Art Carden  

Which Essential Skills Today Will Be Obsolete Soon?

Immigrants Are Good for Cosmop... If something can't go on forev...

Over lunch one day, colleagues and I were talking about students' handwriting (mine is positively atrocious), and one of my colleagues suggested that students learn to write decently as they will at the very least need to be able to sign documents appropriately.

After using a service called DocuSign a couple of times, though, I'm not so sure it's going to be that important. I make notes in the margins of books all the time and still take notes by hand, but my guess is that I probably type about 75% or so of the words I produce.

This, along with the debate over Uber, got me to thinking: which "essential" skills that won't be within a generation or two? I doubt handwriting will go away, but I think The Oatmeal nails its future. I think driving is the most obvious candidate for a lot of people, first as ride-sharing grows more ubiquitous and then as self-driving cars come online. People might still drive for fun just as today they sew for fun, but I don't think driving will be an essential skill for many people within a few decades.

Any other candidates?

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CATEGORIES: Labor Market

COMMENTS (25 to date)
Hazel Meade writes:


Even though it is cheaper to home-cook a meal, this might not be the case forever. I could forsee a point where it is cheaper to purchase pre-packaged meals, or fast food, whereupon cooking becomes something people only do for fun.

Mark Bahner writes:

I moved into my townhome almost 13 years ago. I haven't used the oven even once, as far as I can remember. I use the stovetop, the microwave, and a toaster. (And extremely rarely a toaster oven...but mainly just to toast Italian bread that's too big for my toaster slots.)

You're definitely right that the cost of microwaving frozen entries is higher than cooking from scratch, but the convenience more than compensates for it, as far as I'm concerned.

Duane McMullen writes:

On the subject of cooking being cheaper than buying, Megan McArdle had an interesting blog a few days back which pointed out that buying a rotisserie chicken was cheaper than buying a raw chicken and cooking it yourself.

The reason? Supermarkets use the chickens that are about to pass their sell-by date as the stock for their rotisseries.

Here's the blog:

Someone from the other side writes:

I will stop cooking when industrial food stops being made out of quasi toxic waste. In other words, not any time soon

Hazel Meade writes:

Not disagreeing.

Cooking allows you total control over every ingredient that goes into your food. (Which is good if you're a picky eater, too, not just for health reasons.)

But it's apparent that there are a LOT of people for whom cooking is already an obsolete skill.

Jeff writes:


Yancey Ward writes:

I am guessing "thinking" is going to continue to decline rapidly.

Rajat writes:

Fantastic - an opportunity to vent about cooking. For a start, it takes some time and effort to build up a level of expertise that enables one to satisfactorily cook a dozen or so different dishes, which is enough to meet most people's day-to-day needs. So there is a fixed up-front cost involved there. Some people enjoy this phase, I personally do not.
Then there are the ongoing costs:
1) The need to go shopping to buy ingredients
2) The cost of the ingredients
3) The need to decide somewhat in advance what one feels like eating, in order to take advantage of economies of scale/scope in shopping; alternatively, the need to shop more often
4) The need to unpack and store ingredients at home and to throw away rotting fresh food
5) Preparation time and effort
6) Cleaning pots and pans (I don't tend to put these in the dishwasher), stovetops, benchtops, sinks, etc
7) Throwing out scraps - offcuts, excess, unfinished gravies, etc
I agree that most cheap takeaway food tastes very ordinary, but this need not be the case. Anyone who has travelled in Asia and eaten freshly-cooked street food knows it can be pretty serviceable.
With some people now engaged in small-scale selling of their home-cooked food, it should be possible for at least singles and couples to avoid cooking most dinner meals without sacrificing taste.
At the same time, I can see that some people really enjoy the whole food preparation process, from shopping at particular stores to selecting exotic ingredients to putting them together to eating and getting plaudits. The number and ratings of cooking shows on TV - including 'reality' cooking competitions - would shock someone coming from 20 or 30 years ago. It's a puzzle.

Fazal Majid writes:

There is some research showing taking notes on paper yields better recall than taking them on a computer, so don't write off handwriting just yet.

If translation software progresses (a big if), it is conceivable the ability to speak multiple languages may become less of an asset.

Hana writes:

Mad Men. The Don Draper's of the world with creative copy writing and insightful analysis are soon to be gone. SEO, SEM, Big Data and other pinpoint targeting of products and brands will eliminate the traditional ad man.

andrew writes:

"one of my colleagues suggested that students learn to write decently as they will at the very least need to be able to sign documents appropriately"

Why? A signature is more akin to a seal than just writing your name. As long as it's consistent and yours, who cares what your signature is?

vikingvista writes:

Unique signatures are overrated. In most private agreements, the terms and conditions are straightforward enough to both parties (even if that required a great deal of negotiation), and the mutual desirability of both parties for the agreement is such that a signature is never going to be challenged and is essentially a formality.

In those few cases where there is distrust, or where parties are trying to sneak things past one another, or in obedience to punishable government dictates, it is very poor judgement to simply rely on a signature. In those cases, a disinterested witness, like a notary public, should always be used.

Peter H writes:

Re: cooking as a skill to become obsoleted.

I think that cooking at home will become a less necessary skill, but unlike knitting or blacksmithing, which are now pure hobbies, will still be a professional skill for quite some time to come.

For a number of reasons, particularly the extreme heterogeneity of vegetables and the fact that freshly prepared meats and vegetables are delicious, same-day preparation from raw ingredients will remain the norm of food prep for a long time to come. That may be outsourced from the home to professional cooks in a restaurant, but it will still be done by human cooks. Standardizing the inputs enough to automate the cooking process will lead to inferior quality outputs.

Eclectecon writes:

Typing. It won't go away, but speech-text and text-speech is pretty darned good (I have several vision-impaired friends who depend on it). As it improves and as people learn how to use it better, we'll see much, much more of it.

Hazel Meade writes:

@Duane McMullen:

Yes, and then they use the leftover rotisserie chickens to make the chicken salad that is sold in the deli.

Notes on cooking for yourself:
It is kind of an "all in" activity. You have to be consuming fresh meats and vegetables fast enough to use them up before they rot. However there are some vegetables that will keep a long time, and if you go "flexetarian" (only eats meat at restaurants), you can lessen the spoilage factor. There are certain vegetables that will store for a long time: cauliflower, potatos, carrots, any kind of winter squash, onions, green beans. Green pepper and broccoli last a decent amount of time. Avoid fresh berries, asparagus, and summer squash - they rot the fastest. Unless you plan on eating them right away.

ZC writes:

"Even though it is cheaper to home-cook a meal"

Your time isn't worth very much, is it Hazel?

Hazel Meade writes:

@ZC, that depends on if I was planning to work an extra hour instead, doesn't it? (And if I was getting paid overtime for that hour)

zc writes:


Nope, couldn't care less if you have the opportunity to work extra or not. Presumably leisure time is with something to you, as well. Sure, preparing a great meal can be a leisure pursuit for some, but for most, it's not...and the associated clean up is unlikely to be an enjoyable use of rune for many people. A poster above goes into much greater detail on the full costs associated with cooking at home.

My point stands, your assertion that cooking at home is cheaper is not quite the fact you made it out to be. Tens of millions of establishments worldwide are evidence of the consumer surplus many derive from having others prepare their meals.

Hazel Meade writes:

For some people it's obviously cheaper, but if you aren't going to make any money in your free time (which is the case for most people), you can at least save some by cooking for yourself.
Many people will sacrifice leisure time in favor of doing something that will save themselves money. (See DIY auto repair, ironing your own clothes, cleaning your own house, and mowing your own lawn.)

Floccina writes:

Balancing a checkbook, accounting and bookkeeping. What to debit and credit to which accounts.

Vangel writes:

I am guessing "thinking" is going to continue to decline rapidly.

I love optimists; do you really think that it can go much lower? Turn on the TV and look at the political shows on CNN, CNBC, Fox, CBC, ABC, etc. Read the Science section of your local paper and read about the consensus on AGW or go to Nature and Science and read the papers that they publish on the topic. Read the commentaries in WSJ of FT and see how their authors turn the writing process and logic into pretzels trying to spin a particular narrative that even my 15-year-old can see is false. See clips of Powell sell the idea that Saddam has WMDs to the UN and the American public. Watch any speech by Lindsay Graham on Libya, Syria, or Iran. Watch any Obama speech on health care.

We are swimming in a sea of ignorance and live in a world where rationality is punished and groupthink is rewarded. That said, I love your optimism.

Ishita writes:

Reading, reading comprehension, and writing. Already, I see a sharp decline in these skills among an increasing number of high school grads, and even those with undergrad diplomas.

Dan King writes:


Why do high school kids still need to learn how to factor quadratic equations? That's what we have computers for.

Mark Bahner writes:


This is a post I made on my blog in February. Of the top 15 jobs in the U.S. (in terms of number of workers) I figure at least 13 of them are vulnerable to AI over the next 2-3 decades. Take cashiers, for example. I figure all brick-and-mortar retail is extremely vulnerable to online-buying, especially after computer-driven delivery vehicles become common...which I think will occur in the next 10-20 years.

Jobs vulnerable to AI

Granite26 writes:

I still bring a notebook everywhere I go because of the memory effects of writing stuff down. Also, technical diagrams and doodling, but hey

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