s higher education confronts challenges around affordability and ROI, there’s an overlying issue of existential importance — preparing students for the “human work” of the future.
I’ve thought about this a lot recently in my speaking engagements and visits across the country, including a visit to the World Forum conference of the International Association of Jesuit Business Schools and the Colleagues in Jesuit Business Education.
The conference was held at Georgetown University, where Professor Alberto Rossi is director of the Future of Work Initiative. Among other things, his group is studying how robot advisers can help people working in financial services.
This has come up with other groups, as well. A good example was my visit with the board of OneAmerica insurance in Indianapolis, where Lumina Foundation, of which I am the president and CEO, is based. In the financial services field, there’s a lot of attention being paid to balancing the efficiency of AI systems with the need to provide good customer service — exactly the area being studied by Alberto’s group. The algorithms may be less expensive, he has found, but customers — and this won’t surprise you — trust humans more than robots.
The result, Alberto has told us, is the growing use of “hybrid robo-advisors.”
“And what has happened is that the number of people that are advised has exploded,” he says. “So, you now have many more people who have access to financial advice, because financial advice can be provided at a much lower cost. But companies are now hiring more human advisors because the market has expanded — the client base has just exploded.”
Things Only Humans Can Do
I’ve continued to think hard about these issues since my book, “Human Work in the Age of Smart Machines,” was published in late 2020. More than ever, it feels like we need to be talking about the uniquely human characteristics — things like creativity, empathy and critical thinking — that define the work that only humans can do.
We live in an age when work is being not just changed but revolutionized. Technology’s advances have been both rapid and comprehensive, eliminating the need for human beings to do many tasks.
This transformation has produced a great deal of anxiety. When entire categories of jobs disappear, people understandably worry about their own livelihoods and the security of their families’ futures.
“My study of work has taught me that technology generally creates more jobs than it eliminates. The World Economic Forum, for example, estimates that by 2025 technology will have created 12 million more jobs than it destroys.”
— Jamie Merisotis, President and CEO, Lumina Foundation
My study of work has taught me that technology generally creates more jobs than it eliminates. The World Economic Forum, for example, estimates that by 2025 technology will have created 12 million more jobs than it destroys. Better to say, in the words of the Harvard Business Review, that “automation doesn’t just create or destroy jobs — it transforms them.”
But that long view offers little comfort to people who are concerned about what will happen to them and those they love now.
What might reassure them is the fact that the jobs that will emerge — that are emerging — from this period of immense change are the ones that only humans can do. The “human” capabilities of critical thinking, problem solving, communication, leadership and teamwork often are called “soft skills,” but that term is misleading. It undervalues the essential nature of what they represent — particularly now, when such qualities can transform both work and the world that work can shape.
I prefer to call them “durable skills” — a term that speaks to the timeless value they possess, and their critical importance now. During this “Great Resignation,” millions of people in the United States and around the world have left their jobs in the past two years.
But I would argue that this term, too, is misleading. The “Great Resignation” is really the “Great Reprioritization.” Workers around the world are finding that they have both greater mobility and greater leverage than in the past.
Instead of accepting what they can’t change, those workers are using that mobility and that leverage to change what they can’t accept.
They can do so because the value of human work is high — and climbing. Economists estimate that the global labor shortage we just have entered will grow more severe until it peaks in 2030.
That of course means the demand for people with durable skills will continue to increase. And that demand — and the leverage it grants workers — will transform both work and the world in which that work occurs.
This will create both challenges and tremendous opportunities for the colleges and universities that must help prepare those workers. That was one of the lessons from my conversations with the Jesuit educators at their conference: Durable skills always have value, but at some moments in history that value is even more profound.
This is one of those moments.
Jamie Merisotis is president and CEO of Lumina Foundation, an independent, private foundation in Indianapolis that is committed to making opportunities for learning beyond high school available to all. Visit www.luminafoundation.org.