Why do some futurists like to create cute or quirky future occupations?

By Robert Hickson 07/02/2012

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.