The 20th-century industrial economy, like the agrarian economy that preceded it, put a premium on physical strength. As we transition from an industrial economy to an information economy, many commentators have noted that braun is on its way out and brains are on their way in (exit assembly-line workers, enter computer engineers).
But a third skill-set is often neglected in such discussions: Social savviness. And according to a new report from the Pew Research Center, this quality will be increasingly important in the post-industrial labor market:
The differences in projected growth were … more pronounced when looking at social skills, which Pew Research Center defines as encompassing interpersonal skills, written and spoken communication skills, and management or leadership skills. Employment in occupations that require average to above-average levels of such social skills is projected to grow by 8.1%, versus just 4.4% growth for occupations requiring below-average levels of those skills.
The archetypal working or middle-class occupation in the agricultural era might have been a small farmer. In the industrial age, it was a factory laborer. In the 21st century economy, however, automation is eating into occupational categories that require the performance of routine tasks. A growing share of the labor market will need to be filled by workers who either possess high-enough levels of analytical skills to remain ahead of the machines, or who can provide services that require interpersonal relationships and a human touch that robots can’t replicate. Think of home-health aides, swimming instructors, or masseuses.
The transition away from an industrial economy is generating social anxiety and political unrest, and understandably so—the new economy will likely provide less security and predictability than the economy that came before. But there will also be new opportunities and sources of fulfillment. The type of worker who in the 1950s turned a screw on an assembly line for his entire career might in 2050 be working at a retirement home, getting paid for his ability to relate to others and form relationships rather than performing menial tasks. Even in an age of automation, there will always be a demand for services delivered by real human beings.