AI-Proofing Your Career Starts in College
The job market has never offered any guarantees. Mechanization wiped out once-secure careers in manufacturing. Now artificial intelligence (AI) is coming for a future generation of jobs that had seemed safe, starting with software coding and back-office work. What can we do about it? Despite some hyperbolic fears, there are reasons to be optimistic about the future of technology. It has the potential to bring a better quality of life and more widespread prosperity, eventually. To prosper in this future, workers will need new skills and a different education. And that means rethinking how we approach college and what we want it to provide us.
College Degrees are Still Valuable
Most college degrees pay off not only in higher wages but because they mean graduates are less likely to be unemployed, or will be unemployed for less time. Evolving technology in the late 20th century put a higher premium on more education, leading more people to go to college. The share of the population over age 25 with some post-secondary education doubled between 1980 and 2021 to more than 60%. This increased the supply of graduates and shrunk the wage premium for college degrees. More people going to college also means more bad outcomes: more dropouts and more degrees that don’t pay off. Meanwhile, the price of education has skyrocketed. However, with new technology coming our way, a college degree will be more valuable than ever.
Thinking Skills will be Critical
Thriving in an age of technological innovation requires being adaptable and finding different ways to add value. Machines that could weave cloth at scale displaced many workers, but master craftsmen who made exceptional-quality goods still had jobs. Other people had to learn how to work a machine. It was not an easy transition; there was a lot of social upheaval and displacement. How we educated the population changed to suit the new economy, and it took several decades for workers to adapt. Today’s technology arguably poses more challenges because some white-collar jobs will also disappear. So far, large language models like ChatGPT are good at synthesizing existing information to make a decent argument or find a solution to problems. The technology will only get more powerful, though its creative abilities will likely be limited. Psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer argues that AI is better suited to tasks where risks are well defined and the parameters are stable, like playing chess. It’s less good at dealing with problems where there is more uncertainty. We’ll face more of the latter because data and knowledge from the past tell you little about a fast-changing future. Past data can even be misleading. Gigerenzer thinks human judgment will remain critical, and its value might even be super-charged for people who learn to use the new technology properly. Interpersonal skills will also be prized. High-touch human time will be the rarest of commodities. Most importantly, thriving will require constantly learning new things and adapting swiftly because we don’t know how new technology will unfold.
New Expectations and Curriculums are Needed
Getting that out of a college degree requires two things: different expectations and class selection on the part of students, and for universities and colleges to revamp their approach to curriculums. Even before AI, society struggled to figure out what a post-secondary education should provide. American universities and colleges were originally intended to be liberal arts institutions that aimed to make well-rounded, thoughtful leaders. In contrast to the European model where students specialize early, American students were meant to get a more cursory exposure to many different fields. This was reasonable when a small share of the population went to college and it wasn’t too expensive. But as more people pursued higher education and costs rose, the expectation changed. Students wanted a more vocational and career-focused education and were less interested in reading Plato. Meanwhile, colleges and universities stopped doing either job well. Many students struggle to apply their degree to the job market, and the education they get has become less rigorous. One study found little improvement in critical-thinking skills during the first few years among 45% of students. It’s understandable people want a clearer path to a career from their degrees, but treating college strictly as vocational education limits students’ skills. Now that critical thinking, adaptability, and interpersonal communication are increasingly important, we need a new approach to post-secondary education.
- According to the World Economic Forum, by 2025 more than half of all current workplace tasks will be performed by machines.
- A survey by the Pew Research Center found that nearly two-thirds of Americans believe that within 50 years, robots and computers will do many jobs currently done by humans.
- The Bureau of Labor Statistics found that employment of computer and information technology occupations is projected to grow 11% from 2019 to 2029, much faster than the average for all occupations.
AI-proofing your career starts in college by embracing a different approach to education. A college degree is still valuable, but thinking skills will be critical. Students should hone their critical thinking skills, and universities should revamp their approach to curriculums. We need a new approach to post-secondary education that will prepare students for an uncertain future.
The rise of AI is changing the job market, but it’s not all doom and gloom. To thrive in this future, workers will need new skills and a different education. The new approach to post-secondary education should focus on developing critical thinking, adaptability, and interpersonal communication skills. With the right education, workers can be prepared for an uncertain future and AI-proof their career.