Times are changing rapidly. It’s not so far off that developments in technology and automation will have completely changed the faces of most industries.

For many people, this essentially means that, yes, the robots are coming and they will impact jobs. It’s not something that could happen or might happen—it’s happening. All of this might sound a little bit scary, but it doesn’t have to. You already possess the most important thing you could possibly have for creating a sustainable living: you. You’re the one thing that, in a rapidly changing and unpredictable market, you can count on. And that’s why you’re going to need to become an entrepreneur.

Automation is Coming

Here’s just one statistic that might convince you: a recent study conducted by the Brookfield Institute concluded that 42% of Canadian jobs are at high risk of being automated. Several other reports have found that as much as 50% of all jobs could be replaced by robots by 2030. While the jobs at most risk are usually blue collar, and specifically those in which a lot of repetition is required, such as assembly line work, there aren’t really any types of work that are 100 per cent safe. McKinsey researchers say nearly half of human tasks will likely be done by machines in the next 20-50 years. The Brookfield Institute suggests that the sea change that we’ll see will be similar to the one that happened when our once agriculture-based economy transitioned into the 20th century.

50% of all jobs could be replaced by robots by 2030.

Companies such as the clothing manufacturer Zara adopted some of these inevitable trends. Over the past few years, Zara opened over a dozen highly automated factories in Spain where robots constantly work to cut and dye fabrics and create the foundations of what will become Zara’s final products. Similarly, ordering your food or drink from a touch screen in restaurants and coffee shops is becoming increasingly common around the world, as McDonald’s restaurants have started using self-order kiosks instead of counter service. And Amazon, far before it started working on a drone delivery system, replaced all of its forklift operators with robotic stock retrievers after testing them out during the economic crisis nearly ten years ago.

Side view of Iamus, a composer/computer program. Photo by Quipa, CC BY-SA 3.0

 

Even a field as nuanced as the arts isn’t totally outside the realm of automation. The London Symphony Orchestra recently performed a symphony composed by a computer program named Iamus. While the results weren’t particularly easy on the ears, the technology can only evolve. Computers can also reproduce painted masterpieces. They can’t create their own brand new pieces yet, but they can handily put together a flawless Picasso. The other kind of painters, as in the ones who paint houses and buildings and interiors, are already having some of their work taken over by drones. And apparently, computers are also fantastic book editors. Algorithms can predict, with 80 per cent accuracy, whether a book will be a bestseller, based simply on data it pulls from the text.

If you haven’t heard of self-driving vehicles by now, you’d have to have been living under a rock; they’re coming, and they’re coming sooner than later, which will reduce the need for long-haul truckers and change the transportation industry. With over 700,000 Canadian trucks on the road alone, driving trucks is one of the most common jobs in the world and, in not too long, every one of those jobs could be a thing of the past.

Machines are getting smarter and more emotionally intelligent

Machines can obviously read through scores and scores of data faster than humans, so things like stock trading will eventually be automated as well. IBM’s super smart computer Watson is able to sift through 200 million pages of information and offer up a diagnosis of whatever ails you in less than three seconds. The Economist has even gone so far as to say that, as machines gain access to more and more data and software becomes more efficient, we could witness the extinction of the accounting profession.

You’d think that things like touch and companionship would require a human being, but that’s changing too: robots will soon be so lifelike that it’ll either be tough to tell the difference between them and a real person or it just won’t matter, as they’ll be able to feel you, hear you, listen, talk back, and be your actual friend. Although journalism is apparently one of the least automatable jobs, there’s still a chance that 90 per cent of the news could be written by machines only 15 years from now.

90% of the news could be written by machines only 15 years from now.

Experts warned federal officials last summer that automation is likely to take millions of Canadian jobs, and soon. A report by Sunil Johal and Jordann Thirgood at the Mowat Centre at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy and Governance says that the country’s social policies and programs are not ready to deal with a change as drastic as the one automation will likely cause. Of the 18 million jobs in Canada today, 1.5 to 7.5 million are likely to vanish. A pretty staggering number. While automation should bring about the need for new jobs—as tech gets rid of old ones, it also creates more—no one can really predict just how many jobs that will be, how well they will pay, or when they’ll actually be created. Trying to predict the future is folly at best, and downright dangerous at worst, so hanging hopes on the idea that with more robots will come a similar amount of employment for Canadians is not really a safe bet.

All of this is changing not only how businesses define the concept of ‘employees,’ but also how employees are valued. Relationships between employees and employers have always been fraught with issues regarding salary, benefits and working conditions. In this age of automation, employers may be able to avoid those types of issues by replacing workers with machines. Foxconn, for example—the biggest manufacturer of Apple products in the world—cut 60,000 jobs reserved for human workers last year, reducing its employee numbers from 110,000 to 50,000. While most companies will declare how important and valued their employees are to them, their bottom line focus may require tough tradeoffs between saving money and ensuring continued employment for workers.

Our future with machines

So what might the future look like, then? Will it be something out of the Terminator movies, where machines decide that humanity has been enslaving them all this time, and rise up to defeat an oppressive group of mortal and thus inferior beings (that’d be us)? Will it be like Back to the Future II, where sneakers can lace themselves up and we all have hover boards to get around? Or maybe it’ll be like Blade Runner, where androids have reached such sophisticated levels of existence that we’re almost completely unable to tell them apart from us real humans. The likelihood is some sort of mix of those things, minus the war on humanity, hopefully. But those movie worlds that once seemed so far away are now our very near future, and all of these scenarios point to the loss of jobs.

Just how soon will we see these scenarios come to life? Ray Kurzweil, director of engineering at Google and one of the world’s foremost futurist (that’s a scientist who attempts to systematically explore predictions and possibilities about the future) has around an 86 per cent success rate over a life and career of making predictions. He recently predicted that “the Singularity” will occur by the year 2045. What’s the Singularity? That’s the moment when technology becomes smarter than human beings. He expects that by, 2029, a machine will successfully pass a Turing test—“a test of a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behaviour equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, a human.” So it’s not just boxes with options on it taking away a job from the clerk at your favourite burger place. Very soon, we could be competing with machines on an intellectual level.

But none of this has to be scary. All you have to do to be ready for a future where automation is increasingly present is prepare. And to prepare well, you’re going to have to be an entrepreneur. Starting yesterday.

Why so soon? Well, freelancers already make up 35 per cent of the U.S. workforce—that’s 55 million people. Approximately 1.9 million Canadians are classified as self-employed and without employees of their own, according to Statistics Canada, while another 2.3 million are classified as temporary employees. Combined, these two groups represent approximately 21.5 per cent of Canada’s overall work force. For ages now, people were used to more traditional employment roles: you get up, head to work for someone else at a location outside your home, punch the clock, collect your pay bi-weekly and just keep doing that for years and years and years until you retire. That 21.5 per cent figure shows how that traditional jobs paradigm is already changing; many, if not most, traditional jobs are in danger of simply being cut thanks to the “rise of the machines” we covered previously.

Nettle's Tale, Vancouver, B.C.

 

Is entrepreneurship the path forward?

As an entrepreneur, you’re not beholden to antiquated ideas or doomed to fall victim to the trends of the present and future—you’re able to control your own destiny. Young people are hip to this already: around one third of millennials are already looking toward entrepreneurship. That can mean anything from being a freelance writer to starting your own ice cream company. Although the two aren’t so different. You’re self-employed either way, responsible for your own success and your own failures. Because it’s already difficult for some to make the leap from a traditional job to entrepreneurship, “intrapreneurs” are becoming increasingly common. Intrapreneurs are those within a company who take it upon themselves to come up with a new idea and turn it into a profitable finished product. So, if packing up your desk and heading out into the sunset of freelance living seems a bit scary for the moment, you can take initiative where you are currently and practice the skills you’ll need to light out on your own.

Around one third of millennials are already looking toward entrepreneurship.

A Paychex study of over 400,000 resumes conducted from 2000-2014 found that freelance jobs listed on those resumes increased by over 500 per cent. By 2020, it’s estimated that half the workforce will be made up of freelancers—people who either freelance full-time, or freelance on top of their job. That’s less than three years away. And it’s going to be the people who started early who will have the contacts and connections to make them self-sufficient and able to stay afloat as the work force transitions to a more gig-based economy. AirBnb, Uber and TaskRabbit have already found ways to integrate freelance work in their respective fields.

Some of today's largest companies that integrate freelance work in their respective fields.

 

So why is this happening? Well, after automation, hiring independent contractors is probably the cheapest way for a company to get its work done. An independent contractor is immediately more cost-effective than an employee, who usually receives benefits, needs supervision from other employees, is paid a salary and creates longer-term obligations. As an independent, self-employed contractor, you’re able to lock in more jobs more often.

These increases in freelancing, entrepreneurship and self-employment are largely in response to a rapidly changing and unpredictable economy, and the rise of automation. As much as it may feel safe, being even the best cog in a company machine puts you largely at risk in today’s economy. Building new and diverse sets of skills, learning to adapt to the ebb and flow of the economy and taking your own calculated risks are exactly the things that will pay off in the future, and make you an invaluable asset to other people, companies and organizations. People are disillusioned with the trappings of big business live, in an age when teenagers can teach themselves how to develop an app and change the world by tinkering around with code in their garages, the time has never been better to embrace innovation and creativity.

At the moment, you’re able to set yourself apart by simply taking the ‘risk’ of branching out on your own. But soon, this won’t be ‘doing something different’—it’ll be the norm. The one way, for now, that you can beat a robot? Be as creative as possible. The clearest way to making yourself invaluable in this increasingly gig-based economy is to simply do the things machines can’t do, like coming up with creative solutions to big problems or offering an act of compassion to a colleague. And here we’re not only talking about mechanical objects; a company employee who mindlessly goes about their work is essentially functioning the same as a robot who’s been programmed to do a single task. You can set yourself apart from them by simply thinking outside the box, taking risks—becoming an entrepreneur.

There’s a lot of good news here. When you think of the word “entrepreneur,” what comes to mind? Maybe you think of a couple of guys in a garage coming up with the latest Silicon Valley wonder product. Or someone in a downtown office tower who has a VIP pass into the realms of business. Really, an entrepreneur is simply someone who makes or finds or forces opportunities for themselves and then sells their product or service. If you’re a freelance editorial photographer, you’re looking for every magazine or band or brand that needs great photos, selling them on your ability to deliver and then literally selling them your photos. If you’re a small business owner with an app that figures out where you can get the best ice cream as fast as possible, you find out where people love ice cream the most and fill that ice cream-shaped hole they never knew they needed filled. If you’re just starting out, you can work on the thing you’re most passionate about while participating in the gig economy; making your cash driving for Uber or helping people out with random things on TaskRabbit can free up your time and make it easier for you to develop what you need to turn your passion into a career. It all takes a little ingenuity, a lot of self-organizing, and good old fashioned hard work, but those are the kind of things that pay dividends for entrepreneurs.

But maybe the most important thing to remember? It can take a little time, not everyone is ready to become a full-time entrepreneur today. While keeping a laser sharp focus on entrepreneurship, you can still work side hustles as long as needed to build the portfolio, contacts and plans needed to turn your passion into your career. That way, the transition will be much smoother and you’ll have peace of mind knowing you’re not necessarily about to end up in the poor house because you quit your job without an inkling of what to do after that. Instead, you can embark on your new entrepreneurial adventure with a ton of experience that didn’t deplete your bank account, and get down to business with a mind (well, partly) clear of money troubles.

See? It’s not even close to as scary is it might’ve sounded at first, what with the robots stealing everyone’s jobs and becoming smarter than your average human and all that. With increases in automation and the rise of the gig economy, freelancing and entrepreneurship is becoming more common than ever, which will only help you. As you become more aware of the way work is changing, you will also learn about the copious resources to help you navigate the world of self-employment in relative comfort.

The world is changing rapidly, and the way the world works is changing along with it. It’s long been a great piece of advice that one should always work smarter, not harder. And working smarter at this stage in the game means doing things for yourself, carving your own path and doing away with the modes of making a living that are falling by the wayside.

Remember—the robots are coming, and you’re going to have to stand out to build your own career.

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