The new world of accelerated culture has changed the boundaries of success and turned the idea of work on its head. Therefore in order to succeed must we reassess the qualities and skills that have traditionally been considered the most desirable?
In Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, the ghost of Jacob Marley appears before Ebenezer Scrooge and introduces two alternative visions of the future. The route to the bright side required a change in attitude and behaviour. The same requirement is upon you, dear reader, if you are to thrive in this new world of accelerating change. You must push back against the training, conditioning and education which has moulded you for a vanishing way of life.
As the world of gradual change gives way to the world of permanent acceleration, the attributes that deliver success and happiness will transform. In fact they’ll invert. In your lifetime so far the way to win was, for the most part, to be 'nice'. You knew that it was buttoned-down, buckled-up, average, normalised, predictable, diligent, incremental and rule-following behaviour that led to the good life. This straitjacket reaped rewards. It still does in many larger organisations. But only for the moment. To continue this way as if nothing is changing all around you will, one day very soon, lead you to a tin pan alley. Because if these nice qualities are your strengths then, gradually and then very suddenly, they will become your weaknesses.
These once-valuable qualities of rule-bound, routinised and biddable behaviour and consistent, predictable decision-making are precisely the attributes of robots and algorithms. They are not, however, the greatest strengths of humans and this is why the days of humans-as-meat-machines are drawing to a close.
To save your job from automation or build your company success you cannot put in more hours, run faster, make fewer mistakes, sleep any less than you do already. Steel-cased algorithms arriving at the howling speed of six-legged robot soldiers take job after job and each time they teach the lesson: the humans were mere cogs in the machine and they just got switched out.
Some skills provide some protection. But for most jobs it’s temporary. Give it a year. Or a week. It takes skill to say, drive a car… but the latest Google car has an on/off button. That’s it. That’s all. Nothing else is required. And there’s a clue to the future in that simple button. Any job where the unique character or insight of the individual is irrelevant is a job that’s headed for the history books and a YouTube retrospective. And when it comes to driving, all that’s required is getting you or your cargo from A to B safely and efficiently. Personality, creativity, empathy, inspiration are not required. So any driver will do. Which means sooner or later it’s goodnight to the 70m people worldwide who drive for a living.
You cannot put in more hours, run faster or make fewer mistakes than you do already
The skills of the automobile driver may be demanding but they are impersonal and non-creative so they are no protection from automation. First you’ll be controlled, rated and dehumanised by Uber and then you’ll be replaced entirely by a robot car.
And it’s not just the drivers of cars and trucks. This is happening across the occupational spectrum. If it is the job title rather than you the individual that defines the output of your work, then the curtain is falling. Here’s a test: Whether your work is high skill or low skill, if another human cog can be slid in to the organisation to replace you and cause no interruption to business-as-usual, then for you the wind of change is rising. For hundreds of millions of low and high skill jobs the lights are going out.
Few occupations will be safe. Whether you’re a smooth-talking sales person, an information-age maven, a slick internal politician or a head-down doer, the robocalypse is headed your way at ramming speed. "I see your point," you may think, "but not me – I have a certain je ne sais quoi. I am irreplaceable."
No doubt the horse once said those very same words to the motor car. Sometime after that the elevator operator also bragged them too. Only to find that his new-fangled push-button lift reached the lobby and he was escorted out of the building. And the same story of woe is repeated through history by chimney sweeps, ice delivery men, punkahwallahs, bus conductors and ironmongers. Of course for you it might be true and maybe no machine can replace you. Perhaps.
But if 50 per cent of today’s jobs get automated (as an Oxford University study recently warned… and other studies predict worse outcomes) then the entire fabric of society will be utterly transformed. Those very few people whose jobs remain unchanged may discover their privileged position is as fine and grand as a proud horse harrumphing about their specialness while they stand on the hard shoulder of a motorway. Even those well-heeled fortresses of human intelligence, the blue chip management consultancy firms, are under attack. New start-ups are using big-data powered algorithms to provide services faster and cheaper than the platoons of elite consultants. Even the disruption of those who advise on disruption is inevitable.
In a world of permanent acceleration a new set of behaviours and attitudes must be adopted. This is the 'Anti-Nice' behaviour of entrepreneurs, artists and inventors.
Richard Newton is author of The End of Nice: How to be human in a world run by robots.