be thematically—like becoming an expert in visual communications, healthcare, or storytelling."
It is less about acquiring knowledge and more about having your own take on it, less about knowing the best practice and more about understanding how to meet people’s needs, less about left-brain logic and more about intuition and empathy—relationships, not transactions. Hagel said that means shifting from a male archetype to a female one. Historically, work and business have been deeply analytical and unemotional, pulling things apart and analyzing them that way. That’s masculine. The feminine archetype is more holistic, including the whole human being, building long-term relationships.
And it’s about embracing uncertainty and what Hagel calls productive friction.
It is less about acquiring knowledge and more about having your own take on it, less about knowing the best practice and more about understanding how to meet people’s needs, less about left-brain logic and more about intuition and empathy—relationships, not transactions.
“If we come together and debate really vigorously from different mindsets, learning is viewed largely as sharing,” he said. It’s not about consuming existing knowledge but about synthesizing new ideas.
In other words, the best way to create a robot-proof career is to become more and more human—your flawed, unpredictable, emotional, relational, imaginative self. Don’t hide your insecurities or weaknesses or idiosyncrasies. Use every part of the buffalo to make a career that incorporates your passions, skills, relationships, and identity. And continue to evolve that person over time through constant learning.
That doesn’t sound robotic at all, does it?
Susan Lahey is a journalist who lives in Austin and writes about everything that piques her curiosity including travel, technology, work, business, art, sustainability and cultivating deep, messy, exquisite humanness in the digital age.