In my quest to discover what skills will be essential for work in the future, I read Tim O’Reilly’s book WTF?: What’s the Future and Why It’s Up to Us. I was not at all familiar with O’Reilly, or his company, O’Reilly Media. Perhaps if I were more than an end user of computer technology, I would have recognized his prominence and the import of many of his publications.
For those of you who, like me, don’t recognize the O’Reilly Media name, it is important to know that Tim O’Reilly, and those in his media company, have been writing and publishing about computer technology since 1984. Additionally, the company organizes and hosts a multitude of conferences and summits that bring together some of the world’s brightest minds.
In some circles, O’Reilly is seen as a futurist — particularly as it relates to emerging technologies. O’Reilly sees himself as a “techno-optimist,” which I think is an accurate representation of his overall thoughts about our future.
An overriding theme throughout the book is that of maps — maps of the present and maps of the future. And, O’Reilly really encourages the reader to not be so committed to the map of the present that you fail to see other possible routes for the future.
This is incredibly important when you think about the future of work. I grew up during a time when it was well accepted that a college degree would lead to a life of stable, fulfilling employment. In fact, as an undergrad, I studied English and education, fully planning to teach high school English. That was my future — 30 or so years of teaching, with summers off and the occasional snow day.
However, upon graduating, and passing all requisite tests to be licensed to teach, the overall economy was just emerging from a recession, and there were far fewer jobs than there were newly licensed teachers. So began my non-linear career path. Which, I will tell you, was not at all cool, or well-accepted. So, I do appreciate O’Reilly’s optimism, and his encouragement to see beyond what we know and accept as being the definition of work and the image of a career.
In my mind, this optimism is incredibly meaningful, for in some ways, the future of work has already begun to arrive. Today, we see the length of employment in any one job to be, on average, between 4-5 years. Not too many years ago, this would have been labeled “job-hopping” and would have negatively impacted future opportunities. Additionally, we have seen the rise of the “gig” economy, or the general acceptance of freelancing. By some estimates, nearly 1/3 of all employees are working for themselves. Freelancing, or self-employment, appears to be shedding its negative reputation. The benefits of greater freedom and flexibility in work hours and locations seems to now outweigh the risk of an inconsistent income stream.
As work continues to evolve, O’Reilly advocates for changes to the rules and regulations that govern employment. Again, urging the reader to keep an open mind and acknowledge what is currently not working. According to O’Reilly, “[i]t’s time to rewrite the rules,” and it is important that we are active participants in the rewriting.
And what about automation? Will our jobs disappear? In O’Reilly’s opinion, it is not too late to make that choice. We, as a society, can choose for automation to replace human labor, or we can choose for automation to augment human labor. The choice is ours. But again, O’Reilly makes it clear that we cannot sit on the sidelines and leave it solely to others to make those choices.
The book asserts that the future has not been determined, it has not been written. And, thus, it is important to be prepared. So, what is it that we should have, in case we need it, in order to survive this “future of work”?
First and foremost, is a willingness and ability to learn. As jobs evolve, the skills we need to do the work will change. And, we may need to learn new skills. We may need to learn them quickly. No longer can we earn a degree, hang it on the wall, and call it done. We will need to be open to constantly learning, trying new things, being willing to fail, and committed to keep trying.
For example, if you find yourself competing in the gig economy, you may need to acquire new skills, like marketing and bookkeeping, as you will, in essence be running your own business. Or, if you work in a large company, now might be the time to look at other departments — particularly those that require creativity or collaboration, which are skills less likely to be automated. If so, can you apply for entry level positions that will provide more future opportunities? Or do you have a hobby about which you’re passionate? Maybe you can begin to transition that interest into a skill set that makes you more marketable, or at least gives you options should you need them.
Secondly, we have to change the way we think about jobs. O’Reilly explains this quite well —stop thinking about a job “as something that you acquire from someone else, like you might find a product on the grocery shelf. If they are all gone, you’re out of luck.” Rather, we should think about work — what work needs to be done, where is it at, and how do I create an opportunity to do that work?
Lastly, we have to start thinking about ourselves as “Me, Inc.” We each have to become a corporation of one, with skills we market and sell like products to the highest bidder. Regardless of whether one freelances or is employed, it is important to understand and explain your skills, as well as the value of those skills. It will be important to see problems that need solved, and know how to convince people that you are just the person to pay to get the problem solved quickly.
There’s a lot that’s unknown about our future, particularly the extent to which technology will change our career paths. But, we can be active participants in conversations about how that future is written. And, regardless of how it is written, we can and should be prepared for whatever happens. We can do that best by learning, thinking, and seeing ourselves differently. And, by creating a new map — one with roads that lead to lives with fulfilling work that matters.