We’ve all read the dire predictions. Robots are coming for our jobs. Artificial intelligence will make humans obsolete. Anything we can do, machines can do better.
But as we enter the Fourth Industrial Revolution—also known as Industry 4.0—research suggests the future isn’t as bleak as it may seem. While it’s true that automation will eradicate millions of jobs, it will also create millions of new ones. In fact, just 5 percent of industries are likely to become fully automated; the majority of jobs will see about a third of their tasks automated, while many existing roles will end up being redefined rather than eliminated.
“Occupations and their skill requirements are not set in stone,” says Getting Smart co-founder Tom Vander Ark. “Occupations can be re-designed to pair unique human skills with the productivity gains from technology to boost demand for jobs.”
While the demand for human employees won’t disappear, the need for certain skills will. As machine learning becomes capable of tackling a growing range of tasks that used to rely on the human brain, organizations will increasingly seek employees who offer skills that can’t be automated. To remain relevant, workers will need to cultivate a new set of skills that set them apart from machines. These future work skills include:
Tomorrow’s workforce will inherit a world filled with what economists call “wicked problems”, or conundrums whose complexity makes them difficult if not impossible to solve—such as climate change, poverty, or terrorism. To find economically viable solutions, businesses will need employees who are capable of complex problem solving, defined as the ability to “solve novel, ill-defined problems in complex, real-world settings.” By 2020, more than one in three jobs across all industries are expected to demand complex problem solving as a core skill (compared to the fewer than 1 in 20 jobs that will require physical abilities such as strength or dexterity).
While machine learning is getting better at making decisions based on data, it still has a long way to go. For the foreseeable future, businesses will continue to rely on people to make sound decisions based on the data insights machines produce. That’s why employers report a growing demand for the process skills, such as communicating, measuring, or predicting, which allow for good decision making—especially critical thinking. Employees ability to observe problems and infer solutions will be even more relevant in the future. Nearly one in five future jobs will require process skills as part of their core skill sets, and around 70 percent of employers worldwide already screen job candidates based on critical thinking skills.
According to McKinsey, creative work is one of the hardest activities to automate. Humans continue to outshine machines when it comes to originality and imaginative thinking, prompting the Harvard Business Review to declare imagination, creativity, and strategy the “future of work”. Creativity is the critical ingredient that allows employees to innovate, strategize, and leverage technology to find new ways of working, which is why senior leaders rank it as the most critical factor for future business success.
As physical and technical tasks become increasingly automated, knowledge work is expected to comprise a growing share of future jobs. This type of work requires cognitive flexibility, or the ability to rapidly transition between different concepts or perspectives. Being able to work cross-functionally and excel in different areas helps employers grow and strengthens departments. Unlike multitasking, cognitive flexibility means you are able to go from planning to execution in different areas of the industry you’re working in. Cognitive flexibility is already in high demand among employers, and it will become even more fundamental as we move into an era marked by globalization and lightning-speed advancement.
Once machines began to enter the workplace, demand for employees with the technical skills to use them, such as programming and machine operation, shot through the roof. In the workplace of the future, however, companies will have a greater need for employees capable of mediating between machines and humans. As a result, social skills, such as emotional intelligence and the ability to teach others, will become more important than technical skills. For example, as medical diagnosis becomes increasingly automated, many medical professionals will need to focus more on translating and communicating data to patients.
While it’s natural to feel some anxiety around the changes innovative technology will bring, there’s plenty of evidence that future employers will still need human labor—they’ll just be looking for different skill sets. Developing these future work skills will help today’s employees be prepared for the coming change and survive with their jobs intact (if a bit altered).