Thriving in the Future Economy: A Q&A with Geoff Colvin

By Desda Moss Aug 5, 2015
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Humans_are_underrated.jpg Technology is becoming ever more capable of doing jobs that we once thought could only be performed by humans—driving cars, unpacking boxes, writing articles, detecting emotions, even analyzing legal documents. For centuries, technological innovation mostly complemented human labor by creating new and better jobs, facilitating higher productivity, and improving standards of living. But now, many fear that technological advancement has reached a point where it will no longer complement many forms of labor, but replace them altogether.

In his new book, Humans Are Underrated: What High Achievers Know That Brilliant Machines Never Will (Portfolio, 2015), Fortune Senior Editor-at-Large Geoff Colvin argues that despite our growing anxiety of a world where technology puts a majority of people out of work, this bleak future is not inevitable. 

While technology will continue to advance into areas and skills that we cannot yet imagine, the reality is that we will always want other people to do a range of tasks—even if a computer can do them better, more reliably and for less money. 

According to Colvin, the skills of social interaction—which include empathy, social sensitivity, storytelling, humor, forming relationships, collaboration, leading and creativity—will be the key to high-value work in the future economy. \

Here are Colvin’s thoughts on work, technology and what it will take to survive—and thrive—in the future economy.

You don’t subscribe to the view that robots will soon take all our jobs and make humans irrelevant. Why not?

For sound economic reasons, we won’t want technology to do that. We are hardwired from our evolutionary past to value human relationships and, as a practical matter, we must use those relationships to solve the most important human problems. Make no mistake: Technology is profoundly reordering the value of human skills, and many people will continue to lose their jobs to technology. But the economy will reward people with different skills, primarily skills of human interaction.

In the book, you write: “Viewed on the scale of the entire economy, technology’s advance indeed has not cost jobs, despite widespread fears. Quite the opposite.” Can you talk more about this? 

Technology has improved the material well-being of humanity more than any other force in history, by a mile. It has lifted billions of people out of poverty and has raised living standards spectacularly. Nothing else comes remotely close. Yet people have continually feared the effects of technology. Since those fears have always proved unwarranted, it’s tempting to dismiss today’s fears as just more of the same. But they aren’t.

You say that there will always be jobs that we insist be performed by other people. Can you give an example?

A great example that everyone can relate to is working together in small groups to solve problems. The reality of life is that multiple constituencies must be involved in solving the most important problems, and those problems inevitably change as we work on them, so human groups will have to solve them. The big surprise is that the key to group effectiveness is social sensitivity. The IQ of the group members means little, and other traditionally valued factors like group cohesion, satisfaction and motivation contribute nothing. But the relationship skills of the members mean a ton. If you’re making decisions all by yourself, then a) you’re not making the most important decisions, b) you’re not reaching the best possible decisions and c) you’re increasingly in danger of being replaced by technology.

In the future economy, what skills will be highly valued? And what leads you to believe this?

The economy will value the skills of human interaction—empathy above all, collaborating, storytelling, leading, creating and innovating with others. One reason I believe this is that it simply makes sense in light of technology’s advance and our deepest human imperatives. Another reason is that it’s happening already. Major employers are increasingly saying they need workers with relationship skills, cultural sensitivity and collaboration skills. They’re saying explicitly that knowledge skills are no longer worth much without interpersonal skills.

Geoff Colvin​, @geoffcolvin on Twitter, is Fortune’s Senior Editor-at-Large. His previous book, Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers From Everybody Else, (2008, Portfolio Random House) was a national bestseller. Colvin has a degree in economics from Harvard University and an M.B.A. from New York University.

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