Remote work, AI, and skills-based hiring threaten to put our jobs on the chopping block—but experts say those fears are overblown


In 1897, literary icon Mark Twain is said to have come across his own obituary in a New York newspaper. Asked for his response, tongue partly in cheek, Twain famously said the reports of his death “have been greatly exaggerated.”

The same sentiment might be said about the current and future state of American white collar work. An influx of headlines propose that millions of jobs are set to disappear within a decade or two. Depending on who you ask or which article you click on, you may well find your job on a list.
There’s no getting around the fact that jobs ten years from now will call on an entirely new set of skills—and maybe an entirely new set of workers. At least, if you ask Harvard Business School management professor and future of work expert Joseph Fuller whether reports of the death of well-paid, long-standing jobs are in fact exaggerated. 
“The future of white collar work is going to be different, but jobs won’t disappear en masse,” Fuller, who co-leads Harvard’s Managing the Future of Work initiative, tells Fortune. “Some skills will always be crucial, so it’s important to remain agile and continually look for ways of upskilling and not fearing the future.”
This prospect isn’t quite as daunting as it sounds. The shape of work has morphed and reoriented countless times in the past. On a macro level, consider the Industrial Revolution. For a flash in the pan, consider Y2K mania. But, even in moments of grave uncertainty, people tend to chug along. Humans have always adapted, refining their skills and retrofitting their careers to the current needs of the workforce. And despite a perennial fear of a technocratic future, robots haven’t nearly caught up to us yet. 
The U.S., and indeed the industrialized world, is trending towards a future in which our jobs as they exist today will gradually become unrecognizable. It’s the question of just how quickly and widely those changes will take hold that’s spurred endless debate. In today’s post-COVID landscape, the overarching fear of job disappearance stems from three discrete rising threats: remote work, Generative AI like ChatGPT, and skills-based hiring. But experts say none are quite as threatening as they seem.

Threat #1: Remote work

Most everyone likes flexible work. But those who have been living it up in their remote-first or fully remote desk jobs since 2020 may be in for a rude awakening. If you’ve proven you can work from anywhere, your boss could also deduce that it can be done by someone else, somewhere else, for much cheaper. Some experts believe that could lead to a mass exodus of remote jobs in the U.S., potentially within a decade.  
“If people that code for Google and Facebook were able to live wherever in the U.S. they wanted and [work] for a year and a half without ever going to the office, it seems very, very likely that a lot of companies will be rethinking this longer-term and outsourcing those kinds of jobs that didn’t used to be outsourced,” Anna Stansbury, an assistant professor of work and organization studies at MIT Sloan School of Management who teaches a course on the future of work, told Fortune last year. Needless to say, the American workforce would seismically change if well-paid white collar jobs suddenly move overseas. 
According to additional data from the National Bureau for Economic Research (NBER), more jobs than you might think are in fact “highly” offshorable. Bosses, paying big-city salaries to workers who long ago relocated to smaller, cheaper towns, are already asking themselves whether someone needs to be physically close to an office or their actual team. Within a few years, work that can be reasonably done remotely by people in such jobs “will inevitably be done by telemigrants,” NBER said.
But maybe not so fast. “Social and cultural contexts across countries [make] it less likely that a public relations specialist or a sales engineer located in Hanoi is a perfect substitute for one located in Seattle,” the researchers added. 
And an analysis by The Washington Post finds little evidence that this will happen any time soon, at the very least. Even if it does, American white-collar workers are in the best possible position to survive the worst of it. As the Post puts it, they’re the most mobile and most marketable employees in the workforce. 

Threat #2: Skills-based hiring

Nothing strikes fear in the hearts of tony Ivy League graduates like the thought that networking connections and ritzy diplomas will soon hold little weight in hiring managers’ eyes. More and more executives have opened their arms to degreeless workers with demonstrable skills—or an appetite to learn those skills.. The craze has been dubbed “skills-based hiring,” or skills-first, if you ask former IBM CEO Ginni Rometty, who’s been championing the cause for a decade
The percentage of IBM job listings requiring a four-year degree dropped from 95% in 2011 to under 50% in January 2021, to no discernible effect on productivity. Rometty later told Fortune CEO Alan Murray that hires without college degrees performed just as well as those with PhDs from leading universities.
The growing shift towards skills-based hiring will widen the talent pool, which in turn means bosses can hire someone with an untraditional or less credentialed background to do the same job for less. In simple terms, that may mean reliable entry-level jobs for college grads could “disappear” so to speak. Or that your job, regardless of level, will be given to a degreeless someone else. But what it really means is recruiting will become more democratized—an easy net positive for the entire workforce. And that you might need to sharpen your skills.
Fuller finds skills-based hiring “very valuable.” Drawing on his own research on the topic, he said when companies removed a college degree requirement from a job listing, they often then infused new language in the job description, asking for greater social skills, ability to manage, ability to reason, ability to deal with strangers, and executive functioning. (Commonly referred to as soft skills.)
“Do I think white collar work will inevitably require a college degree? Absolutely not,” he says. “It will require certain types of technical or hard skills not necessarily indicated by college.” 
That may also be the case for AI—which he deems the biggest threat of them all, although still overblown.

Threat #3: Generative AI

It’s hard to ignore the impact of artificial intelligence like ChatGPT, even in its nascent stage. This year alone, 4,000 tech industry jobs have been rendered unnecessary due to the manifold recent technological advancements, per a report from recruiting firm Challenger, Grey and Christmas. 
“We do believe AI will cause more job loss, though we are surprised how quickly the technology was cited as a reason,” senior vice president Andy Challenger told Fortune. “It is incredible the speed the technology is evolving and being adapted.” Some CEOs have said AI is moving faster than real life, leaving scant hope for tech-averse workers to keep up.
That’s left millions of U.S. workers terrified that they’ll lose their jobs—nearly one-quarter of them worry that rapidly advancing technology will soon render them obsolete, per a recent Gallup survey. Another study conducted by The Harris Poll in partnership with Fortune found that 40% of workers familiar with ChatGPT worry it will replace them. 
But those most at risk of getting displaced aren’t the tech workers Challenger’s research focused on; AI is creating new jobs for tech workers just as quickly as old jobs are going extinct. (That doesn’t mean new AI coworkers won’t lead to, if not an extinction, a pay cut.) The real at-risk workers are those in rote, repetitive jobs. 
“I wouldn’t want to be someone who does the reading or summarization of business books to send out 20-page summaries, because AI is really good at summarization already,” Fuller says. “A significant chunk of what people do today will go away,” he predicted, but nonetheless “a material amount of work” will remain. 
That work will be “a lot less dull, a lot less routine, and [have] a lot less filling out of expense resorts or quarterly forecast updates,” he adds, reasoning that AI will subsume the tiresome duties, leaving humans with the more interesting tasks. While we’ll still need basic AI know-how, a LinkedIn report finds that robots are less likely to snap up meaningful work and more likely to simply change workflows and outsource repetitive tasks, leaving us better at our jobs so we can focus on our soft skills. Work that relies on judgment, motivation, collaboration, and ideating is “the fun part of work,” Fuller says, with the added benefit of being much harder to automate.
As in the case with skills-based hiring, it’s less that AI’s preponderance indicates that jobs are disappearing, and more that the needed skills are shifting. For most workers, the future will be less about evaporating job opportunities and more about a pressing need to upskill. 

A new class a jobs

The throughline of each of these threats is that while they may purport to slash job openings, or merely make it easier for someone else to nab your dream job, what they actually do is redefine what a job entails—and who is capable of holding one. At the end of the day, employment is a human-to-human interaction, and these threats don’t render soft skills or interpersonal bonds any less valuable. 
“You have to think about these trends through the lens of human experience and human desire and human biases,” Fuller said. “The best companies in the future will be using the individual as a unit of analysis. Not the job description, not the paygrade.” 
And we’re hardly in a catastrophe. Unemployment this year has held steady at record lows, indicating more jobs than seekers. “The bottom line is that the labor market for white-collar jobs is incredibly dynamic,” Juan Pablo Gonzalez, senior client partner and sector leader for professional services at Korn Ferry, told the Society of Human Resources Management (SHRM) in June. “Work is being reimagined, not eliminated. It’s not that the jobs are going away; the jobs are changing.”
Besides, Fuller says workers won’t hang onto jobs that don’t fulfill them because they think their options are limited. People will be picky where they can, he explains, and they’ll keep looking for the jobs that don’t dominate their lives. 
The enduring grand technological innovations are those that eliminate grunt work, in turn creating a new class of jobs—not fewer human jobs altogether. These three much-discussed “threats” also provide a glimpse into a future that will involve upskilling. If a typical job description ten or twenty years from now looks drastically different—as it is wont to do in our age of rapid advancement—at least we’ll have a sense of why.

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