Creative thinkers needed for future workplaces

Robert Greenberg says the workplace will always need people who are creative, who solve problems and are adept communicators

Robert Greenberg
Professor Robert Greenberg, University of Auckland
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The robots are coming and according to some commentators we should be worried. Predictions vary, but seem to settle on the unsettling statistic that up to 47 per cent of jobs will disappear in the next 25 years, victim of robotics, automation and Artificial Intelligence.

Now, nobody can know this for certain – technology has yet to come up with a reliable tool for future gazing. Nor can we know how many jobs will be created. However, we do know technology is taking us, from automated travel announcements in airports and stations around the world, to modular houses designed and built under automation, to accountancy and legal advice dispensed by computer, to delicate surgeries carried out by nerve-free, emotionless, hand-steady robots.

As the human touch fast disappears from numerous more employment sectors, that statistic isn’t looking too far away from reality and we must recognise the changing world of work is already upon us. We still don’t know where automation and 3D printing is actually going to take us, and what disruption and change technology has in store for so many industries.

But while industry-specific roles may be under threat in the changing job market, jobs will remain for those who control the processes; those who can think critically, analyse and problem solve, and who can market the new way. There will always be jobs for people who can see the bigger picture and adapt their wide knowledge to manoeuvre through the world; who understand other cultures and people, and have global awareness: People, in fact, who have studied the Arts.

To reiterate, nobody has a crystal ball indicating what will occur in the future, but having an understanding of history or social trends of the past few decades provides tools for understanding global trends and where the world is heading.

But while industry-specific roles may be under threat in the changing job market, jobs will remain for those who control the processes; those who can think critically, analyse and problem solve, and who can market the new way. 

Robert Greenberg University of Auckland

For example, a history graduate may be able to analyse what might be about to happen because they have studied revolutions like the industrial revolution, the technological revolution we are going through now, or the boom of the 90s.

They can identify disrupters that are occurring in all our industries, question what they see, look at the effect they have and use this thinking to attempt predictions of what the world might look like decades ahead. 

And then there is communication – a skill intrinsic to most arts degrees. We will always need effective communicators who have the ability to write and speak to persuade, advocate, articulate ideas, vision, and lead. In our current world of communication overload, precise and accurate messaging has never been more crucial, from day-to-day communication to academic research. 

For example, we have people in arts disciplines who are looking at algorithms and analysing language patterns to identify fake news. This will be an important 21st century skill because so many people are fooled and manipulated by fake news. We have new kinds of warfare where trolls in Country X can impact the Brexit vote or an election in the US.

We must have people trained to combat these threats – and it won’t be through an engineering degree or an IT programme. It will be down to people who can analyse and question, who know the world and how to create the research that can allow us to understand that something is fake.

We are seeing evidence that our young people don’t know about recent events like 9/11, or what happened in the Holocaust. 

Robert Greenberg University of Auckland

History too needs a grandstand seat in the future. Memories are short and to be an effective society we need people who have studied and understand history. We are seeing evidence that our young people don’t know about recent events like 9/11, or what happened in the Holocaust.

Events that were part of upbringing for older generations are in danger of being forgotten. But history repeats itself so we need people who understand the past and can use that knowledge to analyse, problem solve and relate their knowledge to where we are going.

I cannot profess to know exactly what the future of work will look like, but it is concerning when you look at automation and think of all the tasks that robots and 3D printers will increasingly take on. What an arts degree does is futureproof graduates from being locked into professions that might be going away. You learn more generally and develop key skills that can be adapted for all industries: critical thinking, communication, independence, creativity.

Arts graduates learn to read people through literature, or politics, history or language classes. They develop cultural intelligence and how to make informed decisions and find solutions. You learn too, to see the bigger picture – not just the individual trees but the forest and the planet, and through a global lens – which is essential in any type of workplace and in any company.

In the arts the goal is to learn how to think, which is much more important than what to think. Until now, arts educators have faced the challenge of a perception that what we teach is irrelevant. But nothing could be further from the truth.

The workplaces of today and tomorrow will always need people who can come up with creative answers, who know how society and people work and can communicate with honesty and clarity with colleagues, clients and customers. If anything the future world of work looks full of opportunity for those who have studied the arts and humanities.

Commentary by Robert Greenberg, Dean of Arts, University of Auckland

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