As the pace of technological change continues to grow, it gives rise to more jobs requiring skills the existing workforce doesn’t possess. People today are constantly pressured to learn. The alternative is getting left behind.
But should we really focus our efforts on mastering the latest developments, or is there a case for honing time-tested skills?
In a 2017 Institute For The Future study, expert participants estimated that 85% of the jobs people will be working in 2030 don’t exist yet. Perhaps even more indicative of uncertainty, nearly half of senior decision-makers surveyed didn’t know what their industry would be like after the next three years and worried about becoming obsolete.
Statistics from the US Bureau of Labor indicate that even today, people are already having to learn continuously and adjust rapidly. Many will have held 8-10 jobs by the time they reach 38 years of age. The emphasis on learning grows as more people shift to working in the freelance economy, where task variance is greater and there are no onboarding or training benefits.
Finally, the same research indicated that over one-third of U.S. jobs in the next 15 years would be taken over by robots. Meanwhile, apps would play an even greater role in mediating our mobility needs and services. When you realize that this study was conducted well before the pandemic, those numbers may start to seem a little conservative.
Holding on to the familiar
The emerging picture is one of rapidly accelerating change. And in the face of that constant disruption, people and organizations alike must continuously learn and adapt.
Companies are under constant pressure to understand and apply cutting-edge technology, or else they miss out on increasingly substantial gains in performance and efficiency. Individuals must learn new skills all the time to keep pace and hold down their jobs.
Yet even amidst this sea of change, people hold on to the familiar in many ways. For example, as Covid-19 continues to impact lives around the world, we still seek face-to-face interaction, because social media and video conferencing don’t replace that.
It manifests in other aspects as well. The pandemic has made people look to the constancy of natural cycles for comfort. And particularly since the Great Recession, the rustic trend with barnwood plank flooring and handmade artisan crafts has been in full swing.
What’s older will survive
When we’re faced with anxiety and uncertainty, our minds may understand the need for change, but our emotions hold fast to things that are timeless.
This ties in to the Lindy effect, first described by Benoit Mandelbrot and later popularized by Nassim Taleb in his book, The Black Swan. For perishable things, we understand that every day brings them closer to expiration. This applies to things as mundane as food or as precious as human life.
But for non-perishable things, survival with the passage of time implies greater longevity. This is particularly relevant as it applies to technology.
As popular as ebooks (and the associated reader devices) have become, print books aren’t going anywhere. The typewriter may have fallen out of favor, but modern keyboards still follow the exact same layout, and touchscreens offer the same on-screen equivalent.
Human beings value things that have stood the test of time because they are more likely to continue to do so compared to things of the moment.
Building a timeless core
New technology excites us with its possibilities. And that’s natural because we’re also curious creatures. We like to be stimulated with variety.
But when that variety threatens to disrupt our lives, it creates stress. Toying with new ideas is one thing. Having to fully learn and integrate new systems is another. It can become overwhelming.
And what’s the value of adaptation if a specific skill doesn’t last? Programming languages, for instance, can be rendered obsolete seemingly on a whim. Years spent learning that skill can feel wasted.
The takeaway is moderation. Continued learning is critical to our survival, but you only need to adapt to certain things. You can dabble in skills and become competent enough to thrive in the future without having to acquire full mastery.
A minimal investment of time and effort in learning things that may soon fade in value will soften the blow of their expiration. In the meantime, you should focus on building a timeless skillset.
Essential human skills such as problem solving, empathy, communication, and collaboration are never going to be replaced by technology. If you keep on developing those attributes as your core, and simply supplement them with enough technical skills to get by, you’ll continue to have a footing in tomorrow’s world.