Fragility, Antifragility, and Displacement by Our Robot Workforce

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I recently gave a number of talks and conversations in the Phoenix area on the need for young people to think entrepreneurially about their careers. The idea of a singular "career" is dying, if not entirely dead, and young people today are going to have to be versatile between jobs if they want to be successful in coming years. This is mostly driven by technological advancements like near-instant networks, automation & artificial intelligence, and the exponential growth in computing power (See Bold, by Peter Diamandis, for a decent overview on this topic -- or just look at the technological advancements of the last 5 years).

This is a tricky topic to approach for a lot of people. They instantly jump to either the dystopian landscape of Terminator or 2001: A Space Odyssey and imagine human skills being crushed under the cybernetic feet of their titanium creations, or they jump to the dystopian landscape of economically-illiterate newspaper pundits and imagine a world where everybody is unemployed because their jobs have been replaced by machines. Even some relatively intelligent people believe versions of this (e.g., Elon Musk, whose AI-phobia is so strong and vocal that you must imagine that he stepped on a particularly pointy calculator as a child).

I, for one, find this a really exciting future to think about. The rapid advancements in technology lower the barriers to entry for so many new fields and lower the cost of general living so much that creative labor is within reach of more people than ever before. The technological advancements leading the charge in networking, artificial intelligence, computational power. and manufacturing are making it easier today for a young person to come up with an idea and execute upon it than ever before. This means you can quit your day job and become an entrepreneur at a much lower cost and lower risk than in 2005, 1965 or 1905. It means that you don't have to bet the ranch on a venture just to get manufacturing space when you can just take out a small loan for a 3D printer. Building a website is free today, when it would have cost you hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars just a few years ago.

And that's just assuming that these technology won't displace existing jobs and careers. Although people like Peter Thiel are skeptical of the power of AI and related technology to replace human beings, existing jobs are already being displaced. Airplanes today have two pilots rather than two pilots and an engineer (or two pilots, an engineer, and a navigator). Taxi drivers are replaced by Uber drivers, who will be replaced by self-driving cars. Secretaries are being replaced by AI (see, the personal assistant that I use). You've probably heard some form of all of this before.

Generational Differences: Fear and Skepticism

I am excited about the opportunities this opens up. Even if some careers are shaken up and jobs displaced, new ones crop up in their places and people are now freer to engage in creative labor than they were before.

The young people I spoke with -- on the whole -- shared my excitement and my optimism. They knew that there were cool things coming down the pipeline for them and that if they were entrepreneurial enough with these things, they could not only benefit from them but build a career out of them.

The older people I spoke with didn't share our optimism. "Scary" was an oft-used word. "Disturbing" came in second place.

While these advancements may conjure up the sci-fi images above, we have yet to have iPhones purposely killing us and cars driving us off bridges. Such fears are largely unfounded.

Fragility and Antifragility

More of the fear comes from the disruption of careers, which I found most interesting about our conversations.

Older people 1) were less-likely to believe that traditionally "safe" and white collar careers are ripe for displacement; and 2) were less-enthused about the idea that people may have to change careers.

One example was during my conversation at ASU with some International Language students. I noted that a lot of law and medicine jobs will be displaced by AI in the near-future. Paralegals are the first to go, then low-level lawyers, and then lawyers higher up the hierarchy closer to "analytic" and "creative" work (something my friend Josh Blackman has been writing about for years). I pointed to ROSS Intelligence as an easy example of this already happening.

An older woman at the back of the room scoffed, saying that lawyers have to analyze a lot of case law and formulate creative solutions to legal challenges. I didn't disagree -- I just said that machines will soon be able to do a lot of that and that it would be unwise for a young law student to expect as much job security as he may have twenty years ago. I warned her against the dangers of being a skeptic -- she called herself a realist.

You could chalk this up to older people just being more out-of-touch with technology and having less optionality than younger people. They're more fragile, in the words of Nassim Taleb. You wouldn't be wrong.

I think part of this comes from path-dependence, too. Older people grew up in a culture of one-career, work-to-a-401k, and train-for-that-singular career. The Great Recession hit them harder than it hit younger people who had yet to put in 20-30 years at a company. They had taken out mortgages dependent on the salary they were making at their cushy jobs and then the payout from their retirement accounts from these jobs. They had financed a new car dependent on this job. They had taken classes for this specific job that further engrained specific habits for specific tasks that were non-transferable.

They were fragile. The disruption in the economy came to hurt them, despite being considerably better-off than their younger counterparts right out of college. On paper, they looked like they would weather a recession better than a young person with zero experience and zero savings, but the opposite was true. The debt they had taken out and the habits they had developed were highly specialized for where they were in life.

Young people (those starting their careers and still in school), on the other hand, had an opportunity. They could look to their parents and mentors and older colleagues and be afraid or they could learn from them. Those that prepared for such a downturn could be robust, not being too hurt by recessions. These people were probably in the beginning of their careers in 2008-2010. They could pivot and hadn't lost too much time on the job at the time of the meltdown. They probably wouldn't benefit from growing up in a time of economic meltdown, but they probably weren't terribly hurt by it, either.

The Antifragility of Youth

Or they could view the meltdown as opportunity. They could learn not to fear such a recession and actually benefit from it and the technology that cropped up in its wake. Those that learned could become antifragile, meaning that they would not only not be hurt by economic disruption but also be keen to it and view it as opportunity. I suspect that people who were still in school during the meltdown fall into this category. At the very least, they'd learn not to take out mortgages they couldn't afford on salaries from jobs they couldn't afford.

These people see something like the collapse of the financial sector as a bastion of "safe jobs" and its replacement by tech and the sharing economy (note: tech *and* the sharing economy -- the dot-com bubble wasn't too long ago) as the new place for growth as a good thing. They aren't out on the streets after Lehman collapsed. They didn't lose their homes (or, if their parents did, they were luckily insulated from the very real stressors of being an indebted adult).

Being young means not being stuck into debt, careers, marriages, and other situations that bind older people to choices they wouldn't otherwise take. Youth brings with it optionality. It's easier to learn a new set of languages when you're younger, learn new skills for the job, and to take the extra time at a low-paid or unpaid job for new opportunities and options that you wouldn't otherwise have.

In a certain sense, young people have a leg up on their older counterparts and have always had this leg up. Once you bring in the unhealthy relationship with debt that most people have today and the impending automation and technological revolution, the leg up becomes a mile up on older people. Young people are multitudes freer. They can embrace the oncoming future and don't have to be afraid of it.

Does this mean that all older people are afraid of the tech revolution? Absolutely not. It's just my set of observations on why skeptics tend to be older. They have more to lose and their worldview is one of fewer options, so they discount these options as non-serious, fictional, or wistful more easily.

The key takeaway is that young people have greater ease and a better cultural background to embrace career-skills that have high-transferability and aren't easily automated. Being a secretary or an accountant or a day-trader is easy to automate. Being a sales director or a bioethicist is much harder.

I could be wrong, but I'd rather be wrong with transferable skills than be wrong and compete with a machine.


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I'm Zak. School should have taught you how to succeed at work and build a great career. Instead, it taught you that mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell. Thankfully, I teach what school never taught.

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