The Future Freaks Me Out: A TedX Talk

How to prepare for the future of work, presented at TedXMillsHigh 2020

It has been hard to focus on the future when the past grips us so tightly that it makes our present feel unreal; between the election that keeps stretching long past November 3rd and the pandemic that is bringing back the lockdowns I didn’t quite realize had ever ended, it feels like we’re so entangled by our past that we can barely see our present, much less our future.

This makes giving a talk where the theme is “Seeds of our Future,”  well...hard. The last time I felt this unsure about the future was in 2013.

I had just graduated college, and promptly blown up my life. I had no job---the military career I had devoted my college years to pursuing was no longer an option because I failed to get my weight under control. I had no home---I was kicked out of my family home.

And honestly, it felt like I had no future.

To paraphrase the famous Motion City Soundtrack song, “The future...freaked me out.”

But that was almost a decade ago---since then, I’ve had jobs. I’ve had homes. Hell, I have a dog! And I realized that the future freaked me out because it was very suddenly not going to be the one I thought I was going to have.

The future freaked me out because I didn’t know what it would hold. It no longer does, not because I can foresee the future, but because I can foresee how to find a place for myself in any future.

And that, more than anything, is what I want to talk to you about.

None of you foresaw a future where your High School experience would be defined by Zoom calls and taking tests at home while dodging your cat. None of you can foresee what exact career you’ll need to survive and thrive in the future.

But what we can forsee is how you can build a life that is robust to any outcome, build a career that is resilient to any future.

Here are three ideas that’ll help you do just that:

First, remote work is here to stay, but that doesn’t mean that where you live doesn’t matter. In fact, in some ways, it might matter more than it did before. It’s at this point undeniable that the pandemic has accelerated trends of remote work and working from home. A survey from Arizona State University not only showed that ⅔ of workers in mid-July of this year were working mostly remotely, up from 13% of workers who said they worked remotely even a few times a week prior to COVID.  Among those who had previously not regularly worked from home, 62% said they were enjoying the change, and 75% expect their employers to continue to provide flexibility in where they work after the pandemic has passed. The announcements of permanent work from home from major companies, like Microsoft and Twitter, have made it clear that a large portion of employers agree that remote work is here to stay.

A lot of folks have reacted to this by assuming that work will be totally detached from place---why live in expensive San Francisco if you can command a tech salary but pay rent in Cleveland?

The reason this is misguided is because the rise of remote work has made progression up the career ladder a much trickier thing. Boston Global Consulting has reported extensively that companies are struggling to build high-engagement virtual teams---the spontaneous collaboration and social interaction that a physical workplace offered to build connections and a network is just very difficult to replicate online.

Referrals, however, remain deeply integral to the hiring and promotion process---Jobvite shared data that referred applicants are 15 times more likely to be hired than applicants who apply via a job board. A Recruiter Nation Survey found that 80% of recruiters saw referrals as the best and most consistent way to find quality hires.

So if you can’t network at work, but networking still really matters...what are you supposed to do? Well, my own research and study have found that the two biggest sources of job referral connections are from people you knew in school and people you socialize with where you live. Disproportionate percentages of of tech employees live in major cities like New York and San Francisco. McKinsey reports that more than two-thirds of US job growth since 2007 has been concentrated in 25 cities and dynamic hubs, while low-growth and rural counties where 77 million people live had flat or falling employment growth even during the recovery from the last financial crisis. If you can’t build connections at your job, you are more likely than ever going to need to build them where you live.

Second, skills will matter far more than credentials. Look, I’m not saying don’t go to college---far from it. The evidence is pretty clear that a college degree, for most people, will still be worth the financial return. What I am saying is that what will make you valuable to an employer in the future is going to be a lot more complicated than getting a Bachelor’s degree. One of the major labor data market research firms, Emsi, released a report on resilient skills that found that resilient workers, who fared best during the economic crisis, where workers that you might call “T-shaped.” As the name suggests, the T-shaped worker has broad interdisciplinary competence combined with deep, narrow expertise. They are both generalist and specialist. They had broad soft skills in a variety of areas---a 2017 study by David J. Deming, an associate professor of education and economics at Harvard, found jobs requiring both the so-called soft skills and thinking skills have seen the largest growth in employment and pay in the last three decades. But they had deep skills in narrow, technical areas, like Python, Java, or SQL.

For a long time, college skeptics promised us that degrees would be outdated and we’d all be going to bootcamps or taking Udemy classes---the truth is a little more complicated.

As alternative education models, like Calbright College, Lambda School, Flockjay, Udemy, altMBA, WGU, and others have exploded, it’s become clearer and clearer that the future of work will be more nuanced and messy than anyone could have predicted. Folks might get a Bachelor’s in English at UC Berkeley, get a job as a marketing copywriter, get some extra skills through a Google Data Analyst Certification, and become a data journalist. They might not go to college at all, but do a sales bootcamp like Flockjay, and reskill using altMBA to develop management skills. The future of work is going to be a lot less predictable and require you to be a lot more flexible than its past---but that’s okay, because researchers are developing tools for you to better understand what labor experts call “skill adjacency,”---it’s like Googlemaps for your skills, where you can see what skills you have and what skills you need to add to get to a better job.

Finally, artificial intelligence isn’t something to be afraid of, if you prepare for it. There are a lot of scary reports out there about AI and automation wiping out all jobs. In 2018, artificial intelligence expert Kai-Fu Lee estimated that AI and automation would take over half of human work in 15 years. A Brookings Institute report says roughly 36 million Americans hold jobs with “high exposure” to automation — meaning at least 70 percent of their tasks could soon be performed by machines using current technology. But this analysis consistently finds that by reducing the cost of production, automation will promote enormous amounts of economic opportunity---the jobs lost to automation are likely to be replaced by new jobs that pay better and provide more meaning. The trick, however, is to be ready to fill those jobs---and that will involve a major societal effort to invest in the education and training necessary for workers to grow into those roles. And for you, the answer is the same as it has been throughout---keep an eye on the skills you have and the skills you need to do the work you want to do, and be ready to adjust your path as it shifts under you.

So look, I don’t want you to be afraid of the future---but I need to be honest with you. I’m scared, too. When I first applied to give this Ted talk, I had a job. By the time it came around...I did not. That’s right, the guy talking about the Future of Work is...out of work. In some ways, I feel like I did in 2013---my future is uncertain and it’s hard to feel resilient or hopeful in a world that seems to slide more deeply into chaos everyday. Writing this talk was impossibly hard because it’s impossible to feel confident right now. 

But if there’s anything that a 2013 Armand, who was homeless, unemployed, and on the edge of total defeat could tell me today, it would be this: 

I have a home I’m safe in. I have a girlfriend I love. And I’ve had the chance to do some incredible good with some incredible people---and because I’ve rolled with the punches, learned the right skills, and faced down the odds before, I have no doubt I’ll do it again.

The future doesn’t freak me out, and neither should it freak out any of you. You’re smart. You’re kind. You’ve gone through the most horrible crisis of my lifetime---and you have not only survived, you have thrived.

As the song goes, “I'm on fire and now I think I'm ready to bust a move.”

We’re on fire. We’re ready to bust a move.

Let’s go.