Imagine trying to describe to your grandparents what a Java programmer does. Or how important social media listening is to a business. Or how the Bitcoin system operates – actually, this last one still leaves most minds reeling. The point is that today’s technologies have thrown up a new set of skills – and therefore jobs – that would fox earlier generations. What follows is both crystal ball gazing and a little educated prediction as to what the future might hold for tomorrow’s workforce.
One of the defining trends in the last 30 years has been the decline of manufacturing and industry, and the accompanying rise of the service sector. IT and related digital skills have gone from a minor add-on to something integral to nearly all jobs. There’s also been a fundamental change in the workplace – where once people had jobs for life, you’re now more likely to work for several companies throughout your career.
For today’s children and teenagers, many of the new careers they could choose to follow will be with very small, new companies that perhaps don’t yet exist. It’s easy to forget that Google is only 16 years old, Facebook is 11 years old, and Pinterest just five years old.
Two of the most recent game changers in work took most people by surprise. Between 1993 and 2009, just eight tablet-type devices had been launched – all had failed. Then in 2009, the iPad was born. Today, in jobs as varied as meter reading and medicine, it has all but replaced the laptop. Smartphones have similarly transformed work; nearly all of us now carry a computer far more powerful than a laptop in our pockets. And yet, when the iPhone was first launched, it was seen principally as a leisure device for wealthy consumers.
The idea of a world with small armies of robot shelf-stackers has long been popular with science fiction writers. There are few real signs of it happening so far – technology has created jobs to replace those that it has destroyed – but such a futuristic era may just be dawning.
Some of the huge new tech companies don’t create many jobs – Facebook may be worth $200bn, but it only employs about 9,000 people. Economist Tyler Cowen says: “One day soon, we'll look back and see that we have produced two nations – a fantastically successful nation working in a technologically dynamic sector, and everything else.”
Crystal ball gazing is a lot of fun, but we still need to prepare for the future as best we can. For the UK, this means a laser-like focus on skills, training, and education. As the de-industrialisation of the 80s taught us, if you compete on cheap labour, you simply engage in a global race to the bottom.
The skill of coding and programming is becoming increasingly desirable; it has many uses from web development to software and video game design. Similarly, many are eager to see STEM (Science, Technology, Engineers, Maths) subjects being encouraged. People trained in these areas are crucial to our future success – the high tech clusters around Cambridge and the close relationship between Silicon Valley and Stanford University are crucibles where our economic and technological future is being forged.
Let’s not forget about the creative industries such as advertising, fashion and design, and film and TV. According to the Government, they grew by 10% in 2012 and account for 5.6% of all British jobs. They’re an area where Britain has a clear international lead – creating products for which there is a high global demand.
Of course, even if we do everything right, we may still get it wrong. In the early ‘90s, many believed biotech was going to be the next big thing. In fact, the internet stole that accolade. The future, even a few years out, is impossible to predict. As Dave Evans, chief futurist at Cisco says: “The top 10 jobs in the next six years don’t yet exist...we’re training kids for jobs that don’t yet exist, using tools that may not yet exist.”
All we can do is prepare as best we can based on what we know today, while asking the big question – is my career future-proofed?
Around the web
Could your job be computerised
How technology has disrupted the workplace
The future of work, jobs and skills – UK CES report
Want to know if your job could be done by a robot? Take this quiz by Nesta.
Your job and how technology will change it by Richard Lieberman