To Keep Your Job, Learn Something New.

It’s become conventional wisdom that many of today’s workers will see their jobs replaced or transformed by ever-smarter machines. Who needs bus drivers and truckers when self-driving vehicles take over the road —and what happens to the thousands of body-shop workers who won’t be needed to repair dents when the sensors in these new vehicles head off fender benders?

A recent paper from Oxford University suggested that 47% of U.S. jobs are at high risk of being computerized in the next few decades, with potentially frightening consequences for workers.

Such concerns have raised urgent questions about the skills individuals need to survive in the workforce of the future. Not only is technology displacing workers, as it has in every economic transformation, but it is changing so rapidly that workers and employers are finding themselves unable to keep up, a situation that creates the paradox of a skills gap amid high unemployment.

“The Industrial Revolution required a major reskilling and upskilling, and so does the digital revolution,” said Charles Fadel, co-author of “21st-Century Skills” and founder of the Center for Curriculum Redesign an organization devoted to understanding the requirements of the labor market. He was speaking at a gathering last week of economists, business representatives and workforce experts from North America and Europe that addressed the impact of technology on the labor market. The event was organized by the European Commission in concert with the Conference Board and Cornell University.

But more of the responsibility for that reskilling is shifting from governments and employers to workers. The reasons for this change are complex and varied, participants noted: governments—and the education systems they design and oversee—aren’t very good at keeping up with the rapid pace of skill evolution; companies seem to be spending less money on training because they don’t expect employees to stick around long enough to get a return on the investment; and high unemployment transfers pressure to individual workers to keep their knowledge fresh.

Some countries are trying to be proactive. This year, the United Kingdom will require schoolchildren to learn software coding from the time they enter primary school at age 5 until at least age 16—becoming possibly the first country to mandate such courses.

In most places, it is up to workers to continually master new technologies. And not every person has the ambition, time or flexibility to do so. As Fabio Rosati, the chief executive of online freelance marketplace, told The Wall Street Journal a few months ago, the skills that are in highest demand by employers are turning over every two to three years now.

“One reason people don’t want to study ICT [information and computer technology] is because the skills change so quickly. They don’t want to have to keep updating their skills,” said Lucilla Sioli of the European Commission’s digital-technology initiative, called DG Connect. This is not laziness, she underscored—simply a concern that the pace of innovation creates enormous pressure for workers in these fields.

It remains unknown, too, what psychological and emotional toll this skills turnover and insecurity takes on workers who fear they’re constantly falling behind.

“We’re seeing rapid depreciation for IT skills,” said Sonny Tambe, professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business and an expert on the high-tech workforce. “So what happens to engineers over 40? You go to Silicon Valley [and ask that question] and you can see the panic in some people’s eyes.” (That won’t surprise the folks featured in this story about ageism in the high-tech world.)

Market forces, theoretically, should clear up this problem, as they have in past economic transitions, when competition propelled wages for sought-after workers higher and workers adjusted their skills to meet demand. That is happening today, but the process is slow and uneven, especially because the slack labor market is helping employers put off concerted, large-scale investments in training.

And companies themselves may be obstructing the naturally equilibrium-seeking labor market. The so-called skills gap has been manufactured by employers who simply don’t want to raise wages enough to nudge the skills of workers into equilibrium with demand, suggested an investment banker. “Companies that say ‘I can’t find the workers I need’ are leaving out the rest of that sentence. What they mean is, ‘I can’t find the workers I need at the price I want to pay.’”

The New Science of Email Subject Lines.

In the cutthroat world of corporate email, where attention spans are measured in fractions of a second, a well-crafted subject line can make all the difference. Just don’t try too hard.

Dan Moskovitz, a rabbi based in Vancouver, used simple flattery to grab the notice of Amazon Inc. chief Jeff Bezos with the subject line, “Thank You! You’re Awesome.” Though the note was unsolicited and of relatively small concern to Bezos—some praise for a little-heralded Kindle feature—Rabbi Moskowitz received a personal reply, according to a recent account of their correspondence in Marketwatch.

Second-person subject lines often do the trick, especially for busy and high-profile recipients, and they need not be complicated.

“I always find the content line YOU makes people open up fast,” says Tina Brown, the former magazine editor and founder of next month’s Women in the World Summit, for which she wrangled notables like IMF chief Christine Lagarde, former President Jimmy Carter and actress Meryl Streep.

“Nothing is more fascinating to people than themselves,” Brown added in an email sent via a spokesperson. (Subject line: “from Tina.”)

But appeals to ego only get you so far. The next-best advice for subject lines, according to people who regularly snag VIP replies, is to be as plain-spoken as possible. When everyone worth talking to is dealing with a daily torrent of messages, clarity trumps cleverness.

“What you’re trying to do is stop the scroll,” says Anne Lewis, the CEO of digital marketing agency Anne Lewis Strategies, who has worked on campaigns for Hillary Clinton, the National MS Society and others. “Odds are very good that whoever’s looking is looking on a mobile device, just scrolling through, much like a Facebook feed.”

Years ago, a successful subject line was “clever, oblique, evocative,” says Lewis, citing a 2007 email from Clinton’s presidential campaign that simply read, “Let’s do Lunch.” The message, which registered an open rate 25% higher than the campaign average, announced a lottery in which supporters could win a chance to eat with the then-senator at her DC home. It raised $600,000 in the 72 hours after it was sent out, according to a campaign spokesman at the time.

But time is more precious now, and so subject lines must explicitly spell out why the recipient should open the email. In her own inbox, the subjects that best grab Lewis’s attention are the least complicated: “I need you to review this now,” for example, or “I need your feedback.”

Choire Sicha, a co-founder of the website The Awl and a former editor at Gawker and the New York Observer, says he has already begun to treat his inbox like a Twitter stream: catch what you can.

Subject lines styled as coy headlines—”Will the ACA spur most employers to drop health coverage?”—can be easy to ignore, Sicha says.

“‘Do I need to click that? Mmm, maybe later.’ Oh it’s gone, scrolling down the page, oh well,” Sicha wrote in an email, describing his inbox maintenance routine. (Subject line: “re: for WSJ: email subject lines”.)

For his own outgoing emails, Sicha says he often keeps his subjects short and direct: “Reporter request.”

Entrepreneur Rob Biederman took a similar tack in July, when he sent an unsolicited email to Texas billionaire Mark Cuban seeking an investment in HourlyNerd, a business Biederman founded that connects M.B.A.s with small companies for freelance assignments.

Biederman found Cuban’s email address on the investor’s website and tapped out a note on his iPhone. The subject line was unambiguous — “HourlyNerd – Investment Opportunity”. Cuban responded within 15 minutes, Biederman recalls, and the two immediately outlined out a financing agreement similar to the one that was sealed in writing a few months later.

The subject field was “not the catchiest,” Biederman says, “but I just wanted to quickly communicate the name of the company and why I was emailing.”

The typical corporate email user sends and receives about 105 emails per day, according to a 2011 study by California-based researchers at The Radicati Group, a number that is growing by double-digit percentages each year.

“Anything that even hints of spam gets thrown away immediately,” reads an online guide to subject lines by the staff of MailChimp, the maker of an email newsletter tool. Based on research culled from 200 million emails with open rates ranging from 93% to .5%, the company recommends subjects lines that are “pretty straightforward…Heck, some people might even say they’re boring.”

MailChimp found that somewhat banal-sounding subject lines like “Preliminary Floor Plans for Southern Village Neighborhood Circle Members” and “Idlewild Camp – Important Travel Information” were opened by more than 90% of recipients, who likely knew exactly what they were going to get upon reading. On the other hand, more ostentatious subjects such as “Tempting August NUSA Specials!” were opened by less than one percent of recipients. (Names were changed in each example.)

But accuracy doesn’t have to come at the expense of liveliness. Michael Musto, a journalist and gossip columnist formerly of the Village Voice, says he typically doesn’t use a subject line at all. “If they’re going to read it, they’ll read it,” he says.

But when he does fill in the field, he tries to make it exciting. Recent examples: “Job opportunity for you!” and “Great new Miley dish!”

The Hidden Pleasures of Busywork.

Rote tasks—mindless at-work activities such as surfing the Web or deleting the inbox—may sound a bit mind-numbing. But new research has found that people are actually happiest on the job doing unchallenging assignments.

The study, led by Gloria Mark at the University of California, Irvine along with colleagues at Microsoft Research, examined how employees’ mood and attention change when performing various activities at work, such as responding to email or checking FacebookFB +0.17%.

“With rote work, you get a feeling of accomplishment, but you haven’t exerted a lot of mental activity,” says Dr. Mark. “It gives you a feeling of fulfillment, but there’s not frustration or stress.”

The researchers’ findings provide a picture of how boredom and focus change throughout the day—and what digital tasks make workers happiest.

Focus, they found, peaks in the mid-afternoon from 2 to 3 p.m. and also rises in late morning, around 11 a.m., after workers have time to gear up. (After 3, however, workplace focus drops precipitously.) Meanwhile, people are most bored early in the afternoon, soon after lunch—and not surprisingly, on Mondays.

“It takes time to ramp up and get into a focused and productive state,” says Dr. Mark. “You don’t hit the ground running.”

Although the sample was small—just 32 Microsoft workers in a wide range of job titles—the researchers studied them intensely, collecting more than 1,500 hours of observational data and 91,000 data points about mood and attention. Participants were regularly prompted by pop-up questionnaires on their work screens day asking them to report how engaged and challenged they were by the task they were doing at that moment.

Workers may say they want a challenge, but the researchers found that employees were actually less happy doing work they rated as difficult, involving a lot of attention and engagement, such as reading and responding to emails.

“Focus involves a kind of stress and people aren’t generally happy when they are stressed,” says Dr. Mark. By contrast, “rote work is effortless, so you can get gratification for getting things done.”

Another mood booster? Facebook. The researchers found that occasionally “grazing” the social network seemed to provide a refreshing break for workers, boosting their happiness. Unlike responding to email or chit-chatting with colleagues, making a quick trip to Facebook doesn’t require much focus or stress, Dr. Mark says.

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