Will Superjobs Require Super Humans?

Stephen DeAngelis

September 11, 2019

Among the many threads of discussion relating to the future of human work, perhaps the most interesting speculation involves the kinds of jobs that don’t exist today but will be created in the future. Journalist Kaveh Waddell (@kavehwaddell) observes, “Experts [are] puzzling out the future of work [and trying to figure out] what kind of new jobs will be enabled by AI and robotics — and how many there will be, relative to the work that is likely to disappear due to automation.”[1] He continues, “One likely outcome — already beginning to play out — is that people will be asked to do work that was previously done by 2 or 3 people with very different skills.” Deloitte Consulting has labeled these superjobs. Deloitte Principals, Erica Volini (@erica_volini), Jeff Schwartz (@JL_Schwartz), and Brad Denny, explain, “As robotics and AI enter the workforce, organizations are finding that virtually every job can — and probably should — be redesigned. This is creating completely new categories of work, most notably hybrid jobs and superjobs.”[2] Waddell writes, “If this sounds like more work for fewer people, well, it might be.” He also notes, “Volini predicts, 20% to 30% of jobs will be ‘superjobs,’ 10% to 20% will low-wage, low-skill jobs, and the middle 60% to 70% will be ‘hybrid jobs’ that require both technical and soft skills.”

Augmenting human capabilities

Volini and her colleagues write, “As machines take over routine, repeatable tasks and people focus on more sophisticated work, traditional roles are evolving into hybrid jobs and ‘superjobs’ performed with a powerful combination of human intelligence, AI, cognitive technology, and robotics.” They ask, “Can we safely proclaim progress, or is this cause for concern?” Hybrid jobs, that is, humans working with machines, have a long and twisted history. Superjobs, however, are something new. Volini and her colleagues write, “Along with significant market growth for technologies such as robotic process automation (RPA), related fears and uncertainty are on the rise, according to the Deloitte 2019 Global Human Capital Trends survey. Almost two-thirds of this year’s respondents cited AI and robotics as important or very important issues in human capital, but only 6% consider their organizations ready for the job design, reskilling, and work reinvention required to integrate people and automation effectively. And the specter of robots coming for people’s jobs can still spark lively debate.”

Deloitte analysts aren’t the only ones pondering the future of work and noting the lack of preparedness by organizations to recalibrate their workforce. Analysts from Dell Technologies and the Institute for the Future teamed up to explore this topic in a report entitled “Realizing 2030: A Divided Vision of the Future. The staff at IndustryWeek reports the survey queried 3800 business leaders around the globe and asked them to gauge their predictions and preparedness for the future.[3] The survey found business leaders aren’t sure “whether this new working environment will lead to job satisfaction … as only 42% believe they’ll have more job satisfaction in the future by offloading the tasks they don’t want to do to machines.” The survey also found business leaders weren’t sure “whether workers will be more productive due to more collaboration with machines.” One thing is clear. Hybrid jobs, humans working with smart machines, are inevitable. Volini and her colleagues note, “Deloitte research from July 2017 [found]: Automating routine work actually increases the importance of human contributions and capabilities. According to this research, the value of automation and AI lies in augmenting the workforce — not replacing human labor with machines — and enabling people to focus on problem solving and creating new ideas.” The Dell Technologies/Institute for the Future survey found, “There is complete agreement on the fact that human and machines will work as integrated teams. More than eight in ten (82%) leaders expect humans and machines will work as integrated teams within their organization inside of five years (26% say their workforce and machines are already successfully working this way.” What about superjobs?

The rise of superjobs

As noted above, Waddell predicts superjobs will be jobs in which fewer people will be asked to do more work requiring a broader skill set. He sees superjobs as heaping more work on already overburdened humans. Volini and her colleagues, I believe, take a different view of such jobs. From my reading, superjobs are created when humans are augmented by cutting edge technologies in a collaborative way. Augmented workers are more productive, but they don’t necessarily feel overburdened by new responsibilities because those responsibilities are shared by smart machines. Volini and her colleagues explain, “Creating superjobs — deconstructing, recombining, and expanding existing roles — requires deeply rethinking work design. Simply automating existing tasks can increase throughput, but the potential is so much bigger: Redesigning jobs and work for a true marriage of human strengths and machine power can significantly improve customer service, output, and productivity. The rewards are substantial — but so are the challenges. Bringing machines and humans into a genuinely unified workflow and creating meaningful roles for people will demand fresh thinking, strong, enterprisewide collaboration — particularly in IT, finance, and HR — and a deliberate plan.”

Maurice Conti (@MauriceConti), chief innovation officer at Alpha, a unit of Spain’s Telefónica, predicts, “We’re heading for a future where our natural human capabilities are going to be radically augmented in three ways: Computational systems will help us think. Robotic systems will help us make. And a digital nervous system will connect us to the world far beyond what our natural nervous system can offer. … Successful organizations in the future will figure out how to partner robots and humans to achieve things that neither can do by themselves.”[4] Conti uses “robots” as shorthand for cognitive technologies capable of augmenting human capabilities. Conti asserts, “We’re going to achieve more than ever before as individuals and organizations by partnering with these technologies.” Conti doesn’t believe humans will feel overburdened by the work they are asked to perform; they will feel invigorated because all the mundane tasks will be done by machines. He states, “Curiosity and resilience are going to be keys for success in the future. You need curiosity to continue learning throughout your career, and you need resilience to be able to bounce back and keep moving forward.”

Concluding thoughts

Although many futurists talk about a future filled with smart machines, I agree with Conti who believes, “Tools should be in service of the humans who create them. So I think you should always be human led.” Volini and her colleagues seem to agree with that philosophy. They write, “Rethinking work design goes beyond rewriting job descriptions. Organizations must start with a broader canvas and then compose the work to take advantage of machines, people in alternative work arrangements, and — most importantly — unique human capabilities such as imagination, curiosity, self-development, and empathy.” Humans don’t need to be super humans to fill superjobs because they will be augmented by and collaborate with smart machines. Volini and her colleagues conclude, “Augmenting the workforce with robotics and AI technology will, no doubt, lead to new ways to get the job done. The challenge before organizations is to achieve this reinvention with positive results for business, working people, and the economy and society as a whole.”

Footnotes
[1] Kaveh Waddell, “‘Superjobs’ of the future are just more work,” Axios, 11 April 2019.
[2] Erica Volini, Jeff Schwartz, and Brad Denny, “From Jobs to ‘Superjobs’,” The Wall Street Journal, 12 August 2019.
[3] Staff, “Business Leaders Unsure of Job Descriptions in Age of Man Plus Machine,” IndustryWeek, 12 August 2019.
[4] Allison Bailey, “Thriving in the Augmented Age: A Conversation with Moonshot Thinker Maurice Conti,” Boston Consulting Group, 11 April 2019.