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The Future of Work

We’re facing big changes, scary at first, perhaps better in the long-run.

Dennis Hill, CC 2.0
Source: Dennis Hill, CC 2.0

At work, we tend to focus on what's right in front of us. But it may be helpful to also look forward, if not for yourself, for those you care about.

Here are my predictions on the future of work. Over the past two decades, publications periodically ask me to write such predictions because previous ones have been reasonably accurate. For example, for the last two years, TIME has had me do so. Here is the one it recently published.

There is more I want to say on the future of work so here's a more comprehensive set of predictions.

Passion will take a back seat to pragmatism. Gone are the days in which average applicants could count on finding good employment in a wide range of fields. That’s because of:

  • the ratcheted-up technical and reasoning skills required for many white-collar jobs,
  • increased government mandates on employers, most recently ObamaCare, which raise the cost of hiring employees,
  • a global talent pool,
  • technology. An Oxford University study projects that half of U.S. jobs will be lost just to automation.

That means that all but elite career-seekers may need to let passion take a back seat to pragmatism. That means focusing on fields in which good, full-time benefited jobs will be relatively plentiful. (See below.)

Fields likely to offer good jobs in quantity

  • Lower-level health care. With millions more Americans, disproportionately with high needs yet low ability to pay, to be served by our health care system, more care will be reallocated from doctors to physician assistants, RNs to LVNs, physical therapists to physical therapy assistants. So jobs in those lower-level but still reasonably remunerative fields should burgeon.
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy. Times seem to be getting only more stressful and poverty exacerbates that. With the hollowing-out of the middle class and the millions of poor people to be covered for mental health services under the Affordable Care Act, demand for therapists and counselors should increase, especially for cognitive-behavioral therapy, which is viewed as a quicker and thus cheaper way to get people sufficiently functional.
  • Immigration-related jobs. After the 2016 election, “comprehensive immigration reform” will return to the front burner. That will likely create many jobs: bureaucrats to process the immigrants, teachers to prepare them for the citizenship exam, bilinguals in the health care and legal systems, etc.
  • The diversity industry. In part because of increased tensions regarding immigration, African-Americans, and Muslims, workplaces will increase their already significant efforts to improve relations among employees, customers, and vendors of different backgrounds.
  • Technosecurity. It is near-impossible to prevent lone-wolf attacks, for example, a suitcase nuke released by a suicide bomber driving a car on Wall Street or someone releasing a highly-communicable biovirus in the parking lot shuttle bus headed to an international airport terminal. So technosecurity work will prioritize development of low-cost sensors automatically linked to 911 that will respond instantly to dangerous substances in the air or water.
  • Entertainment experiences. Society seems to have decided that intellectual property—from music to videos to books---can be pirated without retribution. So companies and creative people who used to earn their living through such sales are turning to pirating-proof experiences. For example, musicians are devoting more effort to getting live gigs in nightclubs and festivals. Companies are not only mounting festivals and conventions but providing new experiences, for example, Escape Rooms, in which groups of people must solve puzzles to escape from a dungeon. Wineries such as Judd's Hill in Napa allow visitors to blend their own wine, and take home their creation.
  • Law enforcement. Even though such jobs are stable and well-paying, continuing media messaging about bad cops is reducing career-seekers' interest in law enforcement. So it may be easier than in years past to land such a job.
  • Virtualization. Technology will afford ever better learning tools, for example, 3D online “human bodies,” such as Maestro AR, that enables aspiring surgeons to practice surgeries with no risk to a patient. There will be holographic meetings at work and even personally—Imagine being out-of-town and instead of seeing your romantic partner on Skype, having an accurate 3D representation in your hotel room. (No it’s not quite the same as the real thing.)

Tech-plus will be the new standard for much good employment. Today, an outstanding technical person with poor business, language, or leadership skills can find good employment. But increasingly, easier availability of good technical workers worldwide will cause U.S. employers to give most good-paying, not-offshoreable jobs to people with technical skills plus good business or leadership skills.

Savvier hiring. A bad hire is costly to employers. And it's ever tougher for employers to tell a good job seeker from someone who's merely effective at applying. For example, weak job seekers may obfuscate what they'd really be like as an employee by using a professional resume writer and interview coach and even by claiming their friend is their boss when asked for a reference. So employers will be using ever more sophisticated screening methods, for example, online simulations of the job’s difficult tasks, using a fingerprint reader to help ensure integrity.

Earlier specialization. To help ensure desirability in our competitive job market, people will earlier choose careers and even specialties within careers. For example, in years past, a young adult might think, “I want to be a psychologist.” Increasingly, they’ll think, “I want to become an eating disorders specialist, so I’ll choose a college or graduate school with a specially good program in that. Plus, I’ll look for an internship in a clinic that specializes in eating disorders."

Education will become more careerist. Liberal arts graduates, even those from expensive, elite private colleges, earn disappointingly low income. That is pressuring schools and colleges to become more careerist.

For example, high schools will expand career academies, even for college-bound students, but especially for those whose previous academic performance suggests that college may not be the most likely path to sustainable income.

Colleges and graduate programs will expand their careerist programs, for example, nursing, marketing, software engineering, and clinical social work.

To lower college's exorbitant cost, which too often doesn't pay economically, especially for the 41% that never get their degree even if given six years, colleges will make more liberal use of coursera.org’s and edx.org’s free online courses offered by top professors.

Remote work will become the norm. There are many reasons:

  • Employers want to hire the best people anywhere, not just those nearby.
  • Employees in other countries are happy to work for far lower salaries than most Americans are.
  • It's ever easier to work with far-flung workers thanks to ever cheaper and more reliable video- and teleconferencing, improved intercultural training, and ever-improving real-time translation/interpretation software.
  • Ever more jobs’ work-product can be submitted electronically from anywhere in the world.
  • Employers save money by not needing to provide office space for remote employees.
  • Local employees who telecommute avoid the ever-growing commute time.

Dematerializing. The shortage of well-paying, stable jobs will require more people to dematerialize: to spend less, especially on The Big Item: housing. So, ever more people will live with roommates and/or with their parent(s.) That should create jobs remodeling homes to convert basements and attics into self-contained living spaces as well as building backyard cottages.

People will also need to find their pleasures in non-materialistic activities: relationships, low-cost sports such as basketball and hiking, and instead of going out for $12 drinks or $100 concert tickets, to invite people over an evening of conversation. People will gain additional pleasure from voluntarism. And if indeed, the middle class continues to hollow out, there will be ever more need for volunteers, both through formal organizations and informally with their neighbors.

Job-hour rationing. If only to prevent social unrest, at some point, the government will likely mandate a France-style restriction on the length of the workweek in well-paying jobs so more people can have decent-paying employment.

On average, the most capable people otherwise get the most work hours, so to avoid serious diminution of quality, there will be many exceptions: for example, cardiologist, supervising engineer for major projects, top leader, as well as any skilled, important position where there is a shortage of qualified workers.

For-profits will become more non-profity. Media-fueled antipathy to corporations is forcing companies to reallocate resources to non- and low-profit activities, for example, their foundation, which usually provides services to the poor. Jobs in corporate foundations, traditionally difficult to obtain, may get easier.

The Revolution

The linsufficient number of good, benefited jobs plus accelerated media indictments of corporations could spawn a socialist revolution. The popularity of explicitly socialist Bernie Sanders is telling. Not long ago, few people would imagine a socialist winning TIME's reader poll for Person of the Year. But Sanders won this year. And he’s trouncing the enormously well-funded Hillary Clinton in both New Hampshire and Iowa.

Sanders is only slightly more leftist than Hillary and so either one will move the country further leftward. Also, I predict the Democrats will gain seats in Congress. That will increase The People's hopes and thus cause further redistribution from society's Haves to its Have-Nots. I predict, however, that will be insufficient to stem the evisceration of the middle class And recent data show that despite literally trillions of dollars spent over a half century to try to close the achievement gap, it has proven quite impervious. As a result, much of the U.S. population will be vulnerable to rhetoric from the Left, which could well spawn a full-fledged socialist revolution, which will create more jobs but at a lower average wage net of taxes.

An optimistic vision

It seems inevitable that the number of stable, good-paying, quality jobs won't keep up with the population growth. In light of that, it’s easy to project a dystopian scenario: mass unemployment leading to mass destitution, armed robberies, and drug abuse to anesthetize the pain.

But it’s possible that the lack of well-paying jobs may be a net positive for society.

With fewer people stably earning a middle-class income, only companies that provide basic products and services will thrive. That will be good for the environment. For example, car manufacturing will shrink and sell mainly affordable, small, high-gas-mileage cars. And people will keep repairing their old vehicles rather than buy a new one. Even if government takes over the airlines, the cost of planes, fuel, maintenance, and personnel will discourage people from flying. Again, good for the environment.

Also, today’s materialistic society tempts people to cut ethical corners to make more money so they can buy more stuff: new car, nicer clothes and jewelry, fancier vacations, live in 3,000 fancy square feet rather than 1,000 serviceable ones. In an economy in which fewer people are working let alone earning big bucks, materialism would be less core to societal values, reducing those pressures to be unethical.

Plus, with people having more time, more people will replace gratification from stuff with gratification from learning, creative arts, and in relationships, from mentorship to family to involvement in pro-social organizations. That almost certainly will result in better quality of life for individuals and for society.

Certainly, we are headed to interesting times.

Here are this series' other articles:

The Future of Relationships.

The Future of Education.

The Future of Clinical Psychology

Marty Nemko’s bio is in Wikipedia. His new book, his 8th, is The Best of Marty Nemko.

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