07/27/2012 05:53 EDT | Updated 09/26/2012 05:12 EDT

Jobs That Can Be Done By Anyone Will Be Done By No One


Winston Churchill once said: "A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity and an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty."

The fact is, regardless what field you're in, technology that can kill your job exists today in some form in a research lab somewhere.

The world is now changing so quickly that education is our only hope -- but not a guarantee -- of prosperity.

Still, I am an avowed optimist because I see so much opportunity.

Beyond smartphones and the Internet, there's a reason why it's so much better to be alive today than a hundred thousand years ago: specialization. Our ancestors realized that life was better for everyone if we split up work: if I hunt, you gather. And when we share, we're both better off.

This led to the barter economy where people took from the land and traded with one another. Specialized skills turned resource commodities into products, giving them a higher value and enabling the population to grow and prosper.

We've seen this pattern happen over and over again. As soon as something is overproduced, the margins go away. To get that margin back you have to "add value" in some way. In search of margin we've moved from commodities to products to services and finally to experiences. Experiences are great because they are often hard to commoditize.

Even though their prices have dropped, we still need commodities, products and services. And because these parts of the economy are so deeply entrenched, decades worth of innovation have focused on reducing cost -- this means automation. If it's cheaper to have systems or robots extract, refine, make, or deliver, it will be done - no matter the industry.

Automation isn't just disrupting the commodity economy; it's also working its way through the other types: most of our products are made in China because there are so many people that labour is almost free. But that's not the case for much longer. Already the employees at FoxConn--the people who made your iPhone, by hand -- are hard at work building the robots that with the flick of switch will soon take their jobs.

Layered atop products, the service economy isn't faring well, either. The current situation where overseas labour is abundant and cheap led to the rise of the outsourced call centre. But if we look at the promise of artificial intelligence technologies like Siri, why would anyone want to wait on hold when their personal virtual assistant rep is available immediately at any time?

At home, even services like housecleaning are being inexpensively automated. You can now be a Judy Jetson and buy a Roomba to vacuum your home for just over $200.

We don't think of Amazon as being an automator, but contrast it with shopping at Wal-Mart: you only ever interact with an Amazon employee when something goes wrong -- which is to say rarely. Jobs that can be done by anyone will soon be done by no one.

But it is the experience economy that has me so optimistic for us humans. While Xboxes and iPads look superficially like products, they're expertly designed to be personalized experiences. Like Starbucks they have a distinctly human feel. There's an incredible level of skill and sophistication required to design, plan, code, and implement the experiences that define and surround these products.

These products are where the money is, and so making them is where the attractive jobs will be for quite some time. But what kinds of skills are required to work in the only segment of the economy that's at all automation-proof?

Team work, at the very least, is essential. The problems companies are solving today are too big for any one person to tackle. Team work is also not an innate skill; for most people, it has to be learned. Irrespective of the content of a given degree, higher education gives students ample opportunity to practice working together.

Specialization is also required. While technical skills are, in this context, a no-brainer, the fact is that if you're selling an experience it had better be good. This means skills that understand psychology and the lives of the ultimate customers will also be essential -- meaning liberal arts and the soft sciences will find themselves in demand.

Finally, the world is changing faster than it ever has before. In order to deal with this speed and complexity, a mind needs to be trained to think critically. While critical thought can only develop on its own, exposing young minds to higher education offers the best bet that it will.

All of this is to say, if you want a job in the future, you need to be educated. Really well-educated.