Lots of talk about technology replacing people in the workplace has tended to center around blue collar jobs in sectors like manufacturing. But technology — in particular, software — is moving up the ladder and is increasingly displacing information workers, as a recent article in Quartz by Chris Mims explains.

I’ll get to the gist of the piece in a second, but the personal takeaway is clear. This isn’t just an interesting trend for tech or economics nerds to puzzle over; it’s a very real phenomenon that is going to impact your career. So ask yourself: could software basically do your job? What about just some of it? If the answer is “Yes” to any significant degree, it’s potentially time to start thinking about alternatives.

Competition With the Machines

Here’s the thrust of Mims’ piece (which is worth a read in full):

The turn of the new millennium is when the automation of middle-class information processing tasks really got under way, according to an analysis by the Associated Press based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Between 2000 and 2010, the jobs of 1.1 million secretaries were eliminated, replaced by internet services that made everything from maintaining a calendar to planning trips easier than ever. In the same period, the number of telephone operators dropped by 64%, travel agents by 46% and bookkeepers by 26%. And the US was not a special case. As the AP notes, “Two-thirds of the 7.6 million middle-class jobs that vanished in Europe were the victims of technology, estimates economist Maarten Goos at Belgium’s University of Leuven.”

Economist Andrew McAfee, Brynjolfsson’s co-author, has called these displaced people “routine cognitive workers.” Technology, he says, is now smart enough to automate their often repetitive, programmatic tasks. ”We are in a desperate, serious competition with these machines,” concurs Larry Kotlikoff, a professor of economics at Boston University. “It seems like the machines are taking over all possible jobs.”

In the long run, these kind of productivity improvements are quite good for the economy. But, in the short term, they can be quite painful as a post by Judge Richard Posner (via MIT’s McAfee) recently explained:

If technological advance is very rapid, causing in turn a large and very rapid drop in demand in a large labor market, the economy may not be able to absorb the sudden surplus of labor in a short period of time. The result will be soaring unemployment that will retard normal market processes by reducing incomes and in turn production and therefore in the demand for workers.

Are They Talking About You?

All of this raises fascinating policy questions about job retraining, income redistribution, etc. But there’s also the more immediate, personal question stated earlier: does all of this apply to you?

If significant portions of your job could be handled by software, you need to think very seriously about whether the career path you’re on is the right one. Mims borrows venture capitalist Marc Andreessen’s framing:

“The spread of computers and the Internet will put jobs in two categories,” said Andreessen. “People who tell computers what to do, and people who are told by computers what to do.” It’s a glib remark—but increasingly true.

Now, it’s possible to be in a job with lots of repetition that realistically ought to, one day soon, be replaced by software and still be in an OK career spot. You might have great mentors, be learning other skills and be on a growth path. Just be sure that the growth path is going to put you into that other category — the one telling the computers what to do — rather than just moving up a ladder that’s going to be replaced in its near entirety.

Of course, given the lousy job market, many people hardly have much choice as to their current path, including plenty of college graduates. Still, this is one of the main reasons I’m so interested in efforts to teach individuals how to code. Becoming a programmer is one obvious way to move from one category to the other. But you don’t have to learn programming to do this. As software “eats the world” (Andreessen’s words) there’ll be plenty of jobs in design, product management, data analysis, etc.

My point is simply this: as you’re planning your career, thinking five, 10, 20 years down the line, think seriously about what existing technologies could and could not easily replace. Then do your best to find your way into a job in the latter category.

UPDATE: This chart explains the phenomenon nicely. (via Washington Post)