We often hear that in the near future, robots will take over our jobs. And workers frequently bemoan the fact that wearisome tasks are less rewarding than those fulfilled by people in high-level, creative functions.
But some jobs will always be in human hands, and certain qualities are constantly in demand. The underlying difference is knowledge. And if you want to steer your career in the right direction, you need to consciously apply your efforts to becoming a knowledge worker.
The future is knowledge-based
When people talk about knowledge workers, the common association is with white-collar jobs. This stereotype goes back several decades. If your job emphasizes elements only a human can provide, such as critical thinking, intuition, creativity, or leadership, you’re in this category.
Knowledge workers enjoy several advantages in the workplace. Their jobs tend to be better-compensated and less exhausting. They incur fewer safety risks, which has become especially relevant in the age of the pandemic. Even healthcare workers can use a patient portal and telemedicine software in order to work from home.
And as technology continues to unlock new opportunities, new skills will emerge as requirements to be competitive. Those skills are more likely to be knowledge-based. At the same time, advances in AI will allow automation to further take over tasks that involve manual labor.
Collectively, humans won’t be losing their jobs to robots in the future. But the overall effect will be a gradual shift away from manual labor and towards more knowledge-based positions. Individually, we need to make the necessary adjustments in order to keep pace with this trend and thrive in the workplace of tomorrow.
Make yourself more valuable
It can be argued that all employees are knowledge workers. We’re human beings; by default, we go about our tasks, no matter how tedious or routine, by exercising some degree of judgment and improvisation. A study by Harvard Business Review in the Japanese auto industry of the 1980s showed that even assembly workers could make meaningful inputs and improve factory productivity.
However, this sort of approach is taken at the employer’s discretion. And not all managers are willing to go against the grain. You’re likely to encounter resistance within company hierarchies if you try to go above and beyond your expected role.
Even if you have sound ideas for process improvement, if they aren’t seen as coming from a knowledge-based position, people are less likely to be receptive or enact change. So how do you turn this around? How can you leverage your potential contributions and be perceived as a knowledge worker?
In order to be in that position, you have to accrue what author Cal Newport calls “career capital”. Accept that in the world of employment, people won’t just give you autonomy. You have to master a skill or several, that will increase your value in the eyes of an employer.
If you’re lucky, you can receive the right sort of training or mentorship as you progress in your career. But more often, you’ll have to create your own luck. Take charge of your continued learning, and keep on seeking opportunities to acquire and practice new skills.
Improve as you go
But the world won’t stop and wait for you to catch up. If you’re like most people, you have to keep on making a living, doing the same routine tasks you’re trying to move past.
It might seem like a dilemma; you need to improve in order to level up in your career, but the opportunities for improvement are usually found on the higher levels. Thus, the real challenge is getting better and preparing yourself for that next step while you’re still within your current, limited role.
Start by reframing your situation. Maybe you operate machinery or talk to customers over the phone for eight hours a day, and don’t get to practice anything else. But during breaks or briefing sessions, you get to interact with your co-workers or supervisors; this is a chance to practice your soft skills.
Being able to network and influence or collaborate with people might come naturally to some, but most of us need to work to develop those skills. Why not open up to your boss or colleagues about your ideas, see how they react, and attempt different approaches to convince them? Whether you fail or succeed, you can at least take away a few lessons on how to deal with people.
You might be in a difficult situation in terms of learning opportunities, but your attitude can make enough of a difference to effect change. Make the most of your free time; sacrifice the leisure activities that don’t add value to your life, and replace them with productive reading and research.
Seize every chance you can get to improve and add value through human discernment, interpersonal skills, and other attributes that a machine can’t replicate. It will help you to change perceptions, make progress in your career, and keep your job safe from cost-cutting measures like automation.