As graduation looms nearer for many of my friends, I can’t stop thinking about the realities of the job market and having daily existential crises. Even if I have the next step figured out, what about the one after that? Is my liberal arts degree marketable? Should I have bought Bitcoin? Am I saving enough for retirement?
Some people tell me I’m overthinking it, but for someone who delays the line at Hodgdon because I take too long to agonize over what I want in my quesadilla, you can imagine how much trouble I have making big life decisions. Besides, the stakes for our generation are higher than ever. Not only do we have to contend with higher Social Security costs and environmental degradation (thanks, mom and dad!), but we also have more student debt to pay off than our parents did. All in all, my nervousness about the future seems justified.
But maybe we’re asking ourselves the wrong questions. The job market has adapted to prior technological change, from industrialization to the internet, but this time around could be different. Automation of lower-level jobs has the potential to make the world a better place by increasing the demand for high-skilled human labor and reducing inequality. I’m an optimist, but there are certainly enough skeptics to balance out my point of view. Either way, fundamental societal change is on the horizon, and it will affect our institutions and norms on a structural level. Masayoshi Son, the CEO of Softbank, believes that thirty years from now, smart robots will equal or outnumber human beings on this planet. Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg have publicly jousted over whether or not artificial intelligence will precipitate the apocalypse. The singularity, the moment when machine intelligence surpasses human intelligence, could indeed be near (the year 2045 is a popular estimate). Being qualified for a job now does not translate into being qualified for a whole career.
By the time we’re ready to move on from our first jobs or graduate schools, our long-term concerns will be completely different. Google’s Pixel Buds, competitor to Apple’s AirPod headphones, can translate foreign languages in real time. This is my favorite fact to recall when I’m frustrated with the liberal arts language requirement. Wouldn’t our resources be better spent requiring students to learn the fundamentals of computer science than on rote memorization of a skill that has already been automated? Although academic institutions have done a great deal of research on automation, schools and students alike could do much more to account for it in everyday decision-making and implementation. On a university level, we have to think bigger. Curriculum requirements and career counseling must find a way to preempt, rather than react, to technological change. Every member of the Tufts community should be thinking about their role within it and how we can fundamentally change our institutions to mirror our fundamentally changing world. As Tufts students, though, perhaps we can find some peace in the idea that our tendencies to plan our careers forty years in advance are decidedly futile.