Wednesday, 11 June 2014

21st Century Careers

Boston Dynamic's dogbot "BigDog" at work,
reconnoitering new territory.
Some years ago, I had a work colleague ask me, during a hiatus in the midst of commissioning a new production line, “Sam, what do you want to be doing in ten years?”

It was a pole-axing question for me. It stopped me dead in my tracks and all I could think of was that I didn’t want to be doing what I was doing right that minute. It became a pivotal – even derailing – moment for my then-quality assurance career.

There is a moment like that in Nigel Cameron’s TEDx Laçador presentation on “A World Without Work”. Nigel poses a very interesting question, asking “if tomorrow morning and the next morning and the next morning you got up, and there was no labour involved, and you could do essentially what you chose to do; what would you do what would you do?” (Cameron, 2014).

That is another of those pole-axing questions.

Ask yourself, honestly, if you would carry on doing what you are doing, if you weren’t being paid?

Nigel, who leads a Washington think tank, Center for Policy on Emerging Technologies (, is hopeful that we will frame the technological developments that we are starting to see to “enhance [and] engage the flourishing of the human race”. The technological developments that he discusses focus on education (he predicts the demise of around 90% of our tertiary institutions in coming years as a result of MOOCs); medicine and transport. He suggests that we will not need to have paid ‘work’ as we know it now, because “artificial intelligence [and] robotics has taken the load of human toil off the shoulders of the human species”, and that “I do not know how far ahead, I don't know how likely, but I think it is a significant possibility – and it's a significant possibility in our lifetimes – in which work is no more”. Nigel cites Facebook’s $19b purchase of WhatsApp, noting the company has 55 employees, and Instagram has 11. These companies have huge value, but their value lies in technology, not in employees (Cameron, 2014).

This brings us to another question. If we weren’t being paid, how would we live?

Switzerland’s Enno Schmidt proposed late last year that the Swiss government pay every Swiss citizen €25,000 per year (CHF2,500/month, or NZD $3,114/month which equates to NZD$37,500 per year). He gained enough signatures – over 100,000 – to ensure that a referendum be held into the issue (TV-Novosti, 2013; New York Times, 2013).

As one of the wealthiest nations on the planet, Switzerland can probably afford to do this. But why should the nation want to? In an interview with Paul Soleman, Enno related “An economy is about working together, or working and doing something for other people. We have to go back to bringing work and living more closely together. We need more and more work, but it’s not linked exactly to getting an income” (2014).

The social issues around such a move – around capitalism as a system, business ownership, how such taxes would be organised, co-operative ownership, creative commons, copyright and exchange – are immense. But supposing these issues were surmountable. What work would we all do?

Enno suggests that, with an unconditional basic income, we would all have the “freedom that comes with […] the ability to say no to a low-paying job”. Everyone would have the ability to choose to look after an aged parent, to write, to paint or to play with their grandchildren.

Can you imagine the changes for society? For our profession?

Schools would no longer be focused on preparing us for work, but once more about learning. Getting people back to work would not be an issue: they wouldn’t have to have paid work if their needs were few, and if they didn’t want to. Training courses are likely to all shift online, and I will probably not have paid employment at a local level. If I am good enough, I might get an international teaching job facilitating MOOCs (at least until the AI – artificial intelligence – algorithms get good enough). Cars will drive themselves, and taxi drivers, truck drivers, the school run, transport police, car accident insurance and people stuck at home because they have no licence, will all be a thing of the past. As will oil companies, eventually. Children would be able to take themselves to school and to extra-curricular events. If you lived in a city, you would no longer need parking or a garage, because you would rent driverless transport pods when you needed them.

Technology has the capacity to serve us in ways that we cannot yet appreciate, and will change how we live. We will, however, only adopt new ways if they work better than the old ones. We will only adopt them when the cost makes the new solutions easier than staying with the old.

But considering this question in terms of ‘work’ is not so useful. I feel the application of this comes back to careers, not to work. Those who have a passion, who want to follow something and develop, to become skilled are likely to want to continue into a career. It might be in musical performance, art, engineering, pure mathematics, language or astronomy.

What role might career practitioners have in such an environment? Funnily enough, I can see a fairly clear role for us early on, in assisting clients through the complexity of choice. Helping to develop the tools for people to be able to analyse themselves, talking to clients, assisting clients with development. We have skills in training needs analysis, and in working with students and whanau to get clients into areas where skills intersect with interests.

However, I can also see the day when a good AI programme could make us all redundant. Nigel Cameron (2014) talks about IBM’s Watson supercomputer which is now being used to diagnose illnesses. It is totally outperforming the diagnoses of GPs, in accuracy, consistency and reliability. The days of your GP too are numbered.

In the careers field it is regularly bandied about that 75% of the jobs that today’s primary school children might apply for when they leave school do not yet exist. This is still likely to be so. But many of those future school leavers may go into very traditional roles. Philosopher. Artist. Writer. Poet. Musician. Dancer. Teller of stories.

We humans are busy creatures. If we have a way to ensure that everyone has access to education, health care, transport and a social group, who knows what wonders we could create. And in our lifetimes. Because we want to, not because we have to.


  • Cameron, Nigel (23 April 2014). TEDx Laçador: A World without Work. Retrieved 9 June 2014 from
  • New York Times (12 November 2013). Switzerland’s Proposal to Pay People for Being Alive. Retrieved from
  • Soleman, Paul (9 April 2014).How a ‘stupid painter from Switzerland’ is revolutionizing work. Retrieved from
  • TV-Novosti (6 October 2013). How a ‘stupid painter from Switzerland’ is revolutionizing work. Swiss to vote on sweet minimum monthly income: $2,800. Retrieved from

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