Human jobs in the future will be the ones that require emotional labour: currently undervalued and underpaid but invaluable
Early last year, the World Economic Forum issued a paper warning that technological change is on the verge of upending the global economy. To fill the sophisticated jobs of tomorrow, the authors argued, the ‘reskilling and upskilling of today’s workers will be critical’. Around the same time, the then president Barack Obama announced a ‘computer science for all’ programme for elementary and high schools in the United States. ‘[W]e have to make sure all our kids are equipped for the jobs of the future, which means not just being able to work with computers but developing the analytical and coding skills to power our innovation economy,’ he said.
But the truth is, only a tiny percentage of people in the post-industrial world will ever end up working in software engineering, biotechnology or advanced manufacturing. Just as the behemoth machines of the industrial revolution made physical strength less necessary for humans, the information revolution frees us to complement, rather than compete with, the technical competence of computers. Many of the most important jobs of the future will require soft skills, not advanced algebra.
Back in 1983, the sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild coined the term ‘emotional labour’ to describe the processes involved in managing the emotional demands of work. She explored the techniques that flight attendants used to maintain the friendly demeanours their airline demanded in the face of abusive customers: taking deep breaths, silently reminding themselves to stay cool, or building empathy for the nasty passenger. ‘I try to remember that if he’s drinking too much, he’s probably really scared of flying,’ one attendant explained. ‘I think to myself: “He’s like a little child.”’
Today, the rapid shrinking of the industrial sector means that most of us have jobs requiring emotional skills, whether working directly with customers or collaborating with our corporate ‘team’ on a project. In 2015, the education economist David Deming at Harvard University found that almost all jobs growth in the United States between 1980 and 2012 was in work requiring relatively high degrees of social skills, while Rosemary Haefner, chief human resources officer at the jobs site CareerBuilder, told Bloomberg BNA in January that corporate hiring this year would prize these skills to a greater degree than in previous economic recoveries. ‘Soft skills,’ she said, ‘can make the difference between a standout employee and one who just gets by.’
Across the economy, technology is edging human workers into more emotional territory. In retail, Amazon and its imitators are rapidly devouring the market for routine purchases, but to the extent that bricks-and-mortar shops survive, it is because some people prefer chatting with a clerk to clicking buttons. Already, arguments for preserving rural post offices focus less on their services – handled mostly online – than on their value as centres for community social life.
Historically, we’ve ignored the central role of emotional labour to the detriment of workers and the people they serve. Police officers, for example, spend 80 per cent of their time on ‘service-related functions’, according to George T Patterson, a social work scholar in New York who consults with police departments. Every day, officers arrive at families’ doorsteps to mediate disputes and respond to mental-health crises. Yet training at US police departments focuses almost exclusively on weapons use, defence tactics and criminal law. Predictably, there are regular reports of people calling the police for help with a confused family member who’s wandering in traffic, only to see their loved one shot down in front of them.
In the sphere of medicine, one of the toughest moments of a physician’s job is sitting with a patient, surveying how a diagnosis will alter the landscape of that patient’s life. That is work no technology can match – unlike surgery, where autonomous robots are learning to perform with superhuman precision. With AI now being developed as a diagnostic tool, doctors have begun thinking about how to complement these automated skills. As a strategic report for Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) put it in 2013: ‘The NHS could employ hundreds of thousands of staff with the right technological skills, but without the compassion to care, then we will have failed to meet the needs of patients.’
A growing real-world demand for workers with empathy and a talent for making other people feel at ease requires a serious shift in perspective. It means moving away from our singular focus on academic performance as the road to success. It means giving more respect, and better pay, to workers too often generically dismissed as ‘unskilled labour’. And, it means valuing skills more often found among working-class women than highly educated men.
The easiest place to see this shift is in medicine, where the overall healthcare landscape is changing to include more workers whose skills are primarily emotional. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that while jobs for doctors and surgeons will rise by 14 per cent between 2014 and 2024, the top three direct-care jobs – personal-care aide, home-health aide, and nursing assistant – are expected to grow by 26 per cent. None of these jobs requires a college degree, and together they already employ more than 5 million people, compared with the country’s 708,000 doctors.
Direct-care work is the quintessential job of the emotional labour economy. Sure, this work often demands physical strength – the ability to help a client with limited mobility bathe and get out of bed, for example. It might also call for some medical knowledge. But, as the education scholar Inge Bates at the University of Sheffield found in 2007, in ethnographic studies of direct-care trainees, the most significant skills required involve coping with filth, violence and death.