Future Work … critical, creative and complex thinking-based skills will matter most in a world of intelligent machines and humanity

March 20, 2018

Automation, robotics, artificial intelligence … the biggest question I get asked is how will this affect the workplace of today. Is my job at risk? And what should I do? Which are the jobs of the future? And what should I suggest my kids study?

Change is inevitable. Look at the industrial revolution, as a small comparison. From the fields to the factories, we shifted rapidly from an agricultural to industrial society, driven by the human demand for progress, both in terms of better products and lower prices. Machines, production lines, automation and efficiency transformed our lives and landscapes, our jobs and wealth.

A similarly dramatic shift is likely over the coming decade. And whilst it will similarly drive the demise of old ways of working, it will also create new opportunities – not just for the technologies, but for people too – to be more creative, and to be more human.

For those in the workforce – or for those like my children entering their final years of full-time education and thinking what they want to do in the world of work – the big question is: what skills are needed to navigate this monumental shift in the economy? How will humans create value in an increasingly automated world?

Guthrie Jensen has summarizes the skills needed in 2020 and beyond to take advantage of the shifting landscape of work. In short, for those looking to future proof their careers, building competencies in areas that machines will be unlikely to tackle effectively (i.e. complex problem solving, creativity) is likely the best recipe for success.

It can be daunting to think about automation’s role in the future – but if you’re a bookkeeper, legal secretary, insurance underwriter, credit analyst, or any other person in a job with high automation potential, it would be prudent to be thinking long and hard about what you can offer beyond your existing set of skills and competencies.

Here’s just a quick look at automation potential of select positions, according to a study by Oxford University:

Position Chance of Automation Position Chance of Automation
Telemarketer 99% Physician 0.4%
Tax Preparer 99% Dentist 0.4%
Insurance Underwriter 99% Computer Systems       Analyst 0.7%
Bookkeeping Clerk 98% Registered Nurse 0.9%
Legal Secretary 98% Teacher 1.0%
Credit Analyst 98% Microbiologist 1.2%
Loan Officer 98% Pharmacist 1.2%
Real Estate Broker 97% Sales Manager 1.3%
Payroll Clerk 97% Engineer 1.4%
Accountant 94% CEO 1.5%
Budget Analyst 94% PR Manager 1.5%
Pharmacy Technician 92% Architect 1.8%


So how do we set ourselves up for future success in a world where even real estate brokers are likely to be automated?

There are many considerations for career success during a time of significant change.

However, there’s a good case that skills – especially soft skills – are the most important foundation to build upon. These include things like the ability to communicate and work well with others, solve problems, and think outside of the box, as well as other aspects of emotional intelligence.

Here are some skills that experts say should be prioritized:

1. Complex Problem Solving
It’s true that AI can solve problems that humans cannot – but it also goes the other way. When problem solving needs to span multiple industries or when problems are not fully defined, humans can work backwards to figure out a solution.

2. Critical Thinking
Machines are getting better at aspects of critical thinking, but humans are still able to to connect, interpret and imagine concepts in a world full of ambiguity and nuance. A lawyer can pinpoint the exact positioning to make a case for a client, or a marketer can figure out an overarching message that can resonate with consumers.

3. Creativity
Creativity requires a degree of intuitive randomness that can not yet be imitated by AI. Why did the architect design the building a certain way, and why did the musician improvise by playing a chord out of key? It’s hard to explain why to a computer – it just feels right.

Read more in the IFTF Future of Work report


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