In 1987 I graduated in the top ten of my class at an exclusive computer programming academy: Van Zyl and Pritchard in South Africa. Just getting on was tough, only about 6% of applicants made it through the selection process. This is tougher than the SA Air Force pilot selection. Making it to the end of the course was far harder. But the skills & experience I gained in those months were the invaluable foundation for a successful career in IT.
In the weeks leading up to completing the course we learned about some new technologies with concern and dismay: 4GL programming languages like Natural/ADABAS and RPG (Report Program Generator). The concern was because reputedly the 4GL's allowed computers to replace programmers. Business Analysts could post a query, and the 4GL would generate the code on their behalf. So here we were, newly graduated professionals, the tip of the spear as it were, in a burgeoning industry that had just killed any opportunity to succeed!
What a terrifying prospect. Had I just made career suicide? To get onto VZAP I'd quit my accelerated management program at First National Bank (previously Barclay's), and taken a loan for living expenses.
That Will Never Happen To My Role!
Augmentation of muscle power has been around since the turn of the last century, now we're seeing augmentation of brain power.
Moore's Law means the question is not whether your job can be replaced by technology, but when?
The follow on question is: “What will you do when that happens?”
Whilst it's true that computers haven't replaced the programmer in the 28 years of my career, it's also true that I no longer program in COBOL. Not many do. And I didn't for very long. Just over a year in fact.
And I know plenty of developer jobs that have been off-shored to cheaper locations. Electrons are easier to transport than atoms, so any task that uses computers can be off-shored to a country with cheaper labour than yours.
And not only off-shored. Uber is a classic example of how technology can drive labour arbitrage within a country.
And not only developer roles. Every major IT vendor is currently restructuring and moving engineering, architecture, and support roles to cheaper locations. When I book travel I speak to someone in Poland (when I don't just book it online), and my expenses are processed in Singapore.
With some irony almost 30 years after graduating VZAP, yesterday I presented on Business Process Services Robotic Process Automation to a major bank. A technology that promises to replace a significant number of employees, driving down cost, improving accuracy, and accelerating business for banks. So whilst computers aren't programming systems just yet, they are replacing increasingly sophisticated jobs.
Of course any task that a computer program can do will replace even labour arbitrage. And the list of those jobs is increasing in volume and sophistication.
Nascent technologies like Robotics, AI, BlockChain, 3D printing, Autonomous Vehicles and others are disrupting industries from agriculture to law. If there is any part of your role that is repetitive, or has an outcome with cognitive but limited choices like drawing up a contract, or administering a medicine, it will be disintermediated by technology.
Automation Doesn't Reduce Labour Demand
But whilst I know plenty of developer jobs that have been off-shored, I only know of one programmer who lost his job and didn't get another one (in IT). Despite having two years of pre-warning, he literally trained his replacement, he didn't take that opportunity to learn a modern language. Technology will replace jobs for sure, from Fruit Pickers in Queensland and Brick Layers in Western Australia, to Traffic Cops and Lawyers. But as this TED talk highlights, automation doesn't reduce labour demand.
In 1975 it took 120 people to build the first car on a production line, in 2014 after almost 40 years of robotic automation, it takes 122. No, the 122 aren't spray painters, fitters and turners, or mechanics. But still, there are more jobs, not less.
Just different jobs.
That require higher capability.
Currently there is an increasing requirement for digital skills, and the advent of new technologies is going to increase that, not reduce it. Whether software or hardware, the robot that takes your job creates as much of an opportunity as a challenge.
Education is Your Only Option
Neither immigration nor population growth will resolve this situation at a country level. And certainly not at an individual level.
Our only option as a nation is to regear the economy through advanced skills.
Your only option is to reskill yourself. Invest in education. Continue to invest in yourself. Educate yourself in the skills that will be most in demand.
Put another way, investing $60,000 in educating yourself will yield a far higher return in the future than investing that money in any other asset.
What Worked Then
Since the dawn of the industrial age and public schooling our lives have roughly been mandated to learn, then earn, then make a return. (On pension if nothing else.) Largely this was 20-25 years of learning, followed by 35 – 40 years of earning, and then retiring on the returns. For most people that was for the last 10-15 years of their lives.
But this is no longer the case. Advances in high quality (& quantity) foods and healthcare mean that you are more likely to live beyond 90. In an increasingly ageing population. Already the burden of this trend is placing strain on most developed nations' pension and health systems.
To continue to earn in today's world requires constant learning. Neither you, nor your children, can possibly out-produce either the cheap labour in the developing world, or increasingly sophisticated technology. You have to develop higher order, specialised skills.
There is another imperative to continue to improve your skills. Globalisation.
It doesn't matter what you do. Developing nations are skilling up their citizens, and in a world where any work can be done anywhere in the world because of the Internet, that means you no longer compete only with your fellow citizens.
There are more student accountants graduating with certification of the Australian tax code in India, than there are accountants in Australia.
You now compete wtih the globe, and in the developed world your living expenses mean you cannot compete on price.
Not only does disruptive technology require you to learn these new skills, however, it also entirely removes the barrier to acquiring them. No longer do you have to spend years, or go to an expensive university. There are free and inexpensive online courses to learn just about anything. Increasingly these will include VR training that will extend to experiential training as well.
An old African proverb goes:
“Every morning in Africa a gazelle awakes and knows with certainty if it does not run faster than the lion it will be caught and killed. Also every morning a lion awakes and knows with certainty that if it does not run faster than the gazelle it will starve and die. Whether you are a gazelle or a lion, when you awake, you had better be running.”
It doesn't matter what your current job is, when you awake you need to be learning.
What are you learning?