On January 1st I left my three-year secondment looking after a team of psychology and psychotherapy lecturers and returned to my old home in the clinical sciences. And a big part of my new work will be trying to prepare our graduates for a future that is increasingly uncertain and unfamiliar.
For some years now, there’s been an increasing interest in the future of professions like law, accountancy, journalism, and medicine, with a whole swathe of books being published recently trying to anticipate how we’ll need to adapt to the rapid rise of digital technologies.
There is little doubt that artificial intelligence, automation, machine learning, and robotics are going to radically reshape the nature of work for many of us. And this will happen not because “the machines are coming to take over”, but because they will both do some of the things humans do better, but more significantly, they will tackle old problems in entirely new ways.
Automation, innovation, decomposition, labour arbitrage, personalization, and mass customization are just a few of the ways our working lives will be affected by technology.
In 2013, David Graebar wrote an article about the pointless jobs that seem to have been invented just to keep us all working (link). Graebar followed the article with a Twitter question, asking people to tell him about some of the bullshit jobs they did, and some of the responses were achingly tedious, like one respondent whose main task at a Dutch publishing firm was to “Keep a candy dish full of mints. (Mints were supplied by someone else at the company; I just had to take a handful out of a drawer next to the candy dish and put them in the candy dish)”.
Graeber went on to publish a best-selling book last year titled Bullshit jobs: A theory in which he argued that about 50% of jobs could be scrapped and nobody would even notice. Would physiotherapy be one of those?
The 2018 workforce stats for Australia were released yesterday, and they once again showed that professions like physiotherapy, medicine, and pharmacy are seeing more than 90% graduate employment rates, suggesting that these, at least, are not bullshit jobs (link).
But does high rates of graduate employment necessarily mean that physiotherapy, medicine, and pharmacy are any more secure in the face of rapid technological change? Are they any less likely than someone in the visual or performing arts, say, to find themselves on the employment scrap heap when machine learning takes over?
Richard and Daniel Susskind, in their book The Future of the Professions think not. In fact one of their paradigm cases of a profession on the point of radical transformation is medicine.
The Susskinds (father and son) argue that many of the professions ‘are the brink of a period of fundamental and irreversible change in the way that the expertise of these specialists is made available in society’ (p. 1).
This state of flux presents some challenges for the various participants in the professional world. Many professionals who are at the closing reaches of their careers hope they can last out and keep tranformation at bay until they hang up their boots. At the other end, prospective entrants to the prpfessions are having second thoughts about committing. Their parents and careers advisors speak mainly of the professions of the twentieth century, but this talk bears little releation to the post-professional possibilities being sketched out by those who take an interest in the decisions of the professional to become. Regulators are hesitant about what it is that they may soon be regulating and, by and large, they are steadfasly discouraging change (p. 105).
So the challenge seems to be to anticipate the kinds of questions to which physiotherapy will be the answer in 10, 20 and even 30 years time.
Interestingly, the Susskinds and others suggest that it will be the creative industries, and not the professions like medicine which demand a high degree of standardization and procedure, that will outperform artificial intelligence and robotics in the future.
Certainly, I know of many physios who feel frustrated by the amount of administration they have to do, and there are many who spend the largest part of their day doing repetitive assessments and treatments. Many would also like to spend more time with interesting and complex patients, but plowing through the bullshit jobs appears to be an unavoidable reality of their work at the moment.
Perhaps the 4th Industrial Revolution will take away all of the tedious parts of the job and leave us with the good stuff. Unless the robots take the best patients and leave us with the paperwork.