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Why do some futurists like to create cute or quirky future occupations? Robert Hickson Feb 07

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Futurist Thomas Frey recently blogged about a talk he gave at a TEDx event — claiming 2 billion jobs will disappear by 2030. He notes his purpose wasn’t to make the future seem bleak, but to highlight how technologies are changing the nature of work.

He looks at five ‘industries’ to illustrate the types of jobs that may be lost and the types of new ones that may be created. The five are energy, transportation, education, 3D Printers, and robots. The latter two aren’t, of course, industries. Thomas suggests that robots will replace fishermen and farmers, while new vocations in fashion designers for robots will emerge.

There is value in highlighting the changing nature of work, but these top of the head speculations irritate me. The 2 billion figure is a wild guess, and calling 3D printing an industry is just sloppy.

Sure, most economies are increasingly reliant on technologies (and robots are replacing humans in a range of roles), but it is hard to predict how they will really affect the types of jobs in the future. Imagining cute- or silly-sounding new jobs doesn’t help.

Another set of future job titles was created for the UK’s short-lived Science: So What? So everything campaign a few year ago. New careers proposed included body part makers and nano-medics. The quality of this ‘Shape of jobs to come’ report was quickly criticised. That’s part of the slippery slope of futurism – succumbing to the dark side of prediction, rather than the staying with more knightly analytical and questioning quests.

McKinsey have done a more detailed analysis of the future of work in the US in their 2011 report ‘An economy that works: job creation and America’s future [PDF, 2.1 MB]. The Economist also looked at the future of work. What seems likely is that the current trends for rapid growth in IT-related jobs and work requiring complex knowledge will continue. The exact nature of future jobs and work though are unclear. No one predicted the diversity of IT-related jobs that we now see.

Still, scientists, engineers, teachers, health-care practitioners, lawyers, builders, etc seem likely to be vocations 20 or 30 years from now. As the McKinsey and  Economist reports discuss, the more pressing concern is how much of the potential workforce will be gainfully and productively employed, not what your job title is.

Are ‘green’ or clean tech jobs the way of the future? The Green Party [PDF]  (and others) are keen on them. But the label gives the impression that the jobs will all be cool, interesting, and well paid. On the contrary, many seem likely to be mundane and poorly paid (like installing home insulation), or simply build on existing trades such as plumbers and electricians.

As I noted in a previous post, we need to plan and prepare for a broader scope of productive and attractive occupations. This including changing the way we educate and train our students and the existing work force so they (and we) are better prepared for new or more varied types of work. Just making up new future job titles isn’t enough.

Turbulent Transitions Robert Hickson Oct 17

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If you are keeping up with your futures’ reading then you’ll know about the plethora of trends and drivers that are shaping, or could shape, our future — continuing globalization, population growth or stagnation (depending where you live), multilateralism, paying down debt, urbanisation, aging western populations, obesity, rising economic inequalities, energy crises, climate change, technological convergences, economic growth across Asia, open innovation, and the rising costs of health care, to name a few.

Thomas Friedman provides a précis of two books that highlight potential threats and opportunities from the combination of some of these trends. To hear more about one of these books, listen to Paul Gilding talk about the ‘Great disruption’ on Radio New Zealand National.

Four particularly significant transitions occurring at the moment revolve broadly around energy, economics, employment, and geopolitics (they are inter-related to varying degrees).

 

 Energy Transition

In a previous post I touched on the transition from fossil fuels to a lower carbon economy.  See also this critique of the techno-optimism of some in the oil industry. Some countries and large corporations are already planning how to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels for economic rather than environmental reasons.  

 

Economic Transition

Following the global financial crisis (the 2008 one) there was much speculation about whether that model of capitalism was at an end. Despite on-going protests it hasn’t expired yet.  But significant economic upheaval is looking more likely and may lead to a new economic paradigm. Various prescriptions of what a new capitalist system could or should look like have been prepared by Leadbeater, Haque,  and others.

  

Employment & Education Transition

As the Economist noted recently in a special report on the Future of jobs, globalisation and technology are changing the shape of the labour market and the types of work. There is an emerging divide between well paid interesting jobs and commoditised low skilled jobs. Lynda Gratton has written about the need for serial mastery — where most workers having to acquire new skills every few years.

This will require a new approach to education and training. Ken Robinson and Charles Leadbeater  have pointed out that the current educational system in the west was designed in the industrial era to largely create workers for factories.

 ”The tragedy is that meeting the many social, economic, spiritual and environmental challenges we now face depends absolutely on the very capacities of insight, creativity and innovation that these systems are systematically suppressing in yet another generation of young people.”  Ken Robinson

India is experimenting with industries having a more active and driving role in educating its future work force. This may be picked up elsewhere, but are firms currently any better at identifying what skills and knowledge they will need in the future than traditional education and training organizations?

 

Geopolitical Transition

If China, India and other Asian nations continue to develop (not necessarily smoothly) then greater geopolitical tensions seem likely, particularly in the South China Sea and more widely in the Pacific.  These changes will have trade and security consequences. The implications of the rise of the emerging economies doesn’t just rest with what they do. How existing economic powers respond will also be crucial . Colin James has also pointed out that for New Zealand we need to think carefully how we manage the management of us by China.  

The main message from these transitions is that there are high levels of uncertainties within and between them and it isn’t possible to predict what will happen. There aren’t clear scenarios around which to plan. So what choices does New Zealand have? Are we able to identify where we are able to shape strategic responses, what we need to do to adapt to the chances, and what we can do that will be important for our prosperity and well being regardless of what happens?

I’ll look at these questions in the next post.

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