What if there was something you could do to make yourself irreplaceable? What if there were skills you could learn that made you immune from irrelevance and redundancy?
In the context of recent history and the current chaos, these are more than philosophical questions. Many of us end 2020 with a genuine fear for our future work.
What Engages Students?
I was talking with a friend recently who is a key influencer in global education. He asked me what my views were on how to engage with students across the globe.
Speaking from purely anecdotal experience, I suggested that it was a different proposition to students in different parts of the world.
As a broad generalisation, in developing countries, students are eager for a better life, and they see education and the qualifications and status it brings as a means to bettering themselves and perhaps their communities. Whereas in the West, one of the non-conscious narratives behind the thinking of a lot of young people is that they will soon be replaced by AI. And so there needs to be a compelling benefit to students about the purpose of their chosen career path and how they equip themselves for it.
I believe this is also reinforced by the way we have treated desk work in recent history. I call it desk work because the various lockdowns across the West have begun to see a shift from going to the office. White-collar work might never look the same again. So the term office work is likely itself to fall from literal usage.
The time and motion approach of Taylorism from the assembly line was applied to the office. This persistent drive for efficiency has brought increasing automation of tasks previously performed by humans. People in manufacturing and offices were treated in the same way, as resources, and fungible ones at that: Oh, that assistant has left? Replace them with another one. Call Human Resources.
Once, what began as meaningful desk work has been significantly eroded by automation. If a specific role has not been made completely redundant, it is more about being driven by automated systems.
We are invited to become serfs to the machine. This is not a very compelling pitch to young people. They see it in the drivenness of the white-collar older generation and are not sure they want that for themselves. What, though, is their alternative?
However, there is hope.
I see three levels of desk work:
Following the industrial revolution, most developed economies saw the growth of armies of clerks. They swelled the ranks of the middle class in Western economies. These clerks were often women, who would be simple information processors, routinely processing paper.
As a graduate in the mid-1970s, I remember how I still had access, even then, to typing pools. Any organisation of any significant size had them.
This is the type of career that is most immediately vulnerable to redundancy through AI. We do not need this kind of routine work done by humans anymore. For example, at that time, I would dictate my correspondence by cassette recorder to be sent to the typists. Now an app will do that for me on my phone, without me even needing to transcribe my own voice.
The Knowledge Worker
We use the term knowledge worker for any work that requires higher-order analytical thought. We thought that accumulating knowledge and applying knowledge skills will exempt our work from long-term automation. It may not. Google, Wikipedia, and a host of other services prove this to be the case.
For example, armies of academics, writers, editors, proofreaders, and technical editors were employed in producing Encyclopaedia Brittanica. (If you wonder what that was, then I invite you to look it up… because you can!) Where are the knowledge workers of Encyclopedia Brittanica now? They either had to reskill to higher-order work, which became more challenging, but probably more meaningful. Or else they became office serfs somewhere else. Or they too were made redundant.
There is a higher level of desk work, which requires key skills of reflective writing and sketchnoting, divergent thinking, integration, synthesis, systems thinking and the courage to innovate. People who distinguish themselves in work through these skills are the creatives.
The creatives use their skills to a level of mastery to strategise, to cross specialist niches, to innovate, and to bring the world something new. They see patterns. They synthesise and connect apparently-unlike ideas, media, metaphors and people, which yield all kinds of breakthroughs. The creative helps us see the world differently, introduces the impossible to the possible. So this kind of worker becomes irreplaceable.
Despite Sci-Fi myths such as Blade Runner, Terminator or The Matrix, no AI can match the creative’s mind. I believe no computer ever will. No algorithm can replicate the human process of discovery and illumination. The creatives are the irreplaceable ones.
Creatives are more like Captain Kirk, of the Starship Enterprise, who “boldly go where no one has gone before,” (even to the point of not caring about splitting infinitives.)
We might first think that creative work is only for the artistic types: the painters, the choreographers, the composers, authors of fiction. However, there is something innate in the mind of the artist that is open to us all, providing us, even in the context of our current, a route to innovation. We can become artists in our own field.
If you have read this far and tracked what I have been saying, that includes you, dear reader.
In the main, the traditional education industry has not valued these thinking skills. Education has tended to value knowledge-centric examinations. Now we should look again.
Creatives understand that their work is not linear. It is often a diligent walk of faith, but they are alert to those moments of illumination that are denied even the knowledge workers in their target-driven, high-stress working lifestyles. True entrepreneurs are creatives. Leaders should be creatives, with some element of visionary thinking. Designers, engineers and architects all become masters as they learn that creative process. Teachers and physicians also excel when they rise above routine and drivenness and learn to work on their work, rather than in their work.
These are the people I choose to encourage and inform through coaching and mentoring. I create with them to become the bright spots they can be, the examples of what we can all become. They are the positive outliers, the hope-bringers for the next generation.
A Shift to a New Kind of Desk Work Economy?
We have seen in economies like that of the UK a huge shift from manual work towards the service industries. This rise of the middle class seems a concern to some economists. However, if we create value then a smaller industrial workforce is not an issue.
In the same way, if we can equip the next generation so that they can choose to become a creative, offering unique value, then the demographic profile of the future desk work population could look something rather more like this:
As we learn to be comfortable with being creatives with our irreplaceable minds, owning our creative process, then there is hope, not just for students, but for the world.
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