Not long ago, schoolchildren chose what they wanted to be when they grew up, and later selected the best college they could gain admission to, spent years gaining proficiency in their fields, and joined a company that had a need for their skills. Careers lasted lifetimes.
Now, by my estimates, the half-life of a career is about 10 years. I expect that it will decrease, within a decade, to five years. Advancing technologies will cause so much disruption to almost every industry that entire professions will disappear.
And then, in about 15-20 years from now, we will be facing a jobless future, in which most jobs are done by machines and the cost of basic necessities such as food, energy and health care is negligible — just as the costs of cellphone communications and information are today.
We will be entering an era of abundance in which we no longer have to work to have our basic needs met. And we will gain the freedom to pursue creative endeavors and do the things that we really like.
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I am not kidding. Change is happening so fast that our children may not even need to learn how to drive. By the late 2020s, self-driving cars will have proven to be so much safer than human-driven ones that we will be debating whether humans should be banned from driving on public roads; and clean energies such as solar and wind will be able to provide for 100% of the planet’s energy needs and cost a fraction of what fossil fuel- and nuclear-based generation does today.
A question that parents often ask me is, given that these predictions are even remotely accurate, what careers their children should pursue: whether it is best to steer them into science, engineering, and technology (STEM) fields, because it is these disciplines that are making the advances happen. The STEM-humanities dichotomy has been a traditional difficulty for parents, because English, psychology, history and arts majors have been at a financial disadvantage over the past few decades. Parents have encouraged their children to go into fields such as finance, engineering, law and medicine, because they’re where the big money has been. But that is changing.
I tell them not to do what our parents did, telling us what to study and causing us to treat education as a chore; that instead, they should encourage their children to pursue their passions and to love learning.
It doesn’t matter whether they want to be artists, musicians or plumbers; the key is for children to understand that education is a lifelong endeavor and to be ready to constantly reinvent themselves.
We will all need to be able to learn new skills, think critically, master new careers and take advantage of the best opportunities that come our way.
Technology is now as important a skill as are reading, writing and mathematics. Everyone needs to be able to use computers, search for information on the Internet, use word processors and spreadsheets, and download apps. These skills are now common and useful in every profession. People who master social media gain an advantage in sharing knowledge and connecting with others. Kids in Silicon Valley who can write code have an edge in starting technology companies.
But this, too, is changing, as it becomes possible for anyone to write apps and snap together industrial-strength computer systems using powerful new software-development tools. For the foreseeable future, professions such as data science, software architecture and bioengineering will command premiums; but design and the soft sciences will gain increasing importance.
Steve Jobs built the world’s most valuable company by focusing on design. He showed that, though good engineering is important, what matters the most is great design. You can teach artists how to use software and graphics tools, but it’s much harder to turn engineers into artists.
An engineering degree is very valuable, but the sense of empathy that comes from music, arts, literature and psychology provides a big advantage in design. A history major who has studied the Enlightenment or the rise and fall of the Roman Empire gains an insight into the human elements of technology and the importance of its usability. A psychologist is more likely to know how to motivate people and to understand what users want than is an engineer who has only worked in the technology trenches. A musician or artist is king in a world in which you can 3-D-print anything that you can imagine.
Education will always be a platform on which to build success, but it really doesn’t matter what you study. My advice to students is to complete a bachelor’s degree, at the least, in fields in which they have the most interest.
They should go to any good school and not obsess over joining expensive elite institutions that will burden them with debt and limit their life options. Through college, they will gain valuable social skills and learn how to interact and work with others; to compromise; and to deal with rejection, failure and change. Most importantly, they will learn what they don’t know and where to find new knowledge when they need it. And we can hope that they will develop a deep passion for learning.
All of this uncertainty and change can seem unsettling. As Peter Diamandis has said, “on the road to abundance there will be turbulence.” The light at the end of this tunnel, however, may be a world in which the pursuit of enlightenment is more cherished than the pursuit of money.
Vivek Wadhwa is a fellow at Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University, director of research at Duke University and distinguished scholar at Singularity and Emory universities. He wrote this for The Washington Post.