Why BA graduates will control the economy

More than anyone else, arts graduates are perfectly placed to leverage the unpredictable economic environment of the future to their advantage, writes Victoria University's Stuart Brock

A Bachelor of Arts degree will be one of the most valued degrees of the 21st century. That’s not just because the humanities, arts and social sciences are so intrinsically interesting, which they are; and it’s not just because arts graduates have superior verbal and written communication skills, which they do. Surprisingly, perhaps, it’s also because we should expect those who have a BA degree to control the economy in the years ahead.

To understand why, it’s worth reflecting on the findings of a 2013 report by Dr Carl Benedikt Frey and Dr Michael A. Osborne from the University of Oxford. On the basis of extensive research, they suggested that approximately 47 percent of jobs in the United States are at high risk of being automated, potentially “over the next decade or two”. Since the publication of that report, academic economists and government officials have consistently made similar predictions for all parts of the globe. Indeed, earlier this year the New Zealand Labour Party’s Future of Work Commission report was published, guardedly predicting that 46 percent of Kiwi jobs are under threat of automation in the next 10-15 years, going so far as to identify the number of jobs at risk in different regions around the country. 

While these predictions are speculative, everyone agrees the future of work is uncertain. Pessimists worry about increased unemployment and the potential collapse of the economy, while optimists contemplate all the potential new and interesting jobs that might be created — jobs we can’t even imagine at this point in history. 

Arts graduates can be confident their broad-based skills, knowledge and competencies make them cognitively flexible and agile enough to navigate this unknown future.

Uncertainty about our future is never comfortable. But arts graduates are perfectly placed to leverage this changing and unpredictable economic environment to their advantage. As Professor Nicholas Agar, in the Philosophy programme at Victoria University of Wellington, notes, “Computers are getting better at doing the things we have always considered our species’ special strengths. If you’re looking for future-proofed skills, look to the social abilities that really challenge computers. These are what the BA is all about.” 

Arts graduates can be confident their broad-based skills, knowledge and competencies make them cognitively flexible and agile enough to navigate this unknown future. Arts graduates have studied history and so appreciate better than others the lessons it teaches. Arts graduates have studied philosophy and so know how to think critically and how to ethically evaluate the moral dilemmas of the future. Arts graduates have learned different languages and so know how to communicate across cultures. Arts graduates have studied the humanities and social sciences and so have a deep understanding of the human condition. Arts graduates have critical skills that enable them to navigate ambiguity, complexity and novelty. Most importantly, though, arts graduates think creatively. 

Arts graduates and other creative thinkers are the least likely to lose their current jobs to robots.

Why is this capacity to think creatively so important for the future? For one thing, creative thinkers are the ones most likely to be able to solve novel problems and to create original, useful and beautiful artefacts. As a consequence, they are the most likely to generate the new jobs, and to create new products and demand for those products. Perhaps more importantly, though, arts graduates and other creative thinkers are the least likely to lose their current jobs to robots. Machines are learning to do remarkable things. Not only can they now perform highly repetitive tasks, they are also beginning to perform skilled tasks, such as grading essays reliably, playing chess well and diagnosing diseases accurately. Machines can do these things because they now have the capacity to learn on the basis of large amounts of data they are programmed to synthesise and analyse.

Nonetheless, there are many things humans can do that machines can't. In particular, machines have made almost no progress in solving novel problems. Robots just can't handle things they haven't seen many times before. As machine learning expert Anthony Goldbloom notes, “the fundamental limitation of machine learning is that it needs to learn from large volumes of past data. Humans don’t. We have the ability to connect seemingly disparate threads to solve problems we've never seen before”.

Not all humans have been taught this capacity. You have to be well equipped to consistently and confidently turn novel situations to your advantage. BA graduates are equipped and empowered.

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