Friday, December 02, 2016

What Jobs Matter?

There are things we know: That as technologies change rapidly, there is a hollowing out of the Middle Class jobs. Some jobs, like the Telephone Operator, have become extinct; some others, like Secretaries and Receptionists, have become less ubiquitous; and yet others, like the Book-keepers, are being driven into obsolesce. Just like automation of an earlier kind marginalised the factory worker (Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times, remember), the automation is now coming for the middle class lives and suburban lifestyles. Even those jobs created by technologies - the Call Centre worker and others - are now facing competition from newer generations of technologies, such as Voice Recognition. And, the indication is that this will intensify further, and transform the domains that were hitherto deemed safe: Jobs such as Accountants, Taxi Drivers, Legal Clerks and even Waiters and Cooks. The economies that benefited greatly from the globalisation's last wave - India comes to mind - will be greatly disrupted from its latest turn. 

Then, there are things that we don't. The big question, of course, is then, what happens to all the people. Are we looking at a world full of unemployed, a new global underclass? The answer that the apologists of technological progress give in response is also based on a big do-not-know: Technological progress creates its own jobs, as it did for last several decades. We do not know what these jobs would be yet - who would have known about a Search Engine Specialist even only a few years ago - but we know there will be these jobs. And, whether or not we are optimistic, or fatalistic (we have always found a way, didn't we?) or doomsayers, we still do not know how the politics of the labour market will shape out: Would we continue to tax incomes of labour while we look at dividends, incomes of capital, more leniently, even when such capital is deployed to replace Labour and not create jobs (which is the reason for the tax incentives)?

However, this post is not about the technologies and politics of the job market, but rather how an educator (or an institution) should approach this issue. What jobs would really matter? As there are so many what-ifs and no clear answers, it is tempting not to try an answer at all. But an answer is needed and demanded, by no one else but the students, who are increasingly conscious of the high costs of education and seeking an assurance of some kind. While the educators would often say that the only certainty is uncertainty, they are essentially hiding the other side of the certainty - student debt! And, while some courageous educators are making the case for an education for character, claiming that character can help people live through changing circumstances, this fails to answer sufficiently why someone will need to go to an university and incur costs to build character, because the world is not short of trying circumstances itself.

My point is that attempting to answer the question - what jobs would matter in the future - is an important one for the educators. While there are uncertainties about what precisely those job titles would be, one must start with an understanding of the future labour market in an educational enterprise. This is because education is a future-oriented activity, and someone needs to make the attempt to unscramble the convergent forces of politics, technology and ideas to create 'models' of what the job market would look like. 

So, to attempt again, there are things we know and things we do not. For example, we do not know precisely which technologies will emerge and how soon or lately they will affect jobs and careers. However, the project for the educator does not have to look out several years in the future. In fact, one thing we should know is to shorten our horizon and work with a few years at a time, three to five years at the most. And, with three to five year horizons, we can know enough about the technologies in development and from our past experience, the process of technology diffusion. And, with this, we can indeed build a workable model for this prediction.

With this in mind, we should know better than saying technologies would create new jobs which we do not know about. And, yet, such a stance is popular, popping up on Powerpoint in conference circuits all the time. The reason for this is a kind of technology fetishism that define our popular discourse: Talking about technological progress in this mystical way is actually glamorous. And, the hard truth really is that cutting edge technology, even with all those data visionaries and nanotech biggies, will have very little impact on jobs, in the immediate term or even the long term. They may be excellent jobs, but they are not the ones we educate for. In the end, those jobs do not really matter.

The jobs that will matter in the next three to five year horizon are those jobs focused, not on the creation of technology, but those that are aimed at diffusion of existing or emerging technologies. There are vast sectors of our lives that will embrace more and more technology, and use it better and more efficiently. We could have predicted the coming of the Search Engine Specialist jobs five, even ten, years before it became a reality: We could have looked out at our Yahoo! or Alta Vista and spoke about these transforming marketing in 1998 (and we actually did). The jobs that will make tech an everyday affair is unglamourous - does anyone want to be BT Technician who is usually only seen hunched at a Cable Box - but these are the jobs that matter.

The answer, therefore, is we know which jobs will matter, but we do not want to say. This is because, even in all its uncertain glory, the attraction of the unknowable technology creation jobs make better advertising copy than the very predictable jobs of technology diffusion. But just as the beautiful model in the advertisement makes the average housewife's life a little more miserable (even if she, in the process, buys more soap), the mystery of technology nirvana actually makes the poor students' frustrations worse. An educator, therefore, is duty-bound to demystify the Labour Market and talk about what jobs do really matter.


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