If the gratuitous advisor from 1967’s the Graduate were to whisper one word of advice into Dustin Hoffman’s ear in 2014, that word would not be “plastics,” but “coding.”
From the White House to the halls of academe, calls are growing louder to educate more students in STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) lest America’s graduates be ill-prepared for tomorrow’s digital economy. Data analytics and especially coding are eclipsing the humanities and liberal arts; tech-centric Stanford is dethroning liberal arts-centric Harvard. Some demand we find a way for software development to join the three Rs of universal education: reading, writing, and arithmetic. Organizations like Code.org, Girls Who Code, and Black Girls Code, among others, preach the gospel of coding for all; soon you will be able to buy a $349 kit for kindergarteners to learn to code and create wooden-block robots.
But the question is not whether a liberal arts education will become superfluous in the future, but whether jobs requiring specialized technical skills, such as coding, will grow to become the dominant kinds of jobs.
Cries to the contrary notwithstanding, the economic growth generated by the digital economy will spur existing industries and create wholly new businesses, for both the near and long terms—and in both the vast majority of jobs will not require technical degrees. That’s exactly what happened in the last great techno-economic cycle.
Technology eventually shrinks the share of specialized jobs but, thanks to tech-driven productivity, simultaneously increases overall output and stimulates greater society-wide employment.
Start with the present. According to PEW Research, there are a lot of coders and software programmers currently working in the United States: just over one million. But that’s out of about 140 million employed citizens. The number of coders is roughly comparable to the 800,000 doctors and over 900,000 farmers recorded by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
While America obviously needs all three of those professions, more jobs are found in the ecosystems surrounding each specialization: six million are employed by tech companies, 15 million in health care, and 12 million in food-related industries. In other words, for each specialized professional, there are five to 15 other jobs ranging from marketing, public relations, and sales, to basic support services and training, to management, maintenance, and transportation.
To be sure, many jobs require specialized literacy or familiarity. But this can and often is learned on the job. In fact, Commerce Department data show that even in STEM jobs themselves, only 40 percent of workers have a STEM degree. We have known for ages how students and citizens prepare for the demands of an evolving workplace: with a basic and broad education that has long been associated with the liberal arts.
The historical record is unambiguous on this score: Technology eventually shrinks the share of specialized jobs but, thanks to tech-driven productivity, simultaneously increases overall output and stimulates greater society-wide employment.
When technology accelerated agricultural labor productivity in the 19th century, for example, the share of American workers directly employed in farming eventually shrank from 40 percent to today’s one percent.But the whole economy expanded and transformed into a modern industrial economy, employing more people overall, including many more in the enormous food industry ecosystem. The same thing happened with the auto industry. The share of workers designing and manufacturing cars shrank even as the total workforce expanded in all aspects of the service sectors created by the automobile.
This pattern is visible in the medical profession too. The BLS data show physicians’ share of total employment (less than one percent) has not changed significantly for decades, while overall non-physician employment in the health industry ballooned from a few percent to more than 10 percent of the workforce over the past several decades.
And now it’s happening to the legal profession. The 40 percent drop in law-school applications over the past decade reflects the same “creative destruction” as computing analytics automates a growing share of legal research and rote legal tasks.
As for the future: The code-writers who made the legal and health professions more productive with fewer personnel are now proceeding to do the same for engineering itself. It has already begun with computer-aided design, automated stress and materials analysis, and even automated code-writing for lower level programs. Three-dimensional printers allow artists to become manufacturing engineers. And in a portent of the future, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency just launched a contest to automate the elite bastion of cybersecurity.
In the near term, the tech sector’s demand for highly skilled workers will continue to grow more rapidly than others. And code writers and software engineers will, like doctors and lawyers, remain vital and well-compensated trades.
But expect the software engineers of the future to occupy a share of the workforce comparable to that of farmers today. This will enable the growth of other, non-technical, fields, from services and education to arts and entertainment.
Nobody predicted that the end of the agricultural economy in the 19th century would create new kinds of jobs and whole new industries, from food-related services, to manufacturing, management, administration, and transportation, to secondary and higher education, performing arts, letters, and information and news media.
If history is any guide, technology productivity will once again lead to a world with more jobs, but fewer, not more, technical specialists per capita. For the rest, the watchword will be neither “plastics” nor “coding”—but education. That’s the business of the liberal arts.