The Future of the Professions by Richard and Daniel Susskind

The Future of the Professions, published in 2015, is a ground-breaking book that challenges the future relevance of the “professions” as we have known them. Technology and usage are transforming the way all professionals work and urging us to rethink the very notion of “expertise”. The book highlights the role of artificial intelligence and platforms. It sketches the new systems likely to replace the old professions and it provides a fascinating overview of the changes that have already occurred and those yet to come. 

In our day and age, machines can outperform human beings in more tasks than ever before. So what will work look like for doctors, accountants, teachers, architects, consultants, lawyers, etc. in the 21st century?

Most of today’s “professions” have historically been shaped by a “grand bargain”, an arrangement between society and the professionals that grants them some form of monopoly and various protections in exchange for security and quality of service (in health, law, or education, for example). Today that grand bargain is being challenged like never before. The authors of The Future of the Professions believe that the arrangement that benefits our professions is now antiquated—the professions are opaque and no longer affordable—and we need to draw a new bargain so that more people can enjoy quality services.

Professor Richard Susskind is a British lawyer and future of work expert who’s already published several books about the transformations of the lawyering profession. An authority on AI and law, he is also IT Adviser to the Lord Chief Justice of England. Daniel Susskind, his son, is a Lecturer in Economics at Balliol College, Oxford, who used to work for the British Government (in the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit). Together they conducted an in-depth research of more than ten professions, illustrated by numerous examples from each. 

It’s become a common trope among HR-focused experts to speak about the “threat of AI” and the “transformations of work”. But more often than not, the same experts wrongly assume that more qualified positions will be left intact. Richard and Daniel Susskind set them right: the professions associated with prestigious diplomas and regulatory protections are on the brink of a revolution of their own! For HR professionals, the changes to come described in the book will have a profound impact. Not only will they hire or work with different people in different ways, but their own profession will not be left intact. The Future of the Professions offers a must-read analysis of what their future might look like.  

“Increasingly capable machines, operating on their own or with non-specialist users, will take on many of the tasks that have been the historic preserve of the professions.” “This will lead eventually to a dismantling of the traditional professions”. 

“We are on the brink of a period of fundamental and irreversible change in the way that the expertise of these specialists is made available in society”. “More people signed up for Harvard’s online courses in a single year than have attended the actual university in its 377 years of existence”. - Richard and Daniel Susskind in The Future of the Professions.

How the “grand bargain” between the professions and the public came to be

The word “profession” can be somewhat ambiguous. The authors define them as follows: the professions “share four overlapping similarities”:

  • They have specialist knowledge;
  • Their admission depends on credentials;
  • Their activities are regulated;
  • They are bound by a common set of values.

The activities of the professions are regulated in broad ways: most professions are granted some kind of exclusivity over some of their activities, which is usually justified by the protection if gives the public: for example, only doctors are allowed to prescribe certain medicines. In many ways, the medieval guilds and their protections can be said to be the forebears of our modern professions. Society has entitled certain professionals, to the exclusion of others, to provide certain services to the public, with the aim to protect the public against charlatans.

“In acknowledgement of and return for their expertise, experience, and judgement, which they are expected to apply in delivering affordable, accessible, up-to-date, reassuring, and reliable services, and on the understanding that they will curate and update their knowledge and methods, train their members, set and enforce standards for the quality of their work, and they will only admit appropriately qualified individuals into their ranks, and that they will always act honestly, in good faith, putting the interests of clients ahead of their own, we (society) place our trust in the professions in granting them a fair wage, by conferring upon them independence, autonomy, rights of self-determination and by according them respect and status”.

Why the “grand bargain” is now antiquated 

According to the authors the terms of that bargain ought now to be either revised, or in certain cases perhaps terminated, because the professions are “failing” economically and morally: they “underperform” and too few people have access to professional services (legal, health care, education…). 

“In most developed economies health service costs are spiralling, schools are lamentably under-resourced, and middle-of-the-road lawyers are beyond the pockets even of other middle-class professionals.

Meanwhile technology can make at least some of these services more affordable and more accessible. And “expertise” is more widely accessible to a larger number of people. When you break down the professional work into basic tasks, you will see that a lot of the tasks are in fact routine and repetitive and can easily be automated. Some of the protections granted in the old “bargain” are now justified only for the protection of the profession itself, not that of the public. 

“Our professions, as presently organized, often discourage self-help, self-discovery, and self-reliance”.

The example of health care 

To illustrate the idea of the bargain and its possible revision, there is no better example than the medical field. Few professions are more necessary to the public that those associated to health care. And the terms of the bargain seem clear: we give doctors the monopoly of prescriptions and surgical operations because it is a matter of life and death! Nobody wants any quack to be authorised to operate on them or any charlatan to be allowed to sell them fake medicine. If there is one bargain everyone understands, it is this one.

Yet medicine was already transformed profoundly by several trends: patients have access to far more health information and/or know more about themselves (“quantified self”), new internet platforms provide extensive guidance on symptoms and treatments, AI systems (like Watson) are more “knowledgeable” than any single doctor can ever hope to be, robotics has transformed surgery, etc. Meanwhile hundreds of millions (a few billions, in fact) have little or no access to health professionals. Even in developed countries like the USA, millions of individuals can’t afford to see a doctor and risk bankruptcy in case of serious injury or disease.

In that field there are many ways the bargain is now being revised: for example, in places with too few doctors, the practice of telemedicine and techniques like “remote diagnosis” can be a solution. For some medical acts, the monopoly that doctors have is a bottleneck that hurts many patients. In some cases a certified nurse assisted by artificial intelligence should be allowed to perform more acts and thus many more people could be treated. The authors argue that by revising the bargain (which absolutely does not mean eliminating all regulation!) health care could be made more efficient and widespread.

What it means for HR professionals

As management guru Peter Drucker used to say, “the only thing we know about the future is that it will be different”.

However, there actually are some ways for HR managers to make predictions relevant to their fields. First they must pay close attention to the developments in information technology: exponential growth in IT, increasingly capable machines, increasingly pervasive devices, increasingly connected humans. Simply following technology gives some idea of what tomorrow will be like. Secondly, they ought to understand the power of networks. Thirdly they can figure the potential of big data in their field.  

It is critical to understand that IT, networks and big data have made a new intelligence possible that is nothing like human intelligence, but no less powerful. Big data won’t “automate” practices in a human way but instead reuse huge bodies of past human experience. “There are lots of ways of being smart that aren’t smart like us”.  

No profession should be protected for the sake of it. What ultimately matters is the “mission” of “purpose” for which it was originally created. With that in mind every profession will be transformed.


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Writing: Laëticia Vitaud

Illustration: Pablo Grand Mourcel

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