The Future of Work

As we hurtle rapidly forward into an undiscovered country of robots and 3D printers, people are starting to ask, “What is the future of work?”

Economic changes have already decimated traditional middle-class blue collar work like car- and steel-making.  A lot of folks in Silicon Valley have jumped on the “everyone should learn how to code” bandwagon, but that conveniently overlooks the facts that a) not everyone has the right talents to be a coder, and b) the demand for code isn’t infinite.  In fact, oDesk can put a price on coding skills right now, and it’s not that high.

Now imagine a world in which every home has a 3D printer, rendering an entire supply chain, from manufacturing to distribution to retail completely irrelevant.  Not everyone can design product blueprints; Etsy is a fine site, but it’s not the basis for an entire economy.

One of my pet techniques for considering a problem is to follow a trend to its logical conclusion.  Imagine a world in which machines can do all productive work, ranging from manufacturing to surgery.  What would we do?  Would this be paradise or hell?

Some subset of people will carve out a role as creators and designers (boy am I glad that I got that Product Design degree now!).  But what about the rest of folks?

My guess is that our focus will shift to the things that only humans can do.  Connecting with others will be the key job skill.  With so much leisure time, we’ll need people to organize and lead activities.  Clubs will spring up everywhere, and sports and games will return with a vengeance.  Teachers will work closely with students of all ages to help them learn using the “flipped” classroom model enabled by the Khan Academy and other such institutions.

At least that’s what I hope we do.  The alternative is that we all retreat to our future social networks and MMOs, finding meaning in artificial worlds and none whatsoever in the real one.

Ultimately, the choice is up to us.  But the next time someone tells you to learn how to code, you might want to polish up your people skills…just in case.

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