Fears abound that robots are about to cause mass unemployment. But so far there is no sign of this. Instead, automation seems to be pushing people from routine jobs, such as factory work, into non-routine ones, particularly those that require cognitive and social skills. Technological progress will cause a shift in the nature of jobs available and the skills they require.
It is impossible to know for sure what these new jobs will be—the Luddites who campaigned against the mechanisation of weaving in the early 19th century could not have imagined that new fields such as railways, telegraphy and electrification were coming. But two tools can help us take a stab at identifying the jobs of the near future: hard-nosed statistics, and predictive intuition.
First, the statistics. America’s Bureau of Labour Statistics helpfully produces a survey every two years that extrapolates current trends to predict the growth rates of different job categories (most recently for 2014-24). So which are growing fastest?
At the top, with 108% growth, is the job of wind turbine service technician. This is not surprising, given the rapid expansion of renewable energy, a trend that seems likely to continue for several decades. There will be a lot more wind turbines in future, and they will need to be fixed when they go wrong.
Another multi-decade trend sure to generate jobs is the ageing of populations in many countries. This is creating jobs for occupational-therapy assistants (+43%), physical-therapy assistants (+41%), home-health aides (+38%), audiologists (+29%), hearing-aid specialists (+27%) and optometrists (+27%). These are all tasks that require empathy and social skills.
In business, companies are accumulating more and more data about their customers and operations, and being able to extract insights from this information provides a competitive advantage. So it is little surprise to see statisticians (+34%) and operations-research analysts (+30%) on the list of fastest-growing professions. In medicine, the plunging cost of genetic sequencing is opening up new possibilities for research and treatment—but can also reveal to patients that their genetic inheritance contains unpleasant surprises. This explains the growing demand for genetic counsellors (+29%) to provide advice and support.
Yet these statistics are necessarily limited to measuring the growth rates of job categories that already exist. Imagining the completely new types that might emerge requires guesswork.
An emerging trend is the practice of dealing with companies and online services through conversational interfaces—speech or text messages. Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa and Microsoft’s Cortana are the most prominent examples, but many companies are creating corporate “chatbots” that can respond to customer-service queries or dispense information. Rather than visiting an organisation’s website, you may end up talking to its bot instead. Just as websites need designers and programmers, bots will need specialists to devise their business rules, write their dialogue and keep them up to date: a job category that might collectively be termed bot-wranglers. Already, there is talk of Silicon Valley firms hiring poets and comedians to write elegant, witty banter for conversational computer systems.
Wanted: bot-wranglers and virtual-fashion designers
Meanwhile autonomous vehicles, or drones, are taking to the air and to the roads. Drones are already being used in agriculture, wildlife conservation, scientific research and humanitarian relief. They will need armies of support staff and technicians.
The need to feed growing urban populations is leading to rapid progress in hydroponic and aeroponic food production in closely controlled environments, creating new jobs for indoor farmers. The combination of biology with three-dimensional printing is being exploited by synthetic-tissue engineers to create replacement human organs. And though the field is still in its infancy, expect augmented reality—the overlaying of computer graphics on the real world—to create demand for virtual-fashion designers to create jewellery, clothing and accessories with which to adorn yourself digitally.
Inspired by Isaac Asimov’s classic robot stories, my 16-year-old daughter wants to be a robopsychologist—a trouble-shooter who figures out why robots are misbehaving. “That job doesn’t exist,” complained her school’s career adviser. “True,” my daughter replied, “but it probably will in 2025.”