In Defense of the Liberal Arts in the Age of AI

January 13, 2020 Aon's Assessment Solutions

This article was first published in Forbes.


Ever since the day we began building robots, we’ve been worried about the day they’d come for us — that they would inevitably rise up and possibly even wipe out humanity.

Well, the robots are here, and it turns out that the robots don’t want to destroy us — just our economy as we know it. Research from the Brookings Institution indicates that 25% of U.S. jobs are at risk of being largely replaced with AI over the next two decades.

Is your job going to be one of them? Not all fields are at equal risk. But the dirtier, more dangerous or more repetitive a job is, the more likely it is to disappear soon (thanks for nothing, Mike Rowe). New jobs will be created, just like in the last industrial revolution, but it’s not clear what those roles will be.

It’s estimated that 65% of children entering primary school now will have jobs that don’t currently exist, according to the World Economic Forum.

So, how do we prepare for a future like this? In 2016, the World Economic Forum asked employers what skills they valued most. The I/O psychologists at Aon developed a similar list. It turns out that the skills that will be most valuable in the future of work aren’t technical skills — they’re the kind of “soft skills” that are cultivated by a liberal arts education.

Let’s take a look at why cultivating these skills will be critical in the age of AI, and where to find them in the liberal arts sphere.

  • Creativity: In a world where most repetitive tasks will be performed by machines, we’ll place higher value on people who can imagine things that don’t already exist, and make them real. In other words, you need someone with imagination and creativity — an artist.
  • Critical thinking: If you’ve ever gotten into an argument with a philosophy major, then you know they’ve got critical thinking covered. But here’s something you might not know: Philosophy majors already have the fourth-highest median earnings of any undergrad major, at $81,200 per year.
  • Emotional intelligence: Emotional intelligence is a crucial component of navigating the workplace, whether you’re handling a difficult customer, dealing with office politics or convincing your boss or team to move forward. If your job involves authentically connecting with another human being, you’re less likely to lose out to even the cleverest robot. Literature majors spend their time diving into our culture’s great works, but they also spend their time cultivating their emotional intelligence. Joyce Carol Oates puts it best: “Reading is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another’s skin.”
  • Judgment and decision-making: Political science majors are trained in the ways of shared decision-making. They’ve been studying game theory since long before it was cool. Just watch your back carefully with these guys.
  • Data analysis: If you need a charismatic data whiz on your team, talk to the psychology and sociology grads who spend much of their time in college conducting research and combing through data. Not only do they know their way around a statistical analysis system; they know how to spin those numbers into the compelling narratives that drive businesses forward.
  • Learnability: Foreign language majors have learnability that’s off the charts. Maintaining fluency requires a commitment to lifelong learning that can also keep you ahead of the algorithms.
  • Agility: As the pace of change accelerates, agility will become an even more valuable trait for the workplace. Remember the theater kids? They’re trained to change direction, make adjustments and experiment — all within a group setting. We’re going to need all the “Yes, and …” that we can get in this economy.
  • Curiosity: While all of the liberal arts cultivate curiosity, perhaps no discipline does so as much as anthropology. Studying anthropology trains you to set aside your most fundamental assumptions about humanity and fully embrace diverse perspectives.

Employers sometimes shy away from really digging into soft skills, thinking they are harder to evaluate than technical skills. But they're missing out! Here's how you can assess these skills during the hiring process.

Assign a Test Project.

The best way to see if someone communicates clearly and works well with others is to see them in action. Rather than relying on their word that they are “great communicators” and “innovative thinkers,” have your finalist show you with a small project that culminates in a presentation to their prospective co-workers (make sure you pay them for the time).

Incorporate Personality Testing in Your Process.

Large employers use these types of tests on the front end to weed through high-volume applications, but smaller employers can also benefit from using them midway through the process. Just make sure to choose one that follows a sound methodology.

Slow Down during Reference Checks.

Often these interviews are treated like a final box to check before moving on to an official hire. But conducted thoughtfully, they can give you real insight into people's strengths and weaknesses.

Liberal arts majors: The next time your family hassles you about your “unpractical” degree, tell them you were just future-proofing your career.

Do you want to learn about how organizations future-proof their talent? Read our case study "Hiring the Best Young Talent for Beiersdorf".

About the Author

Aon creates smart measurement solutions with valid and innovative online assessment products. Aon is globally the preferred partner for organisations who demand the best.

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