The Age of Versatility

“One machine can do the work of fifty ordinary men. No machine can do the work of one extraordinary man.”

-Elbert Hubbard

Two of the chief labor market concerns people have when deciding what to study or what career to pursue are automation and inequality. Jobs that dominated the economy only a few decades ago, such as typists, have all but disappeared, and current dominant jobs, such as ones in call centers, are likely to experience significant declines in the near future. At the same time, superstar performers within firms have been responsible for most of their productivity, commanding vastly greater incomes than their peers. Worrying that one’s skills may become obsolete or fail to command a decent income is a legitimate anxiety, but is one that can be easily overcome.

At their core, these labor market dynamics result from constant technological development. History has shown that whatever is routine and quantifiable can eventually be automated. Many workplaces today have highly specialized jobs with a limited number of tasks and require mostly vocational skills. This is changing, and being able to adapt to the changing nature of work is essential for future success. In order to be adaptable, one must emphasize versatility, or learning how to learn, rather than the skills of a particular vocation alone, or even knowledge of theories or programming languages.

Versatile and transferable skills are fundamentally ones of problem-solving, communication, and pattern recognition. It is these skills that allow high performers to excel in whatever environment they are in, no matter what challenges come their way. Unlike humans, the technologies responsible for automation and workplace inequality are highly specialized, leaving much room for humans to complement them in areas where they are weak. Excelling at what algorithms and robotics cannot do, rather than being anxious about what they can, is vital in becoming a lifelong learner and finding future success.

It is already the case that soft skills, such as communication and empathy, are the fastest growing in demand. While the number of jobs requiring mainly technical skills has declined since 1980, those requiring social skills have increased rapidly, as social tasks cannot be more efficiently accomplished by other means. As populations age and the demand for care work increases further, we can only expect the growth in demand for soft skills to continue.

Even in careers that did not traditionally require skills of problem-solving, communication, and pattern recognition, we can see the forces of automation bringing them into prominence. Take for example bank telling, a role that was historically about counting money and updating balances. With the introduction of the Automated Telling Machine (ATM), the role of the teller shifted to providing customer satisfaction, informing them of bank services, and making them associate the bank with trustworthiness. These tasks were always valuable, but the time-consuming nature of telling prior to automation relegated them to the periphery. Automation enabled the most uniquely human traits to dominate the workspace, and those tellers who possessed the versatile skills to manage the transition found the most success.

In The Formula: Universal Laws of Success, a recent work by Albert-László Barabási analyzing the phenomena of success using the tools of network science, one of the laws is stated as “Performance is bounded, Success is unbounded”. He argues that the presence of skills follows a normal distribution, with most people around average and a few extremely high performers, whereas success follows a power law, where most of it accrues to the best. The difference between first and second in performance may be minuscule, but the resulting difference in their success would be astronomical.

There are pessimistic and optimistic readings of this law. One can resign oneself to believe that “the best will find success and machines will do the rest”, or see that human ingenuity has pushed the frontier of problems to be solved. While there are few high performers in each domain, the number of domains in which one can excel in are limitless. By prioritizing versatility, being able to learn new skills, and finding comfort in changing environments, one can find new connections that previously went unnoticed. Whether bringing to life an entrepreneurial vision, changing the nature of a job or workplace, or coming up with a new field of scientific investigation, versatility remains a core trait.