Each day, we see panicked headlines predicting that robots will take all our jobs and people will be permanently unemployable. Even though humans have literally always adapted to technological changes throughout our history, the doomsayers insist that this time is different. While I don’t think humans will run out of productive things to do anytime soon, it is certainly true that technology has changed the modern labor market drastically from what it was even just a few decades ago. While examining these changes for a recent policy report, I found some interesting (and useful) facts about how to maximize the chance of economic success in the modern labor market—with or without robots taking over.
As technological progress and automation made workers more productive, greater output could be produced by fewer people. For example, between 1962 and 2005, the U.S. steel industry reduced its workforce by 75 percent without any corresponding loss in output. Powered by automation, the U.S. has shifted from a goods-based economy to a service-based economy. While these economic changes have primarily been met with more calls for science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education in schools, this focus on cognitive skills has led many to overlook the importance of noncognitive skills, or soft skills.
Defined generally as a broad set of competencies, behaviors, attitudes, and personal qualities that enable people to effectively navigate their environment, work well with others, perform well, and achieve their goals, soft skills have become increasingly valuable in the labor market. As machines replace low-skilled workers doing routinized jobs, more employment opportunities involve working with other people, either customers or coworkers, in some way. Writing in the Quarterly Journal of Economics in late 2017, Harvard education economist David Deming concluded the following:
Between 1980 and 2012, jobs requiring high levels of social interaction grew by nearly 12 percentage points as a share of the U.S. labor force. Math-intensive but less social jobs—including many STEM occupations—shrank by 3.3 percentage points over the same period. Employment and wage growth were particularly strong for jobs requiring high levels of both math skill and social skills.
While developing cognitive skills can be an important factor for some occupations, there are a growing number of opportunities for employment or income growth for those that have mastered soft skills. Luckily, soft skills are not just attributes people are either born with or not; they can be developed. Much of the academic literature stresses the importance of developing soft skills in early childhood or in adolescence, but those are certainly not the only times those skills can be learned.
Soft skills can be developed and honed anytime throughout your career. Most of the ways to begin are very simple. Work on your communication skills, strengthen interpersonal relationships with colleagues, and reflect a motivated and positive attitude. Taking the steps necessary to develop and hone your soft skills can sometimes sound overly simplistic or unimportant, particularly when compared to working on hard skills, but ignore them at your peril. A well-developed set of soft skills might just be the key to your dream job after a robot takes your current one.