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Take this job & love it

Sudarshan Purohit, Sep 17 2017, 0:48 IST

Here today, gone 'morrow

The town of Westfield, Massachusetts, USA, features in a very famous management studies fable. Before the year 1890, the fable goes, Westfield had a thriving industry of buggy whips — the short whips used to goad carriage horses.

Then that year, the industry began to sink suddenly. The fable goes on to say, the buggy whip manufacturing associate petitioned the government to ban the competing industry that was threatening them. The petition, thankfully, didn’t work. What was the competing industry? Automobiles, which were suddenly being mass-produced by Henry Ford’s assembly line. In a few short years, the 40-plus whip businesses in Westfield shrunk down to just one as cars replaced horse-drawn carriages.

Who knows how true this whole story is. But the management theory it exemplifies has been proven true again and again: no industry or job is truly static. As the world changes around us, jobs that were once essential go extinct, and new ones appear. The change could be due to any number of reasons: social trends, technology, politics, or just fashion. The job market is a mirror to what is going on around us. Conversely, if you want to validate a new social or technological trend, look to see if it is generating jobs suited to serve it.

Consider the frankly incredible rise in computing power that’s available to the normal person today. The average smartphone in your pocket has a more powerful computer than the entire setup that was used by NASA to put a man on the moon in 1969. Say you lived away from this trend for the past two decades, and now wanted to understand the impact this change had had, all you need to do is to see the new jobs it is generating. You’d imagine we’re using this new power to solve for computationally massive problems like weather forecasting? Nope, all the new jobs are to make things like Angry Birds, Temple Run, and then Whatsapp.

That may have sounded like I’m joking, but there’s more to it. People do want more out of their phone, but more of what is the question. The answer turns out to be immersive entertainment, painless communication, and news updates. Being a software engineer in the 90s meant making banking programs. Now it means knowing Android and iPhone programming. The technology has seeped into our very personal lives instead of being an abstract, corporate topic. That also means that a single guy who learns programming on weekends can now write something that goes directly to the pocket computers of millions of users.

There are other tech-related jobs that are new: machine learning, AI, all sorts of analysis, which we won’t talk about. They all point back to the increasing power of computers in our lives and how they show up in completely unexpected places. I will, however, point out one story that illustrates the direction we’re going in.

A man stormed into the nearby branch of the American departmental store, Target, a few months ago. He demanded to know why the store was sending his daughter, still in high school, gift vouchers and offers for cribs, lotion, and other pregnancy-related purchases. The manager of the store didn’t know why either. “Our billing data is analysed by a computer program and used to recommend offers,” he said as he apologised. “It seems to have detected some pattern in your daughter’s purchases.” The man stormed off, but later on it turned out his daughter was indeed pregnant; she just hadn’t told her parents. The “Big Data” part of the store’s system had predicted the news correctly.

All the faster computers and phones and internet have gotten together to give us what we always wanted: more choice. But is that making us happier? We now have access to a million songs, thousand of alluring things in the shops and online, all the cuisines and experiences we could dream of — and now it’s well-nigh impossible to make the right choices for our lives. Overwhelmed as we are by the bounty, what we need is some expert who knows the ropes. Enter a new breed of jobs focussed purely on curation. You have food walk organisers who try out all the restaurants in an area before making a route touching the best of them. They’re curating those restaurants for their customers. Similarly, cultural tour organisers or historical guides apply their area of expertise to guide others into the area. An interesting example of this is Graffiti Tours — cities like New York and Bogota, which have a lot of interesting street art aka graffiti, now run art tours through the streets, allowing tourists to view these unique murals. In India, of course, we have had Heritage Walks in places like Old Delhi and the peths of Bengaluru, allowing history buffs to share their enthusiasm with tourists.

One of the most interesting types of curation that couldn’t have existed a few years ago is toy curation. That’s exactly what it sounds like — you buy or receive toys, rate them, and show others what it feels like to play them. This is a growing profession — in fact, for the year 2014, the highest earning Youtube channel, DC Toys Collector, had nothing but videos of an unknown woman playing with new toys. How much did she earn from the ads on that channel? An astounding $5 million!

A reason to cheer

I must mention one last curation job that will make many readers sit up: beer sommelier. Similar to the fabled wine sommeliers of France, a beer sommelier is someone who knows the best beer — usually one of a restaurant’s multiple micro brews — that go with a patron’s choice of cuisine. There is actually a certificate course for this job, run by institutes in the US and Europe, where varieties of beer are growing even faster than in India.

Then there are the jobs that could just as easily be called having fun seriously. In today’s age of instant communication and video technologies, creating and sharing content is for everyone. Vloggers (video bloggers) are the folks armed with a camera, maybe a friend to help them record, and a burning desire to share with the world. Whether its recipes (Nisha Madhulika, or Vah ji Vah, popular food vloggers in India), poetry (Hindi Kavita, a channel dedicated to reviving and appreciating Hindi Poetry), or even the umpteen travel vloggers who tell us of the best things to see in every Indian city — vlogging is here to stay. Even more interesting are the professional video game players, who record their play sessions and upload on video sites. The impact of this can be estimated with a simple number: the gameplay video sharing site, Twitch, was recently bought by Amazon. The price? $970 million.

Or, if you aren’t into the virtual aspect of things, playing with robots and drones might work better. With the acceptance of drones as a multipurpose tools of monitoring, recording, and management of large events, drone operators are much in demand — every run, every open-air dance, every new year party today has a drone hovering around unobtrusively, taking funky videos. Play with drones and get paid for it, too!

Our constant barrage of information, videos, memes, and whatnot is changing us fundamentally. Our attention spans are going down, our thirst for the latest news is overpowering detailed discussions, and the emphasis on likes and friend counts is taking us away from deep relationships. But it isn’t all bad — the popularity of these mediums gives us the means to espouse our causes to larger and larger groups. On the one hand, we have the vloggers, the tweeters, the change.org petitioners who manage well for themselves. On the other hand, we have the rise of the professional social media strategist, the person who will navigate these shifting waters and help companies, celebrities, or the aspiring independent author get their due attention. The rise of this job is nothing but a recognition of the importance of social media.

And of course, our increased awareness of the environment around us has led to a rise in related professions. In China, the Giant Panda Protection and Research Center announced openings for full-time panda cub caretakers - someone who plays with and cares for giant panda cubs all the time. Turtle conservation efforts in Odisha co-ordinate events where newly hatched baby turtles on the beach are pointed towards the water instead of the bright lights of nearby cities. And in Europe, microlight pilots are recruited to lead endangered birds through their migration routes.

If none of these seem interesting to you, you could apply for the aptly named ‘Best Job in the World’: the caretaker position at the gorgeous Hamilton Island off Australia, where your duties include walking around the island monitoring the plant life, checking the water temperature, and diving into the sea to look up marine life. For an outdoors person, that one can’t be beat!

For every job that is made obsolete, another (or ten) take its place. In the continuous churn, the ones most affected are those that lose their comfort zone and have to change to something new. We like to think of our parents’ generation as being a time of static, straightforward jobs — but every generation has its newfangled opportunities and misplaced nostalgia. As those long-ago buggy whip makers learnt, the only way out is forward.

Now, where can I start practising my drone skills?

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