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Preparing for the Work Only Humans Can Do

(John Thys/AFP—Getty Images)

“Merisotis has written extensively about higher education and the future of work, but Human Work is a departure from much of his past writing.”

Tesla is currently recruiting 10,000 people to work for Giga Texas in Austin. An announcement, retweeted by Elon Musk last week, states: “High School Grads: You do not have to have a college degree to work for Tesla. You can work for Tesla straight out of high school.” The announcement goes on to explain that Tesla is looking to hire passionate young people, who have an interest in continuing their education.

Clicking through to Tesla’s job board for Austin, I was struck by how technical and challenging most jobs sounded. As I scrolled through the job titles, I could not find a single job I would have felt qualified to work if I were a recent high school grad. “Class B Driver” is the “easiest” job I can find, but one would need a commercial driver’s license, and it is recommended that one has “Forklift Certification training.” If I were 18 or 19, I would have given this job board one glance before going back to filling out college applications.

The future of work is full of many challenges and uncertainties. With the advent of artificial intelligence, robotics, 3D printing, and other technologies, we are entering the Fourth Industrial Revolution. A great deal of attention is given to the question of whether automation will destroy all jobs. This is a real concern for some sectors of the economy and for particular regions, such as America’s Rust Belt. But there are good reasons to believe that jobs will not all go away in the future; they will just be different. This might seem like great news for workers—until one checks the job boards.

Far from a simple job shortage, there is currently a global talent shortage. Tesla’s 10,000 job openings are a perfect illustration of this problem. In the near term, I am sure Tesla will find and hire the people it needs to get its factory built. However, in the long term, businesses throughout the world are going to struggle to fill positions that require increasing levels of talent.

In the ideal future, then, people will continue to work, and their jobs will be meaningful.

This dilemma is at the heart of Jamie Merisotis’s latest book, Human Work in the Age of Smart Machines. Merisotis has written extensively about higher education and the future of work, but Human Work is a departure from much of his past writing. Rather than focusing on specific policy positions, he offers general insights about how we can prepare our workforce to do jobs that require high levels of human talent.

None of the claims in Human Work are particularly novel or controversial. Anyone looking for a strong take on universal basic income, a three-day workweek, the technological singularity, or cryptocurrency will be out of luck. But by focusing narrowly on “the work only humans can do,” Merisotis addresses many broad topics that are foundational to society and to our daily lives. Education, job training, employment—these are topics everyone has strong feelings about. The book’s ultimate strength is that, while navigating these broad topics, Merisotis paints a coherent picture about the future of work without coming off as overly controversial or partisan.

At a basic level, work is not going away. Even if we could automate every single job, it may not be in our best interest to do so, given the negative psychological impacts of unemployment. As Merisotis observes, “rates of suffering from a range of psychological problems are more than double for unemployed versus employed individuals.” While society has an interest in keeping people employed, we also have an interest in doing away with so-called “bull— jobs,” which anthropologist David Graeber describes as “jobs that even people who hold them believe have no value whatsoever.” In the ideal future, then, people will continue to work, and their jobs will be meaningful.

This ideal will not come easily, however. As discussed above, preparing for more human-centric jobs requires drastically increasing the talent of the global workforce. Unlike work that can (and will) be automated, human work, according to Merisotis, “blends our human traits, such as compassion, empathy, ethics, and personal communication, with our developed human capabilities, such as critical analysis, judgment of quality, and anticipation of what other might do.” In sum, rather than mastering a single set of skills, “to do human work, people must develop a wide range of abilities and apply them to solving complex problems in dynamic settings.”

The current education system is not set up to prepare us for a future where most jobs require such versatility and depth of talent. At the same time, governments are not great at re-education efforts, and employers historically have not prioritized providing continuing education to workers. In order to address the many education shortcomings of the status quo, Merisotis’s proposals include implementing “nanodegrees” and a system of “wide learning.”

Nanodegrees (or MicroDegrees or MicroBachelors) are “short term, stackable credentials.” It is easy to imagine how such credentials could benefit anyone, whether happy in their career or not. As Merisotis notes, “Careers today are seldom linear—they look less like a ladder than a climbing wall, where the way to move up may involve moving sideways or even down to get a better hold on a route forward.” Singapore serves as an example of how such credentials could be provided at scale; through a program called SkillsFuture, Singapore grants everyone in the city 25 and older a $500 credit for continually developing new skills.

Human work, after all, is not just about having a job to do; it is also about the meaning of the work that matters.

Wide learning, a concept that originates from roboticist Ken Goldberg, is a broad, aspirational approach to learning. It calls for people to be lifelong learners, continually developing new knowledge and abilities. The focus is on teaching people soft skills, critical thinking skills, and generic skills—all the skills required for tasks that humans do best, and which cannot easily be automated.

The world is already moving quickly in this direction. The online education market has exploded in recent years, driven by the success of companies such as Coursera, Udemy, Udacity, Skillshare, and LinkedIn Learning. Market analysts expect the online education industry to be worth $350 billion by 2025, and that estimate was made before the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic accelerated the success of many of these companies. Only a few weeks ago, Google launched new career certificates, which could disrupt the college degree. Many individuals are taking online classes and pursuing certifications to improve their career prospects. At the same time, many private companies already encourage their employees to be lifelong learners by providing them with stipends for online courses.

An open question is whether—or to what extent—governments will play a role in modernizing the education system. In the United States, there are essentially only two policy discussions happening: Should we cancel student loan debt? And should we make community college tuition free? Neither of these discussions has anything to do with rethinking the whole system.

In the final chapter of Human Work, Merisotis contends that governments should prioritize ensuring that young people learn to be active citizens. Human work, after all, is not just about having a job to do; it is also about the meaning of the work that matters. If we are active citizens, he argues, we will not only safeguard our democracy from threats such as authoritarianism, but we will also find meaning by serving in our communities. This leads Merisotis to propose one policy that is legitimately controversial: national service.

The United Kingdom, for example, enrolls 100,000 teenage students to serve in the countryside for a month. During this time, they learn a range of new skills while working in the community. As a result, “these young people report higher levels of confidence than other people their age, and they feel closer and more integrated into their communities.” In the United States, then-presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg proposed a similar program, where anyone over 18 would have the opportunity to spend a year participating in national service. The ultimate hurdle, naturally, is the price tag for such a program.

Throughout Human Work, Merisotis highlights an array of stories of individual workers, with a common theme: Through education and training, people working dead-end jobs are able to advance in their careers ultimately to find jobs that are personally rewarding and beneficial to society. These stories paint an optimistic picture of how the future could look. If more human work becomes available (and more people have the opportunity to gain the skills necessary for that work), we just might be able to survive the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Hopefully, this picture is accurate. Jobs that qualify as “human work” generally seem much more rewarding than many of the jobs currently available. But, in the meantime, over at Tesla, Elon Musk still needs someone to drive a forklift.

Peter Clarke is a freelance journalist in San Francisco.

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