21st Century Opportunities

Productivity expert Jason Womack is working on a project aimed at teenagers on the careers of tomorrow.  He asked me to contribute a few ideas, and he graciously agreed to let me turn it into an article for Lifehack.org.  From where I sit, there are a couple of very broad categories in which people can expect to excel in the future:

1.  Data Analysis

Data and computation have never been cheaper than they are this morning.  They are cheaper than when I first wrote this in October, they will be cheaper this afternoon, and they will be even cheaper this time tomorrow. 

What is not falling in price, however, is analytical ability.  The ability to find intelligible information in a very noisy world will be of great value in the future.  If I were sixteen and knew what I know now, I would focus my time and energy on mastering the theory of probability and on learning an analytical social science like economics. 

This comes with an important caveat: the ability to perform statistical computations by pressing a few buttons on a computer is very different from knowing what the output means and how to apply it.  Statistical computations will be almost costless in the future: there are a number of excellent, free statistical software packages floating around, and I wouldn’t be surprised if “Google Stats” is in the offing somewhere. 

The real value added, though, comes from knowing what the computations mean.  A disconcerting fact about the way science is done today is that while a lot of it is very computation-heavy, the results are often interpreted incorrectly not just by the media outlets who report on them, but by the scientists doing the investigation. 

For more on this, I encourage people with advanced training in statistics to read Ziliak and McCloskey’s The Cult of Statistical Significance, which I reviewed for Economic Affairs recently (a draft of my review is available on the Social Science Research Network at www.SSRN.com).

2.  Product Design

The cost of manufacturing goods continues to plummet, and as it gets cheaper and cheaper the value will be added not by the physical production process but by the design process.  Understanding people’s goals and what they will actually use products for will be a way to add value going forward. (To this end, I highly recommend Donald Norman’s The Design of Future Things, which I expect to review in this space sometime soon).

3.  “Technology Ecology” 

This is kind of like tech support, but different.  As production costs continue to fall, part of value added in design will be in workplace design, or what might be called “Technology Ecology.”  Integrating the material of the last millennium (paper) with the material of the new millennium (silicon) is of paramount importance, and there are many margins on which to add value by designing workspaces.  The computer has been inserted into a work environment designed for people pushing pieces of paper across a desk, and many workspaces are fundamentally mid-twentieth century workspaces specked with a variety of early twenty-first century tumors.  Adapting the workspace to new technology will be an important way to help people add value in the future.

4.  Financial management

Economic and financial illiteracy is rampant in the United States and in the world, and there is room to add value by helping people better manage their money.  My wife is a CPA and I have a PhD in economics, and one of the most valuable lessons we’ve both learned is that “active management” or trying to “play the market” is a non-starter.  We enjoy a lot of peace of mind by socking our money away in passively-managed index funds.  A lot of poeple don’t know what “index funds” are, which means that they are leaving a lot of money on the table.

5.  Personal nutrition and training

As life expectancy increases, we will want to do all we can to increase the quality of our later years.  It has been said that “sixty is the new forty,” and as society gets wealthier there will be a lot of room to add value by helping people stay “fit and effective,” to steal a phrase from Jason.  Information filtering will grow in importance as the amount of information increases, and as we get richer more of us will find it to our advantage to outsource nutrition- and exercise-related information processing.

A rapidly changing world creates enormous challenges, but these enormous challenges are also enormous opportunities.  The early twenty-first century presents us with incalculable opportunities to engage our creative faculties, and the fields I mention here are only a few of the areas in which those opportunities will emerge.

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