30 January 2016 14:40:17 IST

Ring out the old

More traditional traditional professions are facing extinction due to the advent of technology

One Sunday afternoon, I was going through books I had collected over several years and I spotted an encyclopaedia that I remember buying from a door-to-door salesperson on a similar Sunday afternoon. I had bought the book to make an earnest hardworking man happy rather than to quench my thirst for knowledge. I wonder today: I do not see such door-to-door salespeople, just as I do not see mobile bakeries, typewriting institutes, or the VCR/TV repairmen holding an all-purpose tool bag. While many professions are extinct or on the brink of extinction, thanks to technology and automation, some are holding on to the last thread to avoid elimination. It is just a matter of time.

The advent of mixers, washing machines and dishwashers has reduced the need for dhobis and maids. On a larger scale, technology has minimised, even removed, traditional systems like postal services, match umpiring and travel agencies, and replaced them with electronic mailing, replay technology and online reservations respectively. In fact, many facets of postal services have been replaced by the rapidly growing e-commerce industry. On the one hand, life has become simpler and time-effective as dependency on other people is minimal. Machines are more accurate, efficient and objective than manpower. On the other hand, we are losing established professions that have been around for our comfort and convenience.

Professions becoming erstwhile

Kolkata-based author Nidhi Dugar Kundalia, in her crisp but fascinating book The Lost Generation , has talked about the extinction of over ten exotic Indian professions seen in the dim by-lanes of towns and villages. Science and technology as well as social shifts have quickly rendered these professions obsolete. The unsophisticated street dentist, the fine calligraphy artist, the grave professional mourner, the empathetic letter writer – these are all individuals who lent their profession enigma and exclusivity. The author has been fortunate to identify the few who have survived the change.

Professions either evolve or become extinct. There are very few that endure the stress of time and technology. Teaching, for instance, has undergone a significant change. Earlier times, a candidate applying for a teaching job would be tested on subject knowledge, patience, attitude and handwriting. These are barely enough to handle a teaching job today. Electronic whiteboards, web-based learning and online examinations call for extensive technology skills.

The erstwhile personal secretary has exited to give way to executive assistants (EAs) who are more than mere stenographers. The EAs of corporates are business graduates who have a strong career path and potential to move into management positions.

We no longer have lower division and upper division clerks in government or private enterprises. Call centre jobs are automated with IVRS, and are emerging at more cost-effective locations. Banks now have relationship managers, mutual fund advisors and wealth managers but no clerks. Transactions are conducted entirely at ATMs. Small-scale tailors have given up their businesses to join larger fashion houses, security guards are being replaced by CCTVs and there are no data entry or switch board operators.

Human resources, where personal interface is a critical requisite, has replaced many a function with automation. Payroll executives have been replaced by self-service portals, backed up by efficient software, which can quickly and accurately manage large volume of data. Entry-level recruitment jobs are now being done by robust software systems.

The Web, artificial intelligence, big data and improved analytics are all made possible by the ever increasing availability of cheap computing power and storage capacity thus automating many routine tasks.

As technology steadily takes over, more and more rule-based jobs are bound to be eliminated. Adding to the annihilating impact of technology on traditional jobs, newer generations have little interest in what the seniors did for a living. Perpetually exploring fresh avenues, today's job seeker is willing to explore and experiment with work challenges that are demanding and completely unknown. They are aware that competencies have to be developed and skills have to be honed. But the pressure of professional adventure is more exciting than the security and monotonous routine of the old and familiar work.

Combining technology with the human being

Having said that, any job which is not rule-based and where decision making is required will continue to exist. However, the approach, methodology and competencies required to execute the job will keep evolving. A medical doctor does not offer coloured liquid in a bottle (with a dosage sticker) as medicine anymore. While this nondescript, yet powerful, medicine worked wonders in the past, today’s doctor is clued in on modern medicine and medical technology. Prognosis has never before been so pointed and perfect.

A corporate manager needs more than functional expertise. Emotional quotient is an important requisite to perform as a capable leader. Industries need individuals who can see the unseen, articulate the unarticulated, possess the ‘sixth sense’, and those who are unconventional and willing to challenge the status quo go on to make effective leaders and managers. Output may be the best today, but come tomorrow it will have to be better than the best to keep up with the changing times. Henry Ford, the industrialist who revolutionised transportation in America, said, “If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse.” Steve Jobs, who raised technology products to an art form, did not give too much importance to conventional market research tools. He had the conviction and confidence that his imagination would create a design that can change the face of computers, cell phones, and even retail for that matter. The unstructured, non-conformist approach may seem very nebulous and directionless, but such out-of-the-box thinking is what resulted in break-through inventions and cutting-edge technology.

One day, Google’s self-driving cars may become a way of life. What happens to the professional drivers, or even to driving as a skill, in that case? Before we stop and think, new professions and newer skills will be around, and we will maintain the chase and pace to catch up.

Adapting to change, passion to learn and developing your skills everyday is the key to be comptenent. Technology can advance and jobs can change, but good professionals will find their niche and excel.

To read more from the World of Work section, click here .