Axios Future

A robotic hand with the palm facing upward.

April 11, 2019

Have your friends signed up?

Any stories we should be chasing? Hit reply to this email or message me at [email protected]. Kaveh Waddell is at [email protected] and Erica Pandey at [email protected].

Okay, let's start with ...

1 big thing: Killing majors

A black and white photo of college graduates throwing caps into the air

Princeton commencement, 1909. Photo: Paul Thompson/FPG/Getty

In 1869, at Harvard, Charles Eliot invented the college major as we know it — each student would be channeled into a specialized area of study, and move on to a stable, lifelong job.

A century and a half later, American colleges pump out some 4.5 million new bachelor's degrees every year, but the context — the present and future of work — has changed entirely.

Erica writes: The seismic shifts created by frontier technologies are challenging a centuries-old model of higher education — one that is already under siege as the cost of college skyrockets, student debt balloons, and automation eliminates entire careers.

  • Some university majors are aimed at jobs that might not exist any longer in the years and decades ahead.
  • For those jobs that will exist, experts say, the uniquely human skill of problem-solving is essential, rather than a specific major.
  • "The old model of studying one thing is giving way to a need for broadly trained workers," says Darrell West of the Brookings Institution.

Caught in the higher education firestorm is the old system of majors.

  • “The major is an antiquated model,” David Hollander, a professor at NYU. “It made sense then. It no longer makes sense.”
  • "Students are hedging their bets by having double, or even triple, majors," says Ronald Ehrenberg, a professor at Cornell.

The big picture: As Kaveh has reported, a quiet movement is brewing in U.S. high schools to reboot curriculums with the objective of better preparing students for a different future of work. The same is happening at a handful of universities — in this case roiling the traditional major model.

  • Cal State Long Beach has partnered with the Institute for the Future to roll out "Beach 2030" — a plan to ramp up interdisciplinary courses that reflect the fast-changing global landscape, and thus to "build future-ready students."
  • Arizona State University has opened a College of Integrative Arts and Sciences that eliminates academic departments entirely and instead gives out degrees melding disciplines.
  • Concordia University in Montreal has teamed up with five other Canadian universities focused on "skills training" in addition to traditional degrees.
  • Olin College, an engineering school in Massachusetts, has whittled down its offerings to just three majors — specializations much wider in scope than typical programs. For example, one is a design-your-own major.

The movement has its skeptics: Certain majors might need to be spruced up, but the idea of upending the model entirely is dangerous, says Matthew Mayhew, a professor at Ohio State.

  • "There are still tons of people in college who are pre-med or accounting or chemistry majors that are getting jobs and directly applying what they learned in college," Mayhew says. "Let’s not pretend like every major is worthless."

But those challenging majors say the old way has simply become too unwieldy.

  • "A smaller set of majors that are much more broadly defined is the direction we ought to be moving in" says Mark Somerville, Olin's dean of faculty. "When it's hard to predict what the jobs of the next 10 years will be — much less the next 50 years — acquiring the skills necessary to acquire skills is more important than the specifics of any given discipline."

2. "Superjobs" of the future are just more work

A person's hand holding out a very long job description

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

Among the thorniest questions hanging over experts puzzling out the future of work is what kind of new jobs will be enabled by AI and robotics — and how many there will be, relative to the work that is likely to disappear due to automation.

Kaveh writes: Some predict wild new jobs, like "cyber calamity forecasters." But in the near term, one likely outcome — already beginning to play out — is that people will be asked to do work that was previously done by two or three people with very different skills.

Details: These amalgams are what Deloitte is calling "superjobs" in its latest report on human capital, released today. These future jobs combine "activities and job responsibilities that traditionally would never be brought together," says Erica Volini, Deloitte's US Human Capital Leader.

  • At a big bank — Volini wouldn't say which — investment advisers are starting to become career coaches, too. That's because people's skill sets are becoming as important an indicator of their future wealth as investments, she says.
  • At Cleveland Clinic, doctors and nurses are un-specializing, Volini says. Now, its doctors are expected not only to bring in medical expertise, but also to give top-notch bedside care.
  • In manufacturing, Volini sees a potential new line of work in "robot-teaming coordinators": employees who implement automation and work with software developers to train the robots that will carry it out.

If this sounds like more work for fewer people, well, it might be. If history is any indication, a company that can consolidate 100 jobs into 50 people might jump at the opportunity to shave off a good chunk of a department.

Meanwhile, these polymathic super-workers will only make up a slice of the entire workforce. "As we see the emergence of 'superjobs,' we're also seeing growth in commodity jobs, service jobs, and micro-tasks," Volini tells Axios.

  • The latter includes low-paid, largely undesirable tech work, like what's being done by the "digital janitors" Erica profiled last week.
  • In 10 years, Volini predicts, 20–30% of jobs will be "superjobs," 10–20% will low-wage, low-skill jobs, and the middle 60–70% will be "hybrid jobs" that require both technical and soft skills.

The bottom line: As Steve reported Wednesday, economists say automation is destroying jobs faster than it's creating new ones. The big remaining question is whether or not the best new jobs will be widely accessible.

3. Mailbox: Middle wages

Photo: David L. Ryan/Boston Globe/Getty Images

We had a number of responses to yesterday's post about the disconnect between middle wages and the middle class. Here are a couple:

In the late '70s-early '80s, an average wage of $18 an hour would have kept a lot of the jobs in the U.S. But $26 an hour plus the benefits multiplier — goodbye U.S.
Middle wage is probably 10%-20% higher because the increases have been in medical benefits, not salary. If you want to increase hiring and salaries, particularly in small and medium-size businesses, get them out of the benefits business. Let them concentrate on making widgets and drastically reduce the benefits department.
— Thomas Cleary, Denver, CO
It’s not just about wages — middle class pensions are in trouble. The federal government is partly to blame for the problems faced by multi-employer pension funds. Twenty five years ago, the feds said my fund was overfunded and had to disperse the funds. Today, we’re underfunded and the remedy is to cut pensions by 40% to 50% under the Kline Miller (Pension Reform) Act. Over a million pensioners are at risk of being forced into poverty after a lifetime of work and deferring compensation.
— Joe Wisinski, Woodbridge, N.J. 

4. Worthy of your time

Illustration of giant finger pointing at little sad computer

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

To pay for college, sell shares … in yourself (Claire Boston - Bloomberg)

The internet regulation booby trap (Scott Rosenberg - Axios)

Wherefore Foxconn in Wisconsin? (Josh Dzieza - The Verge)

Burger of the future (Michael Grunwald - Politico)

The extinction rebellion (Matthew Green - FT)

1 recycling thing: A robot sorter

Animation of a robot hand placing items in various recycling bins

In most recycling facilities, workers flanking a fast-moving conveyor belt watch over a river of recycling, grabbing impostors like plastic bags and throwing various objects into the right bins.

Kaveh writes: Just watching the process is stressful, and the speed at which the recycling goes by means a lot of things end up unrecycled.

  • A new robot arm from scientists at Yale and MIT's Computer Science and AI Lab can sort incoming items into the right bins just by feel — but it's still a slowpoke.
  • The arm's soft gripper clamps down on each item and, just by feeling how it deforms, it can tell whether it's plastic or paper. Meanwhile, a sleeve on the gripper tests the object for conductivity, which would mean it's metal.
  • In tests, the robot sorted objects incorrectly about one-third of the time. (See above as it dumps a Starbucks cup in the plastics bin!) The researchers say in a paper published today that the system needs more sensors and, most likely, a camera in order to become more accurate.

Watch the robot recycle.