Life, death and leeches – predicting your future job

Only a few hundred years ago, it was thought that leeches held the answer to fixing a variety of medical ailments. Doctors would apply the blood-sucking parasites liberally to the skin, working on the idea that this would help rid the body of any bad blood. This doesn’t sound like a great prospect for either the patient or the doctor, but it’s easy to forget in all the mess and gore, that before any of this could happen, someone had to first go out and collect these leeches. Usually by wading into a bog, using their own bare legs as bait. That was a job.

As science, technology and social standards wax and wane, industries experience feast and famine, appearing and disappearing at the mercy of factors outside of their control. With the advent of cars, horse-based industries withered. With the rise in machine production, there was less call for hand-made, thus you see less seamstresses, cobblers and carpenters. On the flip side, new jobs appeared. Someone needs to design, construct and sell cars. Machines need to be maintained.

picture of surgeons operating in sugical theatre

At any given moment in time, the snapshot of jobs we see is surprisingly fleeting. The workforce responds to societal demands and economic factors in a constant seesaw. Over the past five years we’ve seen supermarkets and cinemas installing self-serve machines. While there are still checkouts and counters staffed by real people, as the public grow more used to the new way, jobs in these fields are undeniably shrinking – supermarket expenditure on wages is already dropping.

We have been afraid of machines coming for our jobs since the industrial revolution. In a 2013 report by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne, they estimate that approximately 47 per cent of US employment is at risk, with roles currently occupied by humans potentially being computerised in the near future. The same report suggests that jobs with higher wages and increased educational demands are less at risk, though an article in The Economist dissecting this study clarifies that it isn’t a case of white-collar work vs. blue-collar work; it’s more a matter of how routine a job is.

straw field and blue sky with small tractor carrying a trailer full of large hay bales

Economists have been talking about the phenomenon of ‘Job Polarisation’ for decades – it’s where the workforce is divided into three categories: highly skilled, medium skilled, and low skilled. As automation and computerisation has increased, jobs in the medium skills areas – the most common example being autoworkers – have been slowly disappearing. In Australia perhaps the most visible example of this has been Holden. The result is a chasm between the ‘higher’ end and the ‘lower’ end, both in opportunities and in rates of pay.

With the slow tide of computerisation it does mean that there will be increased information technology jobs as demand for these machines rises. In another example, video stores are all but gone as streaming services like Netflix and Stan have become available. Less jobs in shops, but more jobs in the film and television industry as the cry for content increases.

Picture of white robot head

There are also jobs we couldn’t possibly have predicted. Instagram model. App tester. Or, in response to the 1912 sinking of Titanic – iceberg mover. It’s apparently very well paid.

Life is unpredictable, and as a result, so is the job market. City of Melbourne Future Melbourne 2026 addresses the changing nature of work by concentrating on strategies that attract and support new business.

We have some indicators – not least statistics predicting job openings – but ultimately there are three main pillars to society around which, pending no huge changes, jobs will always be available: life, death and taxes. And the statistics back this up.

Picture of two mechanics building a car in a brightly lit garage

Life

As long as we exist in biological bodies and aren’t just consciousness plugged into a network, these bodies will need nourishment. This means there will be jobs in the food industry; creating it, farming it, distributing it, and preparing it. The specifics will go in and out of fashion, but the core will remain.

Similarly, as humans continue to reproduce, there will be jobs in childcare and education, with increased employment in these areas predicted up to 2024. Knowledge needs to be passed on from generation to generation, and whether this is in the form of a person directing a class or a programmer setting up a network, the underlying need remains.

Death

We might not need someone to apply leeches to our bodies anymore, but the fact remains that, pending development of a miracle cure-all, our physical well-being also needs maintenance. This means that jobs in the healthcare industry will continue to exist, both on the front line and behind the scenes, researching how to stave off death.

Taxes

Though the specifics of how it all works is constantly undergoing change, until there is some major economic upheaval (perhaps when the machines are doing most of the jobs), money is a driving force in our society. As a result, we need people to look after it: to store it, to manage it, to ensure it is being used correctly.

So what next?

Trying to unweave the cause and effect maze that is the job industry is basically the same as trying to walk through a building designed by M.C. Escher. You can take your best guess, but it’s still no guarantee of a job for life. The main thing is to remain open to new possibilities and identify gaps and niches. You can look to the three pillars, but that being said, fleeting jobs are still jobs – just because the leech collector is all but gone now, doesn’t mean it wasn’t a booming industry at the time.

Keep the conversation about the future of work going at MKW 17. We’re dedicating a whole stream of events to Future Work, book tickets now.

Written by @ElizabethFlux

Brought to you by