NEW HAVEN, Connecticut — As a college professor, I hear a lot of career concerns. As my students prepare to enter working lives that will last 50 years or more, practically all of them try to be futurists in choosing the skills in which to invest. If they pick an occupation that declines in the next half-century, they may deeply regret it.
They know that a mid-life career change is difficult, so they want to make the right choice while they are very young.
From what my students tell me, there is a widespread fear of “commoditization” of jobs in the modern, information technology-driven global economy.
They worry that in coming years even highly skilled people might be hired and fired indiscriminately, bought and sold like so many tons of copper or cases of frozen turkeys. Job satisfaction would suffer accordingly.
After all, if the job requires nothing more than knowledge of existing technology, then it can be done by anyone anywhere in the world who has learned this technology or, worse, by some computer. Indeed, while it is often thought that computers will replace only low-skilled jobs, my students remind me otherwise.
Medical expertise is in some ways being replaced by computer-based diagnostic systems (expert systems), and much of the work that engineers once did has been replaced by computer-assisted design (CAD) systems.
My students worry that such trends may continue, reducing job security, lowering rates of pay, and even eliminating some of the jobs altogether.
Some students, reckoning that it is better to buy and sell than to be bought and sold, conclude that they should be trained for careers in business, finance, or possibly law. They want the kinds of skills that will keep them among the managers, rather than the managed, and some intuit greater job security and better career prospects at the international level of these fields.
By contrast, my students often regard occupations like medicine or engineering — involving specialized technical knowledge that does not prepare them to navigate the international economy — as particularly vulnerable to commoditization.
Should students really be worried about commoditization? Labor economists have discerned some trends that may reinforce their fears but that don’t support the conclusions that students tend to draw.
In their recent book “The New Division of Labor: How Computers Are Creating the Next Job Market,” economists Frank Levy and Richard Murnane, using job descriptions that go back to 1960, carefully classify jobs according to the kinds of cognitive skills that they require. They were particularly interested in identifying jobs that were routine, even if complex and difficult, which could in principle be replaced by a sufficiently well-programmed computer. They then show evidence from the United States that jobs involving both routine manual work and routine cognitive work have become much less plentiful in recent decades, and that these jobs have indeed tended to be replaced by computers.
In an important sense, their research confirms that my students are right to be worried. But these trends tended to persist within occupations, industries and educational attainment levels, thus providing little guidance concerning what occupation to choose or how much education to pursue.
The important issue, according to Levy and Murnane, is that the most promising future careers will be those grounded in either expert thinking or complex communication skills.
Expert thinking means understanding how to deal with new and different problems that do not fit the mold of past problems. Complex communications skills entail understanding ideas, how to evaluate their social significance and how to persuade — tasks that no computer can accomplish.
As long as young people direct their efforts accordingly, they can acquire these skills in virtually any of the major courses of university study. Moreover, those who would like to devote their college years to acquiring technical skills in a narrow field that they love would be wrong to conclude that they must give up their dream.
Specializing in business, finance or law does not really protect one from commoditization. People in these fields are ultimately bought and sold by corporate managers as much as people in technical fields. Hardly anyone makes it all the way to the top in the business world.
The important point for students to bear in mind is that they should motivate themselves to attain deep understanding, not rote memorization, of the subjects that they study, in order to fulfill the role of a true expert in whatever field they ultimately choose to pursue. At the same time, they should invest in acquiring the communications skills that will be similarly crucial to a successful career.
Achieving this kind of education probably means pursuing what one naturally finds interesting and engaging, whether that is finance or physiology. Students should stop worrying so much, immerse themselves in the field they love and learn to appreciate the people who populate it.
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