The Future of Employment: Don’t ask kids what they want to be when they grow up; rather ask what problem they want to solve

bonkers2Don’t ask kids what they want to be when they grow up; rather ask what problem they want to solve.

Their careers may not exist yet.

Call me bonkers but I’ve been reading The Future of Employment: How susceptible are jobs to computerisation?

It’s a recent working paper from Oxford Martin School, University of Oxford and it focuses on the expected impacts of future computerisation on US labor market outcomes.

It’s a long report, dense with analytical thinking and full of statistics and scholarly references.

So why?

Because it’s full of intriguing examples of disruptive technology. (Think Luddites, knitting machines, steam power, assembly lines and driverless cars.)

And because it’s highly relevant.

Of course you can skip all the history, analysis and methodology and head right for the Appendix: the ranking of 702 occupations according to their probability of computerization.

Your job is probably on the list

They’re all ranked – Everything from crossing guard and choreographer to general dentist and athletic trainer; from materials engineer and pre-school teacher to short order cook and college administrator.

So – what jobs seem safe?

The top five with lowest probability of being computerized are:

Recreational Therapists
; First-Line Supervisors of Mechanics, Installers, and Repairers; Emergency Management Directors; 
Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers;  and Audiologists.

The five highest are:

Insurance Underwriters
; Mathematical Technicians
; Hand Sewers; 
Title Examiners, Abstractors, and Searchers; 
 and Telemarketers

But the report is a lot more than a ranked list and there’s plenty of interesting history and analysis of technological change.

It is not about predicting the future but rather looking at what is happening now and paying attention to the direction and accelerating pace of radical change. Here’s just one illustration of that pace: driverless cars:

… ten years ago, in the chapter “Why People Still Matter”, Levy and Murnane (2004) pointed at the difficulties of replicating human perception, asserting that driving in traffic is insusceptible to automation: “But executing a left turn against oncoming traffic involves so many factors that it is hard to imagine discovering the set of rules that can replicate a driver’s behaviour”. Six years later, in October 2010, Google announced that it had modified several Toyota Priuses to be fully autonomous.

So it’s not just manual and routine tasks that are being computerized.

A few other highlights from the report:

Advances in machine learning and artificial intelligence – such as sensing capacity, data mining, machine vision, and computational statistics – are designed to develop algorithms that allow cognitive tasks to be automated. These are changes that will have a significant impact on knowledge work. Additionally, their application in mobile robotics further extends the computerization of manual tasks.

The technological changes of this century are different from those of the past because they affect an increasingly wide range of cognitive tasks, which, until now, have largely remained in the human domain.

Occupations that require a high degree of creative intelligence are unlikely to be automated in the next few decades. Algorithms and robots can now reproduce some aspects of human social interaction but real-time recognition of natural human emotion, and the skills of negotiation, persuasion and care remain a challenge.  And the computer’s ability to respond intelligently to such inputs is even more difficult. Even simplified versions of typical social tasks prove difficult for computers.

That means that while many non-routine tasks can be automated occupations involving high-level social and creative intelligence, complex perception and manipulation tasks are unlikely to be replaced any time soon.

And people skills: the ability to negotiate, influence, entertain and persuade, are likely to become increasingly important for human work, due to their resistance to automation.

Manual work in unstructured and highly individualized environments may also survive – for example bespoke personal services and gardening. There are important implications here for the world of making, of learning to invent and inventing to learn.

But the tasks that can be substituted are everywhere and in every domain from fraud detection and law enforcement to financial services, and from medical diagnostics and higher education to contract and patent law.

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I don’t seek to be an alarmist (Aargh! The robots are coming for your jobs!) But we need to pay attention.

You can read the report yourself and draw your own conclusions and implications but here are some of mine:

John Henry beat the steam hammer but the effort killed him.

Creative and social intelligence give humans a competitive edge over the robots and the machine and the computer. Tasks requiring creative and social intelligence are the least susceptible to being lost to the machine.  We need to focus on sophisticated cognitive and social-emotional skills in school and ensure students develop them to the highest levels.

Generating novelty is not the point. That is a relatively easy task. Any computer can do that! The creative contribution is rather to come up with new ideas and combinations that have purpose and value. Making a creative and ethically driven contribution matters.

What you can do with what you know – and your ability to make connections and your creative confidence – matter more than how much you know.

Connecting joy to learning is a crucial experience for learners and an essential task for schools and educators.

We all know the world of work is changing fast.  And those changes mean we have to confront some very basic and essential questions about the purpose and direction of education.  And we ought to be pretty clear about why we are asking kids to spend their lives in school doing what we think is right for them.

Given the nature of our changing world there’s an excellent chance that what we have traditionally thought important in terms of content and knowledge may very well not be. Hence the “invention” of the so-called 21st century skills of collaboration, creativity, empathy, problem finding and all the rest.

It used to be OK to tell graduates to follow their bliss. I don’t think most of us can do that any more. Or at least not in quite the same way.

A better approach is to help students find their interests, strengths and passions and to support them in developing them broadly and deeply as self-sustaining learners for life capable of adaptation and change.

And the next step is to help them connect that abiding interest and developed talent with an important public need. When the match is made the deal is sealed: lifelong satisfaction and employment!  It all sounds so easy.

I don’t think school is about preparing students for the job market. It is about so much more. However, I do think that it is essential that we use our time in school to help children develop (and that means by being actively engaged in, not just hearing about) the skills and aptitudes that we can intelligently conclude they will need.

We need to do our best not to waste kids time. That means a program designed to develop the potential capacity to thrive. I.e. Have options, make wise choices and be employable.


This is testing season in NY and I ‘ve been wondering about the value and purpose of all that testing and its associated stress and anxiety.

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I’ve never had to take those particular tests, prepare for or administer them. I am not deeply familiar with their content. I am not a testing expert. 

But I do have questions about their value and the outcomes:

  • Will these tests – and the emphasis on standards and scores – help schools and students focus on developing the skills that will matter?  How will we know?
  • Do they allow for recognition of the extraordinary diversity of human capacities?
  • Is this absolutely the best use of students and teacher time?
  • What are the unintended but nevertheless negative side effects and consequences?
  • Whose interests are served and whose are not?
  • And how will the results be used to improve the lives of children now and in the future?

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I’m not alone in thinking about those questions of course. And there is plenty of public debate generating both heat and light on all facets of the testing controversy.

But to go back to that report:  Its purpose was to analyze the future employment landscape in the US – what occupations are likely to disappear through automation. It does not predict what new occupations will emerge as these sweeping changes take hold. Nor does it take into account the social and political climate that can derail and alter the speed and direction of change

I recommend reading the report if you are at all interested in the future of work. I think educators need to pay attention to these things for the sake of the students about whose futures we care deeply. We also need to pay attention as citizens. These changes have tremendous potential for social disruption and therefore political response.

I don’t pretend what it all means but I do think educators, parents and students should be talking about this stuff.stocking11

And there’s nothing new in the concern about technological change and unemployment.This is illustrated by my favorite anecdote from the report.

William Lee invented the stocking frame knitting machine in 1589, hoping that it would relieve workers of hand-knitting.

Seeking patent protection for his invention, he travelled to London where he had rented a building for his machine to be viewed by Queen Elizabeth I. To his disappointment, the Queen was more concerned with the employment impact of his invention and refused to grant him a patent, claiming that: “Thou aimest high, Master Lee. Consider thou what the invention could do to my poor subjects. It would assuredly bring to them ruin by depriving them of employment, thus making them beggars”

This all started with a tweet:

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And as for being bonkers – well that could be considered a point of pride if it means alignment with the estimable Miss Bonkers and Diffendoofer. Click the pic for more info on that.



  1. J morrison:

    Improvements in technology that relieve people of work should be welcome. More free leisure time. However our capitalist model means some in jobs others on the bread line. This is the fundamental problem. Greed.

  2. Thanks for the comment Jmorrison. I was intrigued by the Queen Elizabeth1 comment rejecting the knitting machine. Especially given the fact that wearing woollen caps was made compulsory (for some) during her reign. (An 1571 Act of Parliament designed to stimulate domestic wool consumption and trade decreed that on Sundays and holidays all males over 6 years of age, except for the nobility and persons of degree, were to wear woollen caps on pain of a fine of three farthings (3/4 pence) per day.) Of course – her rejection of the machine was primarily about preservation of power and the position of the guilds rather than concern for the employment.

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