As a millennial career coach and a fan of history, the complicated relationship that humanity has had with its own technological creations throughout time has shaped my views on how to adapt to change and remain in demand in any industry. The various cycles of emerging technology always enlighten, frighten, and inspire the masses until we adjust and change our mindsets to embrace the disruption.
Right now Artificial Intelligence (AI) is the new kid on the block — even though it’s been around for decades — that’s being introduced as the radical change that threatens to upend our society. It is scaring the hell out of people as we wrestle with our imaginations over how it will transform the ways we operate in our lives, how we perceive our jobs, and what the future may hold for our careers.
Check this: In the ’90s, it was the rise of the desktop computer, in the 2000s it was the rise of the internet and digital media, and the 2010s saw an emphasis placed on streaming, the cloud, and the instant availability of content.
Each change was significant in not just how people consumed media, but also with how different job markets were impacted. It’s easy to see where the healthy dose of fear is coming from — when living in a capitalist society, it’s become a given that most companies will use every advantage they have to make the greatest amount of money with the least amount of human capital. But within these huge shifts also lies opportunity for those able to grow into new roles inevitably created during times of broad innovation.
The definition of what makes you an impactful contributor changes constantly. In the wake of any new tech wave, the most important thing for people to do to protect themselves in their careers is to be prepared to upskill their existing professional repertoire.
Learning from automation-fueled errors of the past
When analyzing how drastically technology can alter a workplace, the automotive industry can be seen as a good lesson on what can go right and wrong with the introduction of new, disruptive technology.
I can still remember feeling dismayed watching the Michael Moore documentary Roger & Me years ago, learning about the economic decline of Flint, Michigan, in the Detroit region following General Motors, Ford, and other auto manufacturers significantly cutting back their workforces after outsourcing jobs and leveraging automation.
Modern movements embracing automation originated in the 1950s with the goal of creating more efficient motor plants and, in some cases, to undercut union strongholds. Eventually these moves, among many others, contributed to the loss of the former stability of the local auto manufacturing industry and subsequent ruination of Detroit’s economy, and the Motor City went from being an economic hub for blue-collar work to being known as a city in perpetual decline.
Given highly visible precedent like this, the fear people have towards this type of modernization and what it might mean for their careers and livelihoods is understandable, but it shouldn’t be encouraged — or dismissed. The human cost seen in Detroit wasn’t solely driven by automation and isn’t inevitable in future instances of tech integration, but it must be considered to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. Change is not inherently good or bad, it’s just change, and humans have always managed to adapt, for better or worse. Hear me out.
It may sound a bit radical, but when I see how AI and automation have been disrupting the world of tech, I get excited because it all screams one thing to me: freedom.
Leveling up in the next era of tech
The revolution that happens when a new norm is established creates boundless potential for what comes next. In the case of the automotive industry, the tremendous upsides to a technology-driven shift were clear: Work environments became safer, decision-making became streamlined, and, independent of losses in traditional assembly jobs, a host of new roles were created to fulfill needs to maintain and enhance the machinery, in addition to facilitating integration within the workforce.
It was as much of a start to a new era as it was the end of the old.
This isn’t just exclusive to the auto industry, but can be seen across sectors. Throughout history, technology has not only made it easier for us to work, it has created opportunities to explore new and exciting career paths that simply didn’t exist before.
Since the dawn of time humans have used technology to make their lives easier — from the creation of the wheel to the harnessing of electricity, from the automation of the assembly line to the introduction of household microwaves that allowed us to cut down our meal preparation time drastically.
Technological advancements like automation allow us to alleviate physically demanding or dangerous tasks, potentially expanding accessibility and enabling some workers to transition into roles they find more fulfilling and intellectually stimulating.
These advances, while disruptive at first, can be a huge boon to moving our society forward as they encourage people to constantly pursue lifelong learning. I value my freedom of choice above all else and always believe in never allowing ourselves to be boxed in by a limited set of skills that are only suited for one particular career path.
Embracing a growth mindset to find your next lane
The fear that AI will replace the human workforce is hyperbolic, an exaggeration. One of the foundational things to understand about automation, as well as AI, is that this technology can only achieve maximum success when working within certain predefined parameters. Human input of some degree — and managing the chaos that comes with the unpredictability of human nature — will remain a crucial component in the AI-integrated future of work, but it will be on us to determine where we fit into that evolution.
Forcing more people to consciously invest in their own continuous development will allow for greater flexibility in career options for many. The new “cheat code” for a career will be finding ways to incorporate AI into your workflow to enhance what you’re already able to produce — this will be key in staying relevant in a rapidly changing job market.
The introduction of AI and automation to the white-collar space will, ironically, allow for greater emotional intelligence within the workplace. By automating repetitive and laborious tasks, AI and automation will enhance the capabilities of white-collar workers, enabling them to focus on higher-level tasks that require creativity, critical thinking, and emotional quotient (EQ).
In theory, people will have a higher chance of finding passion within their workplace because they’ll have more free time to pursue projects that require a higher level of strategic thinking.
Cultivating digital literacy and technological proficiency to effectively collaborate with AI tools and algorithms will be among the most important assets for white-collar workers to be able to offer going forward. This changing job market will put even greater emphasis on the development of ever-valuable transferable skills, such as adaptability, complex problem-solving, and interpersonal communication.
Emerging job roles will be in demand due to the increased use of AI and automation; for example, white-collar workers with high EQ could pivot into becoming AI trainers to help people with reskilling. Data-oriented people could become information analysts. And all the people who are worried about the potential dangers of AI could leverage that fear into becoming ethics consultants or other professionals overseeing regulation and responsible applications.
The business of ethical considerations associated with AI and automation, such as data privacy, algorithmic biases, and the need for transparent decision-making processes will be ascendent as AI becomes more mainstream and woven throughout our lives. But it will be important for white-collar workers to embrace a growth mindset and be open to new opportunities that arise with advancements in AI and automation in order to find their next lane.
Building pathways to the future of work: The big picture
The bigger discussion of how to move into the new era without succumbing to the same missteps of the past should surround the importance of collaboration between governments, educational institutions, and businesses to ensure a smooth transition to a future that embraces AI and automation.
As AI becomes the dominant emerging technology it’s important to put pressure on legislative bodies for policies that support and, in some cases, force employers to invest in job reskilling and upskilling initiatives. Developing equitably accessible, lifelong learning opportunities to empower individuals to adapt to the evolving job market, and supporting robust pathways for blue-collar workers and others to build livelihoods in trades and fields projected for longevity, must be part of the conversation surrounding the future of work in an AI-integrated society.
And, if a broadened support network of retraining and relocation opportunities can facilitate a shift away from the burdens of student debt and employer-based healthcare, perhaps AI could someday be looked back on as having been a catalyst toward advancements in the freedom found through career and social mobility. One can only hope.
While it’s natural and even wise to have concerns about the impact of AI and automation on jobs, we must approach this future with a positive outlook. It’s coming, whether we’re ready or not. By acknowledging the potential benefits, preparing ourselves through continuous learning, and advocating for supportive policies, we can shape a future where humans and technology work together to create a more prosperous and fulfilling society.
The key lies in embracing change and seizing the opportunities that lie ahead. Disruption and change always present the possibility of a better future, and that’s a vision we should all be ready to embrace.