If you’re taking a break from work to read this article, I’ve got one question for you: Are you crazy?
At this moment, there’s someone training for your job. He may not be as smart as you are—in fact, he could be quite stupid—but what he lacks in intelligence he makes up for in drive, reliability, consistency, and price. He’s willing to work for longer hours, and he’s capable of doing better work, at a much lower wage. He doesn’t ask for health or retirement benefits, he doesn’t take sick days, and he doesn’t goof off when he’s on the clock.
What’s more, he keeps getting better at his job. Right now, he might only do a fraction of what you can, but he’s an indefatigable learner—next year he’ll acquire a few more skills, and the year after that he’ll pick up even more. Before you know it, he’ll be just as good a worker as you are. And soon after that, he’ll surpass you.
By now it should be clear that I’m not talking about any ordinary worker. I’m referring to a nonhuman employee—a robot, or some kind of faceless software running on a server.
Farhad Manjoo, Will Robots Steal Your Job? You’re highly educated. You make a lot of money. You should still be afraid. (from Slate, September, 2011)
My first job was at Self Texaco in Harlingen, TX. I was young; and I did what I was told to do. I pumped gas for customers (note to young readers: in the old days, nobody pumped their own gas); I cleaned windshields; I checked air pressure; I learned to change oil and oil filters in cars. And I changed flat tires.
But, here’s the critical thing about that job; I showed up, and I did what I had been instructed to do. I was not in charge of my own work; I was not in charge of anything. I was a worker, period. And, it turns out, much of what I did is no longer required. Anybody can learn to pump their own gas, and now everyone does so.
There are still elements of such “just tell me what to do” tasks in some of the work that I do now. But, more and more, and then even more than that, I decide what I will do. That means that I have to be a full self-starter. And a self-strategizer. And a self-manager. The list of “self” titles is pretty long for me these days, and keeps growing.
I have now read a number of books about the changes in the world based on technological advances. The “Robots are Coming” (I will present the book The Rise of the Robots at the February First Friday Book Synopsis); we are in The Second Machine Age; Humans Are Underrated, says Geoff Colvin.
But these, and many other books, are all telling us the same thing. If the job you do can be learned by software and robots, it will be done by robots and software.
I guess that means that we all need to spend a fair amount of time answering this question (maybe some time every week/every week):
“What can I now do, and or what can I learn to do, that no robot will ever take away from me?”
This is increasingly the era of the self-starters, the self-thinkers, the self-strategizers. The “just tell me what to do” jobs are being replaced faster than we realize.