Work Is For Bots. Life Is For Humans.
We were all generalists once. There was the town doctor, the town repairman, and the school teacher. But with the advancements in science, technology and innovation, inventions like Ford’s assembly line and other complicated services created specialists. No more builders but assembly line workers each monotonously repeating one, specific task. No more doctors but general practitioners, podiatrists, and pharmacologists. And in advertising, the ad man has become the designer, the UX practitioner, the social media maven, the creative technologist and so on.
It made us the workers we are today. We’ve all been told: specialize in one thing and know it well, but remain a generalist so you can work well with others. But as blue-collar work is being automated, white-collar work is being picked off one by one by AI. Specialized work being replaced with advanced technologies, one industry at a time. So, if the color of our collar is determined by our work, then the color is being drained from our collars, this equates us all to generalists once again. This is the Blank Collar Equation.
To the fearful, this looks like there will be nothing left for us to do. To the imaginative, they see the true potential: automation and AI aren’t leading to a dystopian future, but an empowered one. Work is for robots. Life is for people.
We need to move beyond the digital culture shock and embrace these ever faster changes. Work, whether it’s making a sweater or programming a video game, merely creates an output. It still takes creativity to imagine what products could be, empathy to understand who it’s for, socialization to interact with co-workers, and salesmanship to sell your ideas and products. These are the jobs of the future. Not employees with nothing to do, but employees keeping the humanly relevant responsibilities at our fingertips.
Uber, the company that is about to replace its drivers with self-driving cars, although they’ve hired many AI and automation specialists (who will, in turn, be replaced by deep learning, code writing AI programs) will dramatically shrink their workforce. But at the same time with the work of driving being done by the car, this frees individuals to rent out their own cars and be in control of their own fleet, to be their own Ubers.
McDonald’s is about to implement the use of robots and software to automate the ordering process. But if they want to keep their brand, differentiation and customer base, they better have a great service workforce answering customers’ concerns, keeping the place happy and clean, and still being the human face of the restaurant.
We must take a people-first approach to the future of work, but this requires a much deeper understanding at all levels of enterprises. This thinking is built into The Blank Collar Equation to help companies anticipate how jobs are changing and what skills employees will need to stay useful during the digital business transformation. We’ll always need specialist jobs, for example, a general practitioner will be able to use software to read x-rays but will leave the specialized work to the surgeon. But overall we will become generalists again. Companies will reach for the blank collar equation, the optimal ratio of employees to automation. New skills, sectors and industries will be invented and the work will have to be done by people at first.
Where we go from here is anyone’s guess. But the building blocks that will take us there are right in front of us.