Yesterday, for the first time in my life, I made it all the way through an automated menu’s options without once cursing at it. I’m pretty sure my standard M.O. with automated menus is the same as yours: as soon as that falsely polite computer lady starts talking, I say “Agent” or “Representative” or “Give me a $%#*&$ person!” repeatedly until the menu short-circuits and connects me to a human being. I’ve done it for so long now that sometimes when I’m frustrated I just call up random customer service hotlines so that I can shout obscenities at the automated menu and feel better about myself. (Do I really do that? I’m not saying. But I totally should.) Yesterday, however, the menu items actually were helpful. Wonder of wonders, my issue got resolved without me ever talking to an actual person. I never thought the day would come.

And because that day has come, there’s one less job for a customer service representative out there. That doesn’t mean anyone’s getting fired, necessarily, but it does mean that fewer people will need to be hired.

Don’t get me wrong – all this technology we’ve created is truly unbelievable and more than necessary. Without it I couldn’t share what I’m writing now with as many people as I do. I couldn’t post videos for people in Botswana to see (I have one follower in Botswana, by the way, and I have no idea how that happened. But keep the fire burning, anonymous Bostwanian!) You probably couldn’t do your job either without all the things we’ve created in the last few decades.

That said, there’s no getting around the fact that our technology is reaching the point at which it is eliminating more jobs than it is creating. It takes fewer people to service Turbotax software than accountants to process taxes the “normal” way; we need fewer grocery store clerks now that we have do-it-yourself checkout lanes. Rental car companies are now using remote agents to complete rental transactions via video, and they’re doing it because the technology allows remote agents to stay busy constantly, thus saving the rental companies the expense of hiring too many workers whose time is wasted by staring off into space at idle rental counters. Not only that, but more sophisticated computer programs are now capable of doing more sophisticated work. Many law firms now use software programs to sift through millions of pages of documents to find important discrepancies and other relevant information, work that has historically been performed by paralegals. The same is true for the medical profession, where software programs that can analyze millions of drug combinations and reactions are poised to shake up the pharmacy profession. Everywhere you look, technology is doing the work that people used to do – and the better our technology gets, the fewer people we’ll need to employ. Bottom line, we’re moving toward a world in which every job that can be automated will be. We’ve always been moving in that direction, but we’re moving there much more quickly now than in the past.

All that could come off as depressing, except that I don’t really deal in depressing things. So what’s the sunny upside to all this? It’s that computers can’t compete with us creatively. Computer programs can’t invent new genres of music or break into new markets or defuse tense situations with unhappy customers; they can’t ignore their own protocol to find novel solutions no one else has ever thought of.

So a creative accountant – one that also looks at your investment portfolio to help determine your tax strategy, for example – is going to thrive; the insanely friendly rental car clerk who knows how to upsell customers without making them feel sold to is going to stand out; the persuasive lawyer with a keen understanding of human nature is never going to get replaced by a bot program; and the pharmacist who builds her business as a comprehensive health solution, rather than as a simple dispenser of prescriptions, is going to watch her business continue to grow. Creative people will not only survive the threat that technology poses to so many of our jobs; they’ll actually highlight how much better people are than computers at certain essential things. Take that, computers!

So be creative, and encourage your children to be creative as well. It matters now more than ever. And it’s more fun, anyway. Seriously, who wants to do a job that could be done by a computer?

1 Comment

  1. Jeff: I love your newsletters! I found this one of particular interest since I think it points out that we really need to look at how we train for future work in our education system. Software development is only as good as the developer’s knowledge of how a process works and target it for replacement. The next job to be replaced is at the fast food counter. Think of the disruption to our culture when no one will have to wear goofy hats and uniforms! What will we look at when we are sitting there eating our burger and curly fries?? Self serve kiosks are showing up in fast food joints across the country. This is a big issue and you have hit it out of the park! I play guitar so I expect I will be employed until I retire. Like you said, who wants to do a job that can be replaced by a computer? Now if I can only find a way to make money playing guitar! Rock on!

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