Empathy and Creativity Will Save Our Jobs In The Future

To secure our future in the workforce, humans should focus on what we do best: feel feelings and think thoughts.
Illustration by Ben Thomson

This article is supported by Swinburne University of Technology, who can help set your career up for the future. In this series, we look at aspects of work life.

Remember when you were a teenager, and some stuffy authority figure in your life—uncle at christmas, Grandma at birthday—told you to all but give up on that burning creative passion of yours and focus your talents on something practical? “Something you might actually make a living out of someday”? Something that’d put food on the table? Remember when they told you that your penchant for drawing anime eyes on everything would never amount to anything other than a useless, frivolous hobby? Well, you have my permission to call up that adult literally right now and berate them for, let’s say, the next five years because as it turns out, they were wrong.


The future of work on Earth is looking increasingly different to how our parents and our parents’ friends seemed insistent on having us believe it was going to be when we were growing up, back when we were still considering our options AKA dreaming AKA screaming from behind a locked bedroom door: "I don’t want to do my homework I want to win Australian Idol, I hate you!"

What research is now showing, it would seem, is that practical disciplines and career trajectories are, in the future, going to be less stable and certain than creative and adaptable ones. Because the workplace will change to include non-biological workers (fricken robots!!!), biological workers (you and me!!) will be somewhat, um, unnecessary in industries that have routine or predictable outcomes. Like, for example, medicine and law, Dad. So while the researchers and the fat cats in Washington may not want to say this to your face, I’m willing to: ya shoulda kept on with those anime eyes, pal. That was your ticket to ride.

In a report released by the Foundation for Young Australians, research indicated that future jobs will require 70 percent more ‘enterprise skills’—transferable and non-industry specific skills, like communication, digital literacy, and critical thinking—than jobs of the past. And in their November 2017 report, McKinsey Global Institute predicted that 75-375 million workers (up to 14 percent of the global workforce) will need to learn, retrain, and adapt to new occupations due to rising automation by 2030.


Heather McGowan looks at the future of work and learning as an actual job, and assists businesses and educators in planning and preparing for future workplaces. She says that we should be figuring out what we’re interested in in a much more macro way than we’re used to. “We’re stuck in this paradigm of asking people what they want to be when they grow up, and asking university students what their major is, and asking each other what we do. Asking young people to think about the future when 55% of the jobs haven’t been created yet and half of existing work can be replaced by automation is becoming an increasingly ridiculous frame to put around things."

What we’re probably best off doing is defining whether the ways we imagine making our money can be replaced by technology or not. “How are you going to navigate the future of work where anything mentally routine or predictable—anything you can define the outcome of—will be replaced by an algorithm? That’s not just putting two parts together in a factory, it’s a huge part of our financial system, our legal system, our medical system,” she says.

What McGowan and other experts like her are telling their clients and audiences—and by extension, all people on this hot spinning rock—is that humans should focus on what humans do best: creativity and other enterprise skills, ”things that humans are better at and things that are harder for robots to do.” Like Uber! Airbnb! A machine couldn't have come up with that.


So while parents and guardians and free-and-unwanted-advice-machines might take a distinct liking to telling us we’re better off preparing for jobs in traditional industries, research now, finally, thank God, shows otherwise. Careers your parents don’t know are lucrative: ceramics; running an Instagram meme account; writing listicles for an online media agency about 12 watermelons that look sort of like Ronald Reagan.

Ushma Dhanak is a leading expert in the field of HR, consulting and educating predominantly on emotional intelligence in the workplace, as the future of industries relies more and more on the EI of its participants. Because research has shown that EI will likely be in the top three desired job skills by 2020, Dhanak says “empathy is a key competence in the workplace and one which is not taught or discussed as often as it should be. Having empathy will also allow leaders to be better equipped at managing the range of emotions that come up and then have the skills to be able to respond to the situation, rather than react.”

Words of advice from industry voices all seem to echo similar things: choose a career path in a broad sense and don’t get too bogged down in specifics, because planning for an uncertain future is futile (scary); learn and master skills that can be useful no matter where you end up, such as social media and coding proficiency; and work on your communication, empathy, and your creative passions.

In short, do everything you can to be MORE human. You’ve got this.

This guide to flourishing in the face of technology is supported by Swinburne University of Technology. If you’re ready to suss out new career options, find out about the degrees here. You can see the rest of the content in this series here.