The capacity to let our minds wander can give humans a surprising edge against advancing technologies in the battle for jobs.
Depending on which forecasts you believe, we should be either moderately concerned or extremely concerned about robots taking our jobs in the near future. From truck drivers to lawyers to those designing the robots themselves, nobody is safe from being replaced by software, algorithms, and machines. Now that we are face-to-face (or face-to-screen) with that threat, an entire cottage industry has emerged around dispensing advice on how to prepare for it. Much of this advice centers on mastering skills that robots ostensibly cannot.
What skills are needed to avoid being automated out of a job? One article suggests the answer is all of them: “The more skills, knowledge, and experience you have, the less likely you are to be replaced or automated, so acquire whatever you can, as fast as you can.” But this “more is more” approach isn’t sustainable, especially given the rapidly changing nature of work and the imperative to keep learning and adapting.
When recommending specific areas for development, management and technology experts tend to focus on two broad classes of skills that distinguish people from machines — what I’ll refer to as sociability and variability. But homing in on those areas can still lead to burnout, leaving us even more vulnerable to obsolescence.
It’s Exhausting to Be Human
Akin to social and emotional intelligence, sociability involves understanding others’ emotions and seeing situations from alternative points of view, or what social psychologists call perspective-taking. It’s a skill set that enables empathic collaboration with colleagues and customers, and many organizations are making it a priority for employee development. The retail pharmacy chain Walgreens, for example, launched an initiative for its pharmacists and beauty consultants to undergo empathy training to help cancer patients find products to manage treatment side effects such as hair loss, dry skin, and fatigue.
The push for employees to master sociability — increasingly common now that empathy has become a corporate buzzword — may partly be a response to the rise of automation. In research I conducted with Harvard Business School marketing professor Michael Norton, we found that people are particularly averse to robots taking jobs that require social and emotional skills (think social worker), but they are more comfortable with robots taking jobs that require analytical skills (think data analyst).