Will your job be obsolute by 2035? What we can learn from the way of the samurai.
The samurai’s integration into a modern Japan offers a rare precedent of what happens when a highly-skilled segment of society suddenly becomes obsolete.
The growth of artificial intelligence looms as an unrivaled threat to work in the 21st Century.
Unlike the Industrial Revolution, which replaced low-skilled human and animal labor, modern technology and algorithms threaten the expertise and education of highly-skilled individuals called knowledge workers.
To navigate this uncertain future, let’s go back to feudal Japan.
The end of the samurai era
Japan clings on to a reputation for advanced transportation, futuristic appliances, robots, and other modern technology, but that’s not quite the impression I get walking past one of Japan’s many DVD shops or listening to my girlfriend explain her job at the local newspaper company delivering papers sent by the fax machine to old school journos.
Change is much slower in Japan than say China or South Korea, but when it does happen, it’s a mighty nation-wide overhaul. Rapid transformations were seen several times in the 20th Century, but nothing compares with what happened in the 19th Century. You might have thought the fax machine was overstaying its utility by a few decades, but just 150 years ago, Japan was still using a feudal system left over from medieval times.
The eventual collapse of the feudal system and the demise of Japan’s ruling samurai class in the 1860s was both rapid and permanent. In the space of a decade, top-knot hairstyles, killing swords, and wages paid in units of rice were dismantled and replaced with the steel and metal of a modern industrialized nation.
This transformation has intrigued me ever since I moved to Japan, especially as I look ahead to what’s in store for the future of knowledge workers. Similar to the fate of the samurai and their massively outdated skill base, artificial intelligence (AI) poses a real threat to a large and highly-skilled segment of today’s workforce with high social status.
This research is a few years old now, but according to the British Broadcasting Company’s (BBC) interactive online resource Will a robot take my job?, skilled professions including chartered accountant (95%), investment analyst (40%), legal associate (66%), and estate agent (68%), have a mid to high chance of becoming automated by the year 2035.
The samurai, similar to accountants and analysts, were well educated and respected members of society. Trained in combat and schooled in military studies, China studies, arithmetic, calligraphy, history, and even mathematics and science, the samurai enjoyed considerable privileges over other classes below them on the totem pole of Japan’s hierarchical society. Their sudden fall from an elevated social standing offers us rare insight into the identity and psychological problems that might beset knowledge workers in the future.
Faced with immediate upheaval, the samurai reacted in two distinct ways. The first was rebellion; this more natural course of action meant resisting change. This came out in violent but futile clashes with the Emperor’s modern-equipped army including the bloody Satsuma Rebellion in 1877 where more than 35,000 people died or were wounded.
The second and more productive course of action was to embrace change and new technology. For the samurai that took this path, education played a key part. Exposure to foreign languages, for example, gave samurai living in the port city of Nagasaki a massive head-start in an economy open to foreign trade and led by a government keen to learn from Western powers. The Charter Oath issued by the Emperor in 1868 stated that “knowledge shall be sought throughout the world” and those with a tongue for foreign languages were among the first to be dispatched overseas. Other samurai meanwhile stayed in Japan and became teachers, bureaucrats, and artists in the new nation.
While the samurai enjoyed superior access to education in the previous era compared to merchants, farmers, and the lowest class of Japanese society (called eta), their pre-Meiji education wasn’t a silver bullet. Beyond literacy and basic arithmetic, many elements of samurai training were obsolete or deemed undesirable in Meiji Japan, especially in warfare and philosophy. Battles would now be fought out with modern weaponry, and, like ancient Greek and Latin, knowledge of the Chinese analects offered less utility in a modern era where Western ideas on free markets, industrialization, and capitalism ran supreme.
The new Meiji Government, in fact, overhauled Japan’s previous education system and replaced it with standard practices from the West. In this way, the samurai were not fully prepared by their education to prosper in the new Japan. Instead, they had to recalibrate their bearings and adapt to new job practices. This lesson holds true today as well educated software and website engineers retrain themselves in data science as a response to new technology.
For the samurai class, who had devoted their lives and also their blood to the values of the samurai code for countless generations, the mental resignation was severe — something we need to be wary of today.
In his book Mastery, Robert Greene explains, “Putting ego aside to re-educate oneself is no easy task”. Greene says that the “dangers are many…every time you change careers or acquire new skills.” This includes a tendency to “succumb to insecurities,” “emotional issues and conflicts” and “fears and learning disabilities” that constrain the ability to learn and return to formal education.
Responding to change
Massive change does not always need to be sweeping and immediate. As explained in The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, one of the effective ways to supplant old habits is to disguise new habits with old ones. Duhigg points to the example of steak and kidney pie to increase offal consumption in America during World War II, which was not hitherto a staple of the American diet.
In the same way, Japan in the Meiji period disguised new habits with old traditions. This included keeping the capital in Edo — renamed Tokyo (Eastern Capital) — preserving core Confucian values including filial piety and love of learning, a renewed emphasis on Shintoism, and restored reverence to the emperor.
As Marius Jansen explains in the Making of Modern Japan, fukko (a state headed by a ruler descended from the sun goddess) was an ideological cornerstone of the previous period and Japan’s historical memory, luckily, included an “era of unification under a central government headed by the emperor.” As a consequence, the “young emperor was literally held aloft as a talisman” or “a kind of wand” to awe people, and pictures of the emperor were placed in every classroom. These jingoistic calls to the emperor and other familiar symbols of the past helped to mitigate resistance and assuage other changes, such as new haircuts, attire, and methods of income.
Concurrently, modern values were sprinkled into modern texts, including An Encouragement of Learning by Fukuzawa Yukichi, which insisted that people are born equal and not above or below another person.
Other changes were gradual and deliberately phased in, which again, helped to deliver a relatively smooth transition. As noted in the 48 Laws of Power, “people like comfort and are scared of change”. Greene argues to “move slowly” and “cloak change and innovation in the legitimacy of a past initiative.”
In this way, the samurai’s stipend was phased out over many years, and one-by-one the daimyo’s (leaders of regional domains) were “compensated rather generously” to relinquish their domains and “step aside,” explains Jansen. In legal terms, it wasn’t until 1870 that all samurai were classed as commoners (heimin).
Continuation of selected past traditions and phases of change, therefore, helped to improve the overarching narrative of carry-over and gave the samurai time for retraining and education.
The missing middle
Recreating yourself through education and embracing rather than resisting change is vital for dealing with new technology.
The speed at which machine learning is seeping into all aspects of modern work — from marketing to human resources — underscores data literacy as a key skill for the modern workforce. Just as the Meiji Restoration in Japan introduced new job titles, so too will the data-driven era.
In the coming decades, there will be many opportunities in what the authors of Human + Machine: Reimagining Work in the Age of AI term the “missing middle,” the fertile space where humans and machines collaborate to exploit what each side does best.
According to the missing middle theory, the most effective and cost-efficient path is to merge automated tools with the flexibility of human workers to achieve optimum results. This is similar to how chefs and waitstaff work alongside automatic cashier machines inside Japanese restaurants today.
In terms of working together with AI, I’m starting to do it now with my work. I use the online tool Grammarly to edit my books and notify me when I stray from U.S. spelling, which is required for my writing. Grammarly’s AI editing system isn’t perfect — I still need a human editor — but it’s ruthlessly cost and time-efficient with what I need it to do.
In my day job, I also use natural language processing models for predicting content translation in combination with native human speakers. Amazon’s smart recommender systems also help me to find more potential readers.
It’s still early days but I’m excited to learn and explore more possibilities in this coming age of embracing the “missing middle”. Do you have any examples in your own line of work? I’d love to hear.