Future Work – Jobs and Universities in the 21st Century

Future Work – what will jobs look like in the future and what is the role of universities in the 21st Century?

The world is transforming at a rapid pace and when our children come out into it as adults, we may not recognise it at all. There are many questions about the future workforce and how the roles of universities will change to adapt. For parents, it is a time of great uncertainty. We know that our children’s professional lives is going to be different from the ones we had but we don’t know in what way. That has been the question on many minds.

According to the World Economic Forum:

“65% of children entering primary school today will end up working in completely new job types that don’t exist yet.”

That’s pretty daunting. How do we prepare our children for something we haven’t even heard of? We know they will need to be adaptable to change and that they will need to be the problem solvers of tomorrow. Aside from that, what else can we do?

A workshop at school took us through the trends and data and what they suggest about the future of work for our children. The following were the notes I took, with my annotations.

Future Work

According to Elon Musk, artificial intelligence will be better than us at everything by 2030 to 2040. For the children in school right now, that will be within their working lifetime. As it stands, jobs like clerks and bookkeepers have already gone over to computers. In the future, we can expect them to take over even more. So which are the jobs that are likely to be taken over first? Following the chart below, the ones in the red are the jobs that will be the first to go. The safest jobs are those in green.

Future Work
Image Source: James Abela

Routine Jobs – High Salary vs Low Salary

Routine jobs are the easiest ones to be taken over by robots. Whether or not they will be depends on the cost effectiveness of doing so.

Jobs that pay high salaries are more likely to go first because the cost of employing humans will make it worth the while to create robots that are not prone to human error. Surgeons are one example of a high salary, routine job that is likely to be replaced by robots in the not too distant future. Not only are they expensive to train both financially and time-wise, the mistakes they make from human error are also costly. Robots, on the other hand, can eliminate this source of human error.

Routine, low-paying jobs are likely to be safer especially if it is cheaper to pay a human to do the job. It is not cost-effective to create an expensive robot to do a job that we could pay a human to do for less. However, if one robot could replace many humans, that would be the exception, for example with data entry jobs.

Creative Jobs – High Salary vs Low Salary

Creative jobs are much harder to replace with robots – not impossible but definitely trickier to accomplish. Even if we can achieve it, it is questionable in some instances whether the robot equivalent will satisfactorily replace a human.

These are some examples of jobs that robots are capable of performing but are unlikely to take over:

  • Professional athletes – who would want to watch a sport without the uncertainty of human error or ability?
  • Teachers – a robot will never be able to replace the nurture of a real person.
  • Hotel front desk – a robot can perform all the functions required by the hotel front desk, but it will not achieve the level of personal service that a human can provide.
  • Chef – robots can follow recipes and cook to a greater degree of accuracy than a human, but they cannot create new recipes. What we may see is a mix of robots taking over routine chef work with the celebrity chef positions remaining open to humans.
  • Artists – it is easy enough for a computer to paint a picture, like the creative expressions from neural networks shown below, but these pictures are unlikely to ever hold the value of a creative masterpiece from a human artist.
Future Work - Computer Artists
Image Source: Engadget


Since it might be worthwhile to replace some of the High Salary, Creative jobs eventually, the safest jobs will always be the Low Salary, Creative jobs.

Future Work: The Jobs Robots will Take First

So what jobs will robots take first? According to Forbes, Business Insider and Advertising Age, these ones:

  • Middle management
  • Sales people
  • Accountants
  • Report writers
  • Journalists
  • Drivers
  • Fashion Models
  • Machine operators
  • Umpires and Referees
  • Cashiers and Tellers
  • Legal support staff
  • Medical professionals and doctors

The following infographic from Futurism shows how likely it will be that a job will be taken over by robots:

Future Work
Image Source: Futurism

According to MSN, these jobs can already be performed by robots to a higher degree of accuracy than humans: chef, factory worker, surgeon, retail sales associate, security guard, shepherd, farmer, pharmacist, takeout driver, journalist, soldier, receptionist, telephone sales person, construction worker, accountant, tour guide, mixologist (bar tender), librarian, and hospital administrator.

Future Work: Which Jobs are the Safest?

For the jobs that already exist, you can check it out on TIME – Will a Robot Take My Job? or NPR – Will Your Job be Done by a Machine?

According to NPR, there are four questions that can help determine how “safe” a job is from the robots:

  • Do you need to personally help others?
  • Do you need to come up with clever solutions?
  • Does your job require you to squeeze into small spaces?
  • Does your job require negotiation?

See also: The Robots are Coming to the Workplace – What You Need to Know.

Future Work: Qualities Our Children will Need

What are the qualities that determine job security? We’re looking at qualities that machines can’t replicate. In other words – creativity and people skills. The third skill that is going to be important is coding because someone has to create and maintain all these machines that will be replacing us. Aside from that, coding is a skill that is increasingly becoming a necessity even in jobs outside the technology sector.

Seven million job openings in 2015 were in occupations that required coding skills, and programming jobs overall are growing 12% faster than the market average.

Half of all programming openings are in industries outside of technology. Among them: Finance, Manufacturing, and Health Care. – Fast Company

Future Work in a Nutshell

  • Computers have already taken many Jobs such as clerks and bookkeepers
  • Robots & Computers – Once software is developed it can be easily copied. Meaning the computer always uses the best available software.
  • The more routine a job, the easier it is for a computer or robot to do it
  • The higher the salary paid, then the more profitable it is for a computer to do it
  • Quality & safety are two other motivations to automate
  • Three key skills for the future: creativity, people skills and coding
  • See also: Automation and anxiety – Will smarter machines cause mass unemployment?

Future Work and the Changing Role of University

The changes in the labour market means our children are going to need hybrid skills – for instance, combining math and arts.

New research by Burning Glass Technology analyzed millions of online job postings from the past 12 months and found that by coupling technical skills with a liberal arts education can nearly double the jobs available to graduates and offer an average salary premium of $6,000.

Future Work: The Reign of the Freelancer

It also means that our children will be taking on more freelance work rather than a steady job from a single company.

  • Freelancers are the fastest-growing segment in the EU labour market, and by some estimates, will account for 50% of the US & UK work forces by 2020.
  • The emergence of the freelancer or contract employer closely mirrors the evolution of the distributed workforce.
  • Many of the teenagers of today will become the freelancers of tomorrow.

What will our children need to meet the requirements of the freelancer?

  • Grit’ and determination
  • Able to manage their own retirements and health care
  • Be self-promotional
  • Be responsible for their own successes

How is Tertiary Education Changing to Address This?

The following are some of the changes being introduced by various entrepreneurial universities.


“Stanford looks for candidates who will try to make a big difference and is willing to consider applicants who have taken risks, are innovative, and dare to be different/do things differently.”

  • Mission: Recently proposed the idea of a mission not a major: “I’m a biology major” is replaced by “I’m learning human biology to eliminate world hunger.”
  • Blended learning: At Stanford’s medical school, 70 percent of formal instruction now takes place online. This shift will become more general as Web-enhanced, blended classes become the norm.
  • Labs: Traditional learning is now interspersed with “impact labs” to develop entrepreneurial skills and social awareness
  • Entrepreneurialism as culture: Entrepreneurial DNA at the core of its culture. For example StartX is a non-profit business incubator

In the 2007 Facebook class, undergraduate students were given the assignment to make simple Facebook apps. The students ended up getting millions of users for free apps that they designed to run on Facebook. Some of those students started making far more money than their professors. This led to the creation of an incubator type class.


  • Entrepreneurship Initiative: Founded in 2015 with the aim of supporting Rice’s innovative energies across the liberal arts, professional schools, and the research university.
  • The Lui Idea Lab: A Physical space on campus. Thiscreates curricular and co-curricular opportunities, meaningful experiences bridging Rice and the working world.
  • Think Differently Classes: Thinking Differently classes are conceptualized to explore a few of the many questions associated with innovation and entrepreneurship in diverse contexts today
  • Owl spark startup accelerator: Offers students the opportunity to learn about entrepreneurship while working on their own startup ventures.

Olin College: Engineering

  • An interdisciplinary curriculum: The “Olin Triangle”
  • Delivered in collaboration with two neighbouring colleges, one specialised in Business (Babson College) and one in liberal arts (Wellesley Colleges).
  • The aim is to produce graduates who have robust technical skills, the ability to apply engineering concepts to real problems, an interdisciplinary orientation and extensive design experience.
  • Project-based curriculum.
  • “Passionate Pursuits”: personal projects that the college recognizes as having academic value are given funding and credit.

London School of Economics

“The LSE is the only university where more than 10 per cent of female graduates earned more than £100,000 within 10 years.”

  • Breadth: Required to choose at least one “outside” option in any other subject to enable you to approach your main area of study in a more inclusive and holistic way.
  • LSE100: A flagship module engaging with big questions from a multidisciplinary approach
  • Varied Experiences: Year-long exchanges with Sciences Po, a leading social science university in France, and the University of California, Berkeley, in the USA.

Future Work: What Qualities Will Our Children Need?

The world’s best colleges want students who will change the world. For them, the best predictor of future achievement is past achievement. They want students who:

  • Work well with others – they need to be “people” people.
  • Are change makers – do they look at the world around them and wonder what they can do to make it better?
  • Have meaningful engagement – for instance, it’s not enough to be able to tick a box that says they have done community service. Do they really care about the work they are doing, or is this just another hoop to jump through?

Resources for instilling these qualities:

Image Source: Harvard University


Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of Figur8.net (a website on parenting, education, child development) and RightBrainChild.com (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

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