Are you working in an obsolete job?

These jobs seem easily automated to us, but that's because we look at them from the future. Can you even envisage a future where your current job is obsolete?

These jobs seem easily automated to us, but that’s because we look at them from the future. Can you even envisage a future where your current job is obsolete?

I feel like I’m always talking about technological change at work, so much so that many of my colleagues probably get sick of hearing about it, but it frustrates me that they can’t see what it actually means. You see, I believe that technological change (which is often just complex software programs and algorithms) combined with an efficiency mindset is eliminating jobs or making many current jobs obsolete. You do have to wonder though whether people actually realise that their job is in line for elimination?

It will never happen to me!

Whenever this topic comes up I am astounded at how often people believe that it would never happen to them. It’s like people believe that they are so valuable to the organisation their customers/clients or the staff that their job would never be automated, even if the technology existed to do this. This just seems like such a short-sighted viewpoint that’s really about justifying them taking no action (or not even thinking about it), but people should be aware that a huge portion of people that are laid off had no idea that it was coming.

In our industry, it would be easy for a Partner or Senior Manager to believe that they are irreplaceable (“my clients rely on our relationship”, “they will only deal with me”, yada yada yada), but I have actually seen Partners fired/retiring, senior staff moving abroad and Managers leaving the area and guess what happens? The clients usually transfer to someone new in the office and life goes on! So when people think that their relationship is irreplaceable they’re just plain wrong! Sure, the clients may really have a connection with you and would prefer to stay with you, but if they don’t have a choice then they will usually try to move on to the next person that they’re presented with. In some instances the clients will leave immediately, but this is much less common.

In this day and age it is also common for people to sign non-competition agreements, which effectively mean that if they leave their current employer they aren’t allowed to work in that industry for a period of six months. That’s usually enough time for their old clients to move on to someone new (either from that same company or on to a new company), in which case you are really on the back foot when you try to reenter the industry. And this isn’t just for the accounting game either – it happens in most professional industries, and even in areas like sales as well.

Jobs that no longer exist

If you can’t see that your job could possibly become obsolete, why not consider some other jobs that no longer exist (or are almost non-existent anyway since there is such little demand for them)?

A quick Google search brings up the following top 10 jobs that no longer exist:

  1. Bowling alley pinster (the man that stands the pins back up at the bowling alley – easily replaced by a mechanical setup)
  2. Human alarm clock (people that would wake others up when it was time to start their jobs, often with long sticks to tap on their windows – now replaced by alarm clocks, which are pretty damn cheap from asia nowadays)
  3. Ice cutter (the refrigerator/freezer killed this job off entirely since we make our own ice at home rather than import it from somewhere cold)
  4. Listener for enemy aircraft (obviously important during wars, but radar killed off this job)
  5. Rat catcher (made obsolete with basic hygiene/waste management controls as well as something as simple as rat traps)
  6. Lamplighter (lit street lamps prior to electricity – the discovery of electricity killed this role off entirely)
  7. Log driver (people would float logs downriver as a way of transporting them – the truck/lorry killed this role off)
  8. Telephone switchboard operator (they used to connect phone calls, but this is all done digitally now)
  9. Resurrectionist (this is truly bizarre, but supposedly these people dug bodies up for medical research – perhaps this was prior to organ donorship and medical research reached a simple level)
  10. Lector who entertained factory workers (if you automate all of the factory jobs then you don’t need anyone to entertain the robots!)

Obviously all of these jobs seem rather silly if we look at them through today’s lens, but once upon a time I’m sure people thought that they would always be there.

People studying for jobs that won’t exist by the time that they are qualified

A report released in August 2015 by the Foundation for Young Australians actually found that 60% of Australian students were currently studying or training for jobs that either won’t exist, or will look completely different, in the next 10 to 15 years.

The following table summarises the jobs that are most at risk in the next 20 years:

Australian jobs most at risk

Now we don’t have the same student debt issue in Australia as they have in the US, but it still begs the question – have people actually researched the job that they are going to do to understand whether there is a chance that they will even earn money from that field to pay the debt back?

In our firm, I could identify staff that fall into six of the categories listed in the above table, which is why our industry is at risk of such significant change. But this isn’t just an accounting and finance issue, as I would suggest that a significant majority of people reading personal finance blogs are actually represented in the jobs in the above table, so it really is an issue for all of us. The question is, do people even know that it’s an issue?

Are you working in an obsolete job without even knowing it?

Now that you’ve seen this information, does it actually make you wonder if your job will become obsolete?

I personally look at jobs around me in our firm and identify a lot of roles that could easily go, with the shrinking of administration headcount and the reduction in recruitment of new starters being key areas that we are changing right now. But it’s also changed my outlook outside of our industry, so when I am doing something like going through an airport, all I see is obsolete jobs everywhere. But the people working on those jobs probably don’t see it either.

For me, I am somewhat protected, but I have no illusions about my replace-ability (is that even a word?). Instead of waiting for it to happen to me, I am trying to make steps to change our business in line with the automation trend. Some people probably see this as heartless, but I figure that if I am in the driver’s seat for the change, I am less likely to be the one automated. While this means reductions in headcount for our business over time, it doesn’t mean redundancies. Instead it means that as people leave, they simply won’t be replaced, and we have already seen an approximate 10% reduction in total head count from our peak last year.

Have you considered the effect of this on your early retirement dream?

As we all know, earning income from your day job is critical for building up a pot of gold that’s big enough to retire on. Many of us work hard on developing careers that pay as much as possible (while still maintaining some sort of lifestyle balance), but what would you do if the rug was pulled out from underneath you by being made redundant?

And what would you do if you couldn’t just apply for the same role with another employer because the role no longer existed?

For me personally, my timeframe for retirement is short enough, and I am at a high enough point on the career ladder to not be affected in a significant way, but if things were different then I would be quite worried. If I had a 20 year timeframe then I could definitely be in trouble.

What about you though? Have you thought about what all of this might mean for you and your early retirement plans?


4 thoughts on “Are you working in an obsolete job?

  1. This is why it’s a good reason to diversify income streams so that if someone’s job becomes obsolete there’s other income to fall back on (like stashing cash and earning investment income, side hustles, etc.). I love automation and it’s actually good to see that accounting clerks/bookkeepers jobs will be eliminated because that means better opportunities to deliver more valuable services like advisory. People can whine all they want about their jobs being eliminated but it just goes to show how they shouldn’t feel ‘entitled’ to their jobs. You must always be delivering value. As hard as I worked for my accounting degree and CPA license, I never quite feel complacent and strive to continue learning and staying ahead of the curve. It’s exciting to see the current transformation in the accounting space and will be more exciting to watch it play out in the coming years.

    • I actually love automation as well, but I’m not sure that everyone in my office likes it as much as me. I’m here trying to bring automation forward, while others are clearly scared of it and want it to go away!

      And I agree that basic work like bookkeeping really should be shrinking because it doesn’t add value to most clients, plus there are some very ordinary bookkeepers out there! I’ve even seen bookkeepers that don’t want their clients to go onto cloud software, presumably because they can see it cutting into their work.

  2. That’s why I’m so relieved to strive for ER, since I don’t plan to rely on my career for 40 years. My job cannot be replaced by machines or technology (will always need a human to create), but is moving towards getting outsourced. Which is the direction I’m going! I could be made redundant still if clients actively want to hire freelancers from developing countries where the expertise is high but wages lower. However, this is not the trend I see at the moment. In the future when the developing markets improve, maybe this could be the case. Hopefully I’ll be FIRE’d by then!

    • Outsourcing to other low cost countries like India was a real fear of our industry for a while there, but that concept is being overtaken with automation instead. People now figure that if it was simple enough to send offshore, then it’s probably simple enough to just automate entirely!

      It’s good to see that your recent switch to freelancing actually ties in with the direction that your market is heading and that you aren’t “swimming against the tide”. Tides can always change of course, but like you I plan to be out of the water before that happens!

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