If you’ve been listening to tech interviews lately, surely you heard the argument that automation is will continue to replace people at work. It’s unsettling to look into the future with a sense that you might not be needed anymore; that your sense of agency, competence and identity could be stripped away from you.
It’s easy to start giving into fear and doubt. But this is not what I want to do, nor do you - I assume - since you’re reading this article. You want to understand what’s going on, and do everything you can to prepare for whatever comes next.
In the book 21 Lessons for the 21st century, historian Yuval Harari explains that the traditional framework we use to approach life is broken. He says:
“From time immemorial life was divided into two complementary parts: a period of learning followed by a period of working. In the first part of life you accumulated information, developed skills, constructed a world view, and built a stable identity. In the second part of life you relied on your accumulated skills to navigate the world, earn a living, and contribute to society."
However, he says, due to accelerating change and longer life spans, this way of life is rapidly becoming obsolete.
“This is the first time in human history that we have no idea how the world would look like in a very short time, let's say in 20 years. I mean, predictions were never very accurate: if you live in the middle ages, you don't know what will happen in 20 years. Maybe the vikings will invade, maybe the mongols will invade, maybe there'll be a plague, an earthquake. All kinds of things could happen, but at least you know that the basic features of human life are going to be the same. When you think for example about the job market or the skills you need, then you know you should teach your kids how to harvest wheat, bake bread and ride a hose because even if the mongols invade, and even if the vikings come, and even if there is a plague or an earthquake, they would still need to harvest wheat and to ride a horse. So, that's a safe bet. Now if we look 20 years into the future we have no idea what the job market would look like, or what skills people will need. So that's the one big thing that is changing: the pace of change is accelerating.”
If the traditional approach to life is broken, what replaces it? Are there things we can invest on, are there qualities we can develop, that will prove useful no matter what the job market will look like?
In 21 Lessons for the 21st century, Harari gives five pieces of advice.
The first advice Harari gives is to increase your mental and emotional resilience. To live in a world where profound uncertainty is not a bug but a feature, he says, you will need a lot of mental flexibility and great emotional balance. You will have to repeatedly let go of what you know best, and learn to preserve your emotional balance in unfamiliar situations. An example? The adoption of remote work that millions of workers around the world had to deal with due to Covid.
His second advice is to adopt a dynamic self-image. Since the job market is going to change rapidly, you can’t have a fixed idea of who you are and what you do. You will need the ability to constantly learn new things and reinvent yourself, regardless of your age. This can be challenging because most people don’t want to change after a certain age, and rewiring synapses is hard work. Regardless, if you’re too fixed with the idea of who you are and who you should be, you will struggle.
The third advice is to strengthen ‘the four Cs’ – your skills in critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity. Generally speaking, in the future we will need less technical skills and more general-purpose life skills that can be applied across many domains and contexts. Examples of such skills, also known as enduring human capabilities, are imagination, emotional intelligence, decision-making, networking etc.
The fourth piece of advice Harari gives is to trust your own judgement and stop relying too much on the advice of the adults. Many young people today pick careers based on advice from their parents. They might hold on to a job just because it gives them status, it makes them look good in the eyes of their parents. But Harari says, be careful what you optimize for.
Pleasing your parents or listening to their advice was a relatively safe bet in the past because they knew the world quite well, and the world changed slowly. But today even if they want the best for you, most likely they don’t understand where the world is going. In this sense, you have to learn to think for yourself, trust your intuition and judgement, and make your own decisions. Ultimately you will be responsible for the choices you make today, not your parents.
The fifth and final piece of advice is to know yourself better. What does it mean? It means to know what you want, how your brain works, your biases, what external forces you are subject to and so forth. In a world that is ever more noisy and chaotic, knowing your internal world and operating system is a great strength to remain clear-minded in facing new challenges.
As you can imagine, all these qualities are hard to develop. Moreover, there is no single path to do that. You can learn them by travelling, reading books, working different jobs, moving abroad, seeking new experiences, taking risks and so forth.
Unlike the previous framework, which is much more linear, the new framework is fluid, open, intangible, and hard to measure. After backpacking for three months no one is going to give you a degree in decision making. But that skill will still have tangible effects on your life.
Surely embracing the new frameworks requires trust. The future will still look unpredictable, and the job market will evolve in unpredictable ways, but if you invest in yourself you can face whatever comes next feeling much more empowered, competent and with a strong sense of identity. And that’s what you want.