Future of jobs and automation: What I learned from my teenage son

2017-12-22 10:39:20

“If you don’t go to your room and study instead of playing video games and watching YouTube, you’ll end up flipping hamburgers at McDonalds for the rest of your life!”

How many times have mothers of teenage kids found themselves making such dire pronouncements as we straddle home after fighting traffic and a busy day at the office? I plead guilty. But the more we read and look around, the more we realize that our teenagers are actually more prepared for the future than we can even understand.

Here are the facts. First, by 2030 almost 10 percent of the US workforce will be employed in occupations that do not exist today. Second, a ‘typical’ job will no longer consist of clocking into an office from 9 to 5 and then being ‘done’ for the day. It will be based on output.

Output-based performance has been determined most professional jobs for years, yet social norms seem to be in denial about this thin line between work and rest. Moreover, tasks in complex jobs such as legal research, translation, medical procedures, etc. are already seeing artificial intelligence outperform humans.
The uncertainty regarding the employment panorama to 2030 amid the rise of automation has led to a burst of economic research on this issue, particularly in advanced countries. It poses major dilemmas for policymakers regarding labour regulations and how to stem the worsening income distribution.

The Asian Development Bank (ADB) is currently looking at this crucially important phenomenon in developing Asia, which will be the theme chapter of the 2018 Asian Development Outlook.

Gaming for data

Maybe some of the answers are not too far from home. Back to my son, I could not be more incorrect on the hamburger-flipping issue. This is a typical routine job that will be displaced by robots very quickly, except in poor countries or lagging regions that have surplus labour and relatively lower wages.

Even if my son relocated to one of these places, his comparative advantage in hamburger flipping is quite inferior to other candidates, let alone robots.

As for playing video games, I recently heard that college students with computer and gaming skills were being hired by entertainment firms to beta-test games with an hourly wage I could only dream when I started my first job after graduate school.

My son just started at his university a new project funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, among others, for students to design games that help enforce regulations around urban services. The premise, based on behavioural economics and spearheaded by Nobel prize winner Richard Thaler, is that people are more likely to obey traffic rules, pay taxes, use environmentally-friendly alternatives, etc. if doing so is easy, enjoyable, challenging ¬– like 
a game.

Researchers can use games to understand people’s real preferences for, say, a park, a highway, the benefit from cleaning up a polluted river, etc. But they need testers to see how gamers would react and who can help redesign games – Big Data meets cost-benefit analysis of 
urban projects.

It is thus possible that those afternoons playing video games with friends may have been more worthwhile for my son’s future job prospects than reviewing his biology textbook.

Online learning, remote work

On the YouTube dilemma, I increasingly find myself doing exactly what I asked my son not to do. We now have lectures and workshops from the best university professors, including TED Talks explaining their models on the impact of automation that are instantly accessible on YouTube. Even better, I can provide my own comments or be directed to similar or related lectures online.

The camera, graphics and medium enhance my ability to absorb the information in the video. I once saw my son “studying” biology by watching a YouTube video by a 16-year-old whiz kid who graphically broke the explanation of DNA selection down to very simple terms. Finally, I understood the concept!

And let’s not forget traffic? Well, the jobs of the future will be done anytime, anywhere, as long as connectivity is possible. My statement likely reflected the not-so-good parts of my work-life unbalance, namely leaving after a long day to battle traffic congestion in Manila. Not much fun at all.

Perhaps I envy my son’s prospects of being able to do his future job late at night, when his concentration is at its peak (yes, we’re both night owls).

Surely some parts of today’s education standards will continue to be important, such as discipline, establishing good habits and having the desire and flexibility to constantly learn new things. While I do not know which trait will be the most important for future jobs, I do know one thing: those who can adapt, be flexible and always be willing to learn will be better equipped to embrace the future.

The blur that will be created between what’s formal or not formal, whether you are working or playing, learning or solving, strategizing or performing, will itself redefine the meaning of the word ‘job’.

(Valerie Mercer-Blackman is Senior Economist, Economic Research and Regional Cooperation Department, ADB)


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