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Androids might dream of electric sheep, but computers can’t have conversations: The human advantage

Image credit: Gustavo A. Casañ (Wikimedia: Creative Commons)

The expansion of automation and technology has carried with it numerous speculative narratives on the future of the work-force. On one side of the spectrum are the cohort subscribing to the John Maynard Keynes prediction that technological innovation will lead to a 15 hour or less working week, and that this efficiency will restructure our work-life balance in favour of leisure. Inherent to this argument, and tied to the other side of the spectrum, are widespread fears about the decline of available jobs. These are neither new nor noteworthy fears – yet explaining how employment statistics have failed to match these hypotheses have continued to allude economists. Statistics on U.S. companies that would benefit from use of robots reveals only 10% have chosen to invest. In this technological milieu, individuals have sought to identify how to increase their employability.

In the 1990s, the substitution of labour for computers was largely correlated with high-skilled jobs. Since then a consistent theme in economic literature is the argument that job polarisation is the result of technology benefitting high-skilled work – ergo, there should be a rising demand for high-skilled work. Yet, since 2000 there has been slow growth in high-paying jobs (a trend antedating even the GFC). This has created a puzzle for economists and policy-makers across the globe – if technological advancement has a skill-bias, why haven’t the returns increased for high-skill jobs?

Some critics have sought to explain this slow-down by arguing that technology has gone through a ‘boom-and-bust’ cycle, with others pointing to the expansion of computers into highly-skilled activities, such as financial management and even cancer diagnosis. Yet, as David Deming from Harvard University has argued, employment growth in ‘high-skilled’ occupations between 2000-2012 is high for cognitive roles of lawyers, economists, teachers and lawyers, yet dwindles in STEM jobs. Over the same period, STEM occupations witnessed a shrinking share of the American labour force. This information runs counter to the trend in certain government stances (i.e. Australia) to promote STEM disciplines in schools and higher education, presumably to boost employment.

To explain these trends, Deming provides evidence showing that “social skill-intensive occupations grew by 11.8 percentage points as a share of all jobs in the U.S. economy.” In fact, in comparison to the 1980s and 1990s period, social skills are a far stronger predictor for both employment and wage rates for adults between the ages of 25 and 33. These statistics show that for jobs with high math skills but low social skills (encompassing many STEM jobs) employment has declined. However, for occupations coupling the criteria of both high math and social skills, wages and employment has grown rapidly.

The explanation for this is multi-faceted. But put simply, it comes down to the nature of work. Studies in organisational economics show that all occupations have grown less ‘routinised’ over time. Rather than workers engaging in single-task jobs, multi-tasking has become common-place. Computers are better able to fulfil this routinised work, and as a result workers are naturally reallocated to team-based jobs that require flexibility and adaptive thinking.

This transition is evidenced in changes to employable skills. A 2015 survey of employers of the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) found that the most desirable characteristic of graduates was ‘ability to work in a team’ – out-ranking analytical and problem-solving skill sets. This is consistent with other findings that show the productivity of ‘teams’ in work environments was explained by higher measures of ‘social intelligence’ even when factoring in the average intelligence of individual members.

The failure of computers to replace human interaction is the distinct advantage that humans hold over their machinated-counterparts. The value of team-work and its association with productivity, innovation and the ability to ‘trade’ tasks between members is irreplaceable and increasingly valued in all occupations.

These results should be of interest to policy-makers wishing to bolster their economies, and educators and parents fearing the iRobot robbery of an unemployed generation. While other countries might not exhibit identical statistics to the United States, the job take-over of computers and the global populist soup that has boiled into protests, votes and revolts over the hollowing labour force would suggest these findings are of significance to all developed countries.

It's possible that social skills will become something to be integrated into standardised education, or STEM subjects will soon be studied along-side disciplines encouraging the use of social skills. Either way, it is clear that excelling in the maths and sciences is no longer a guaranteed strategy of securing employability.

Hayley Pring is the International Trade and Economy Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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