The Three Jobs in Our Future
The other day I posted a hypothesis I was working on, and stirred up some wide-ranging discussion on Twitter. After a while, this kind of thing becomes difficult to squeeze into 140-character chunks, so I thought I would unpack my thinking a bit more here. My hypothesis was this:
In the future, there are only three jobs. Those jobs are: Software Developer, Storyteller, and Customer Service.
Now, I probably could have chosen better names for these. But the point isn’t that these are the jobs we’ll keep doing, but that these jobs represent the approaches that everything else will converge on.
The way I see it, over time our particular toolsets become less significant. Medium, language, and field are all fluid categories, that many people will cross in their lifetimes. As things become more fluid, it stops mattering so much what specific equipment our job consists of, and starts mattering a lot more what principles, practices, and approaches we use.
In other words, it’s not what do you do?, it’s how do you provide value?
As far as I can see, there are three main answers to that question. We either create processes, create meaning, or create connection.
Everything practical falls into the realm of processes. It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about the medicine you take for acid reflux, or the work your accountant does for you. If it’s something that helps keep the world running, then it’s almost certainly about the efficient operation of some concrete process. How do you remember to take your medicine? How does your pharmacist insure you got the correct prescription and dosage? How did your doctor determine what issue needed to be addressed, and what the correct way of addressing it was?
All of those things are processes, and they are processes that people try to make more efficient over time. The doctor doesn’t want to make a wild guess every time they see someone with a particular set of symptoms. They want to have a predetermined set of questions, and a way of dealing with the different answers that might come up.
In other words, they want to turn their job into an efficient system, so that they can deal with the bigger-picture issues that arise, and the rare occasions when none of the questions or answers seem to fit. We call such a system an algorithm.
Creating algorithms is the work of a Software Developer. But Software Developers only seem to be unique in the fact that they know this is their job. Another way to put it is this:
A Software Developer’s job is to automate their job out of existence—and then to move on to the next level of abstraction.
My argument is that nothing else about this actually matters. The Software Developer will go through many languages, many frameworks, and many toolsets during their career. The only constant is that they work with, and create, algorithms.
But working with algorithms is the real job in many other fields. I’m increasingly aware that my wife, who works in accounting, is engaged in a job that mostly consists of trying to create algorithms. The main difference is that the core language she works with is not typically thought of as a programming language.
I see no reason for this to continue to be the case. As our toolsets evolve, and career barriers become more fluid, I think it will become increasingly obvious that many, many people are engaged in algorithmic engineering. As that happens, principles and processes for working with algorithms will become more and more standardized across fields, and will ultimately become part of one larger vocabulary.
That leaves creating meaning and creating connection.
If everything practical, process-driven, and algorithmic is handled by the first group, then the infrastructure of society and life is taken care of, and other human needs we have begin to surface. And one of the first things we start to ask is What is the meaning of life?
What we are really asking, of course, is What is the meaning of MY life? And I want to tentatively suggest that the point of that question is so that we can then ask, now what do I do?
The way we figure out what to do is to tell ourselves stories about the world we live in, and the role we play in it. Those stories range from grand cosmic narratives, to small-scale career and workplace and family dramas. We are constantly narrating our lives, and using that narration to interpret the events happening all around us. This allows us to know what kinds of action to take, and how to react to the things we experience.
But we don’t craft these inner narratives from scratch. Instead, we borrow “templates” from other people in our society. And these templates ultimately come to us through the work of people who are good at crafting stories.
So I call the people who create meaning the Storytellers. Here, too, I don’t think our particular choices of toolset or medium are relevant. The ultimate medium for stories is not cinema or paper or screen, but the human mind. It doesn’t really matter how we get it there—the work of creating meaning is the work of crafting stories that work in the messy mental landscapes of human beings.
And that brings us to the last category, creating connection. Because even after the practical needs of life are taken care of, and we feel ourselves to be caught up in a meaningful story, we still crave connection. Whether touch, sight, taste, or smell—whether looking into another human’s eyes, or feeling someone’s touch—we want to sense that we are not alone.
Often, we don’t simply want our doctors to be algorithm-generating machines. We want someone to hear us and understand our concerns. We want to be dealt with relationally, even in the midst of something incredibly technical and pragmatic.
I have rather flippantly called that Customer Service, but it encompasses roles from priest to therapist to community organizers and international ambassadors.
And I think it plays a huge role in our future.
So these are the three ultimate jobs as I see them: Software Developer, Storyteller, Customer Service. Creating processes, creating meaning, creating connection.
There will always be infrastructure to maintain. There will always be people hungry for meaning. We will always want each other.
That’s how I see the future. What do you see? What might I be missing?