Three Critical “Future of Work” Forecasts for the 2020s

January 24, 2020 by BPIR.com Limited

Article originally posted on Innovation Resource Consulting Group by Robert B. Tucker

Each year I interview hundreds of organizational leaders and individual contributors on their most pressing business challenges. Through surveys and one-on-one interviews, I probe people’s outlook on the future. I zero in on their most critical personal and professional challenges.

In recent years, workplace issues have dominated these surveys. In short: the future is arriving faster than ever, catching employers and employees unprepared. Some examples:

  • A furniture manufacturer in North Carolina complained to me that his company is hamstrung by a lack of qualified workers to fill orders for his custom-made products. Almost daily, he sees his experienced, Boomer-age employees calling it quits, and taking their years of experience and hands-on skills with them.
  • A community college president in Iowa described to me the impact of declining enrollments as workers take advantage of the booming economy in his area.
  • A Silicon Valley human resources manager expressed frustrated that tighter regulatory visa restrictions are making it difficult to attract enough talented engineers.
  • A college textbook executive in Boston is trying to find his footing after being displaced by an industry upheaval that decimated his former employers’ business model.

As a futurist and innovation speaker, I work across industries, and often, across continents. This gives a first-hand perspective on workforce threats and opportunities. As much change as has taken place in the prior decade, I don’t believe we have grasped the extent of the changes ahead in the 2020s. Organizations and their leaders will rise or fall, prosper or be blindsided, based on their ability and willingness to anticipate and creatively respond to rapid change. I encourage my clients to “assault assumptions” and blow up the traditional human resource department’s short-sightedness and instead look, think and act ahead of the curve.

The three forecasts below have to do with how the workplace is changing at the dawn of the new decade. They revolve around how the world of work will evolve. Take time to ponder these predictions and then prepare to take action on tomorrow’s trends today.

Forecast #1. Job Category churn will accelerate, creating sunrise and sunset occupations.

A hundred years ago, buggy whip makers got wiped out by the horseless carriage. In recent years, occupational categories such as travel agent, coal miner, meter reader, locomotive firer, and many others saw contraction (sunsetting), while other categories (sunrise occupations) boomed, creating millions of new jobs.

The fastest-growing category in the United States, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, is solar panel installer, followed closely by wind turbine technician. LinkedIn research suggests that categories such as data scientists, physician assistants, nurses, marketing and customer success managers, enterprise account executives, home health workers, and information security analysts have added and will need workers and often can’t find sufficient numbers to hire. They will continue to explode in demand and pay above average wages.

In 2005, more than 1,200 people applied for home appraiser traineeships. In 2016 only about 100 did, Reason: enabling technology — in this case, artificial intelligence — is sunsetting this profession at a rapid pace. Lenders such as Fannie Mae, Zillow and others are allowing certain loans to be approved without an appraisal by a human being. If present trends continue (always a caveat), the occupation of home appraiser may go the way of the buggy whip maker over the next decade.

Action steps: Feel the “churn” in your own industry and line of work, then “futurize” your thinking, and plan accordingly. Whether you’re just starting out or are well along in your career, successful navigation in the 2020s involves more than just following your passion or going with the flow. Choose proactively and wisely based on sunrise/sunset projections. Mentor others. If someone you know is thinking of paying $5000 to become certified as a home appraiser, help them out. Suggest they first consult LinkedIn’s lists of fastest growing (and fastest disappearing) occupations. Avoid occupations with no future or plan to reinvent them as booming luxury travel broker Virtuoso has done. Even if you’re well into your career, pay attention to future forecasts in your profession and industry.

Forecast #2. Lifelong learning, up-skilling and re-skilling will no longer be optional activities. They will be vitally necessary habits for sustained career success.

The median age of workers at Facebook, LinkedIn, SpaceX and other tech companies is 29. The hiring rate slows markedly at 34. Generation Z’s recent arrival in the workplace is jolting Millennials into realizing that they are no longer the new kids on the block, and irrelevance happens faster today than ever before. The solution? Constant up-skilling (expanding your capabilities) and re-skilling (learning new skills) so you can do a different job or keep on doing your current job once routine parts of it have been automated by software.

Don’t expect your current employer to do this for you. A relatively few firms are as forward-looking as AT&T in this regard. Each year, AT&T’s CEO shares where the company is going, and gives insight into what skills will be needed to remain employed in the foreseeable future. AT&T then partners with Udacity to create “nano-degree” courses which help employees develop needed emerging skills, for which the company is willing to pay for. The only caveat: employees must take these courses on their own time.

Action steps: To thrive in this new world of work, think of yourself as You, Incorporated. Today You, Inc. is selling services to your current employer. But what about your next move or even your next career? Avoid putting all your eggs in one basket, explore other careers, keep; your resume current, volunteer for new projects and stretch assignments, especially those which develop your “soft” skills and innovation skills. Be willing to relocate for new opportunities. Take risks that pull you out of your comfort zone.

Forecast #3. Automation will accelerate job displacement, but “augmentation” rather than joblessness will be the norm.

According to research, currently available technology, if fully implemented, could automate almost half of the activities people are paid to perform today. And “currently existing technology” is advancing at the rate of Moore’s Law, which predicts a doubling of capacity every 18 to 24 months.

In 2017, McKinsey ‘s research brought ominous headlines with a report that indicated 73 million people were in danger of losing their jobs through automation. But then a funny thing happened. The unemployment rate in the United States plummeted to a 50-year low, and employers and employees alike now wonder: if automation is going to wreak such havoc, wouldn’t its effects already be starting to show up in unemployment rolls? Instead of massive displacement, there will most likely be continuing and constant displacement of workers as automation becomes a driving force in both the service sector and manufacturing. The new trend, however, is augmentation – technologically enhancing the worker’s unique skills to create a greater whole.

Action steps: Look at how automation is impacting and will likely impact the work that you do, the profession you are in, and the company you lead. Ask: where are present trends headed for your profession? How will you need to add value differently in the coming years?

In the past decade, job category churn has accelerated to the point where front-line workers, professionals, and employers alike must “think ahead of the curve” or face unpleasant surprises. But those who anticipate and plan for change can create their own reality, and ride the waves of change.


Robert B. Tucker is a renowned global futurist and innovation keynote speaker with a client list that includes over 200 of the Fortune 500 companies. Founder and president of Innovation Resource Consulting Group, Tucker is an internationally recognized pioneer in the field of strategic foresight and innovation. For more information, please see: www.innovationresource.com

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