I recently finished reading a book by the prominent New York Times columnist Tom Friedman entitled That Used to Be Us (co-authored by Michael Mendelbaum) which prescribes solutions to the major issues facing our country, including infrastructure deterioration, environmental / climate degradation, underfunding research and development, and overregulation. A fifth issue that gets quite a bit of attention in the book is America’s slippage in educational achievement of its students relative to many other countries in the world. This, the author says, is a very dangerous development in a world of increasingly complex and sophisticated on-the-job challenges. The book quotes a February 17, 2011 Wall Street Journal article:

“Forgot blue-collar and white-collar. There are two types of workers in our economy: creators and servers. Creators are the ones driving productivity – writing code, designing chips, creating drugs, running search engines.* Servers, on the other hand, service these creators (and other servers) by building homes, providing food, offering legal advice, and working at the Department of Motor Vehicles. Many servers will be replaced by machines, by computers, and by changes in how business operates.”

The authors then go on to describe a more refined projection of the very large future challenges facing job holders and seekers:

“(There are / will be ) four types of jobs (in descending order of compensation, status, job prospects, and job safety). The first are “creative creators,” people who do their nonroutine work in a distinctively nonroutine way – the best lawyers, the best accountants, the best doctors, the best entertainers, the best writers, the best professors, and the best scientists. Second are “routine creators,” who do their nonroutine work in a routine way – average lawyers, average accountants, average radiologists, average professors, and average scientists. The third are what we would call “creative servers,” nonroutine low-skilled workers who do their jobs in inspired ways, whether it is the baker who comes up with a special cake recipe and design or the nurse with exceptional bedside skills in a nursing home or the wine steward who dazzles you with his expertise on Australian Cabernet. And the fourth are “routine servers,” who do routine serving work in a routine way, offering nothing extra.

Attention: Just because you are doing a “nonroutine” job – as, say, a doctor, lawyer, journalist, accountant, teacher, or professor – doesn’t mean that you are safe. If you do a nonroutine high-skilled job in a routine way – if you are what we would call a “routine creator” – you will be vulnerable to outsourcing, automation, or digitization, or you will be the first to be fired in an economic squeeze. And just because you are a server, doing some face-to-face job, doesn’t mean you are safe. You, too, will be vulnerable to outsourcing, automation, foreign labor digitalization – or you will be the first to be fired in an economic squeeze.

Into which of the above four categories do you currently fall? No matter which, you should be rigorously examining how you can contribute in nonroutine ways, and, looking forward, what skills you can acquire that will help you make those kinds of contributions. Obviously this could include additional education and training, facilitating a shift from a routine to a nonroutine job. Less obviously, it’s a very good idea to sit yourself down and ask yourself if you’re making nonroutine contributions. If not, what are some possibilities that might enable you to do so.

Now, it is true that some people are simply more creative than others. There are numerous factors contributing to one’s creativity: curiosity, imagination, flexibility, perseverance, motivation and attitude being primary among them. The good news is that each of these factors can be improved by focusing on them and bringing to bear the intention to work on strengthening them. A clear example: cultivate the ability to look at issues from multiple angles. If you’re a liberal Democrat try to see the valid points made by the Tea Party. If you’re a Catholic or a Jew try to learn more about Buddhism or Islam.

Even if you’re confident about the value you bring, but especially if you’re not, take the time to consider your job and your career from the perspective outlined above. Increasing your value by making more nonroutine contributions is the surest way to protect your future job security.