The Half Life of Jobs

Half life

1. Physics. the time required for one half the atoms of a given amount of a radioactive substance to disintegrate.

2. Also called biological half-life. Pharmacology. the time required for the activity of a substance taken into the body to lose one half its initial effectiveness.

3. Informal. a brief period during which something flourishes before dying out.

According to John Seely Brown and Douglas Thomas: 

“The half-life of a learned skill is 5-years” – this means that much of what you learned 10 years ago is obsolete and half of what you learned 5 years ago is irrelevant.

The half life of jobs, the time during which a job is in demand before it’s innovated away, is getting exponentially shorter.

This phenomenon isn’t new. We’ve always had creative destruction. But the speed at which we’re seeing it is unprecedented. An example in transportation:

  • Riding horses – 4000BC
  • Horse and buggy – 1900BC
  • Trains – 1804
  • Cars – 1885
  • Taxis – 1897
  • Uber – 2008
  • Self Driving Car – 2012
  • Ubiquitous Self Driving Car – 2022 estimated*

The same example in human terms:

  • Horse Drawn Carriage Driver – 3797 years
  • Taxi driver – 119 years (already peaked)
  • Uber driver – 7 years (nearing peak??)
  • Self driving car – ???

The half life of transportation is getting shorter with each new innovation. Each period of innovation is getting an order of magnitude shorter.

The same thing is happening with jobs. Look at social media managers. They were a new economy job that was supposed to replace jobs that had been destroyed by creative destruction. They first came on the scene in 2007. And they’ve already likely peaked, potentially in 2013.

Between technology companies that allow more people to manage their social media by themselves and tools that allow one person to manage multiple accounts, demand for social media managers is going down. The people who learned how to be social media managers now have to learn new skills.

  • 2007 – Social media managers start to become a job
  • 2013 – Peak social media managers
  • 2015 – Managers can manager multiple companies’ social media accounts
  • 2016 – Automation allows one person to manage 50+ accounts
  • 2017 – Automation allows one person to manage 100s of accounts

 

People are not good at change. Most people aren’t great at learning new things in short periods of time. If the half life of a new skill was 5 years in 2013, it’s likely shorter now. In the past, nearly all people could learn a new skill once in their lives: they could apprentice and learn a new skill and then pass it down to their kids or someone else who was interested.

In the 1980s, this started to change. People had to learn new skills during their careers. People who entered the workforce in the 2000s take the need to learn new skills for granted. But it wasn’t true for most of human history.

If the half life of a skill is 5 years, this means that you’ll always need to conservatively learn a new skill every 5 years if you want to stay relevant. It seems like ~30% of people can keep up with this pace right now. That’s the percentage of the economy that’s seen wages rise since the great recession.

You need to be smart, motivated, have access, be in the right place at the right time and lucky enough to be born with enough stability and financial freedom that you can spend time learning, rather than paying off massive amounts of debt or getting out of a bad situation.

What happens when the half life goes to 2.5 years? Or 1 year? How many humans can keep up with this pace of change? Unless we make big changes, I don’t see how the ~30% of people that can keep up with the pace of change today doesn’t go down exponentially as well, not to mention the people who are currently being left behind, who I can’t see finding a way to get back into the skills cycle.

We’ll need to completely rethink education, income, taxes and responsibilities as the half life of jobs gets shorter and our life expectancies get longer.

Photo Credit: David Clow