The Three Laws of Future Employment


As a college educator I am tasked with preparing today’s students for their future careers.

Implicit is that I should know more about the future than most people. I do not - at least not in the sense of specific predictions. But I can suggest some boundaries on the path forward.

Let’s start with the three Laws of Future Employment. Law #1: People will get jobs doing things that computers can’t do. Law #2: A global market place will result in lower pay and fewer opportunities for many careers. (But also in cheaper and better products and a higher standard of living for American consumers.) Law #3: Professional people will more likely be freelancers and less likely to have a steady job.

Usually taken for granted is that future jobs depend on STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, and math). This view is eloquently expounded by Thomas Friedman, who argues that the US is falling behind China and India in educating for STEM careers.

Alex Tabarrok makes a case for STEM in his excellent little e-book, Launching the Innovation Renaissance. He points out that “the US graduated just 5,036 chemical engineers in 2009, no more than we did 25 years ago. In electrical engineering there were only 11,619 graduates in 2009, about half the number of 25 years ago.” Similarly, the numbers of US computer science grads is flat over the past quarter century. Thus Tabarrok believes the US is falling behind in innovation and related technologies.

But Tabarrok and much of the conventional wisdom are  wrong. The job that electrical engineers did 25 years ago has almost nothing to do with the job they do today. Computers now do much of the work that people used to do - computers design circuits, do all the drafting, plan the manufacturing, etc. It used to be that an electrical engineer designed the electronics in your car. To some extent they still do, but today even the smallest components come with operating systems - in other words, your car is programmed rather than designed. Electrical engineering is a career that follows Law #1: much of it has been (and will continue to be) computerized out of existence.

Computer science careers illustrate Law #2. Computer science services are among the most tradable in the world. It is literally a global job market. Thus the number of computer scientists graduating from American colleges is an irrelevant number. Further, computer science jobs are themselves being computerized. The job description for today’s computer scientist is only tenuously related to what they did 25 years ago.

Laws #1 & 2 predict that there will likely be fewer STEM jobs in the future – they are both easily computerized and tradable. People will always be employed in STEM disciplines, many of them highly paid, but they’ll be paid for smarts rather than education. The disciplines will be much more competitive, with older and less talented workers left on the sidelines. Tom Friedman and Alex Tabarrok, reflecting conventional wisdom,  are mistaken in maintaining that increasing STEM education is a key to future economic competitiveness.

So if computerized, tradable skills won’t create much new employment, if any, what will? Clearly, it will be non-tradable skills that can’t be computerized. At their most valuable these jobs depend on human-human interaction - empathy. Counseling (of any sort: psychiatric, financial, weight loss, etc.), sales, customer service, management, and personal services all rely on empathy, as does waitressing. While much teaching can be computerized, what remains will depend more on empathy than anything else. “They don’t care what you know, but they will know if you care,” is a maxim future teachers should take to heart.

According to Ronald Coase it is generally cheaper to engage freelance labor than to hire employees, unless the market transaction costs are too high. The internet lowers transaction costs and makes smaller firms (fewer employees) more economical. Thus we arrive at the Third Law of Future Employment: professional people will more likely be freelancers and less likely to have jobs. This already happens in computer science: projects are put out to bid on websites for global competition. Much journalism today is freelance, as is graphic design, engineering, or any number of other skills. The third law predicts this trend will grow.

The bottom line is that today’s young people need to develop an individually unique set of marketable skills for tomorrow’s job market. A marketable skill is more than an education (which is not a skill), and also more than just job training (a skill, but no larger expertise). The useful benchmark is it takes 10,000 hours to become expert in something.

I recently had a student – an English major – in my chemistry class. He had no good reason for being there; he could have fulfilled requirements with much less effort. So I asked him why?

“It fit into my schedule and I felt like doing it. I like it.”

“What are you going to do with an English degree?” I asked.

“I’m writing a novel. It’s about cowboys.”

Now conventional wisdom says this guy is all wet. Alex Tabarrok would have him drop the English degree in favor of chemistry (or chemical engineering). His English professors will say that his chances of publishing a novel (much less earning a living off one) are next to zero. SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher has Six Big Ideas for SUNY - and my student doesn’t fit into any of them.

But think about the skill set needed to write a novel, of which writing may be the least of it. He has to have something to write about, which means nurturing a general curiosity about the world – not just cowboys, but apparently also chemistry. He learns to be a keen observer of people: their appearance, what they wear, their character, mannerisms, and language. He develops the self-discipline and self-confidence to finish a project because it is intrinsically important, not because people say “Wow, that’s wonderful. You’re writing a novel!” Because of his novel my student becomes expert in many skills that can translate into a wonderful career.

How is that different from mere education? The typical English major writes papers comparing Proust with Balzac. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it isn’t building the 10,000 hours.  It simply amounts to following directions carefully, and eventually collecting a credential. True expertise, by contrast, is something self-generated, following your own passion and talents. This isn’t to say education is always a waste of time, but it will no longer be sufficient to build a career.

So here is my career advice to today’s students:

  • If you passionately like something and are good at it, then do that. STEM, for example, will always have a place for smart, hardworking people. Likewise, good writing can’t be computerized, but you need both talent and passion to be successful.
  • Start work on the 10,000 hours. Your education may help, but very little you do in school contributes to the total. Be it car detailing, truck driving, computer programming, drawing, writing – acquire an expert skill in something. Write a novel.
  • Empathize if you can. Computers can’t do that. Jobs that involve empathy (along with other skills) will always be in demand.
  • If you got it, flaunt it. That’s something else computers can’t do. Beauty has value, especially for women but also for men. This is wonderfully described in Catherine Hakim’s book, Erotic Capital. Even if you don’t got it, take advantage of youth. Acquire a fashion sense, take care of yourself, look as good as you can.

Work hard. Have fun. Get rich.

Daniel Jelski is a professor of chemistry at New Paltz, and previously served as dean of New Paltz’s School of Science & Engineering.