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What Does the Future of Work Look Like, in the 21st Century?


When this world began, our hunter-gatherer, farming ancestors worked to live. Not a single iota of energy was wasted in a day. Wasted time equaled starvation.

In this new century, our world is reaping  the fruits of the industrial revolution, the robotics revolution, and the technology revolution. Just as our ancestors might have wondered what the future held in working, we are living their future and wondering about our own.

So what exactly does the future of work look like?

The Current Fluctuating Work Environment

The worlds of industry, commerce, healthcare, education, and many others are fluctuating, which is causing considerable anxiety. Labor-market opportunities between high- and low-skill jobs, unemployment and underemployment, stagnating incomes for a large proportion of households, and income inequality demonstrate that the job market is already trending toward the future.

Automation and artificial intelligence promise higher productivity, economic growth, increased efficiency, job safety, and convenience. But these technologies also have a broader impact on jobs, wages, skills, and the nature of work itself.

Lots of tasks that workers handle today could be automated. Simultaneously, job-searching sites like LinkedIn and Monster are altering and increasing the ways people look for work and how companies recruit talent. Freelance work has become very enticing with digital platforms like Uber, Upwork, and Etsy making working for yourself much easier.

Another newer trend, especially in tech companies, is remote and virtual employees. This not only allows things to get done around the clock, without commuting, but also provides companies with employees who have hard-to-find skill sets and is a way to accommodate employees who don’t want to move to work for the company.

These shifts in how jobs are done as well as how talent is recruited create both uncertainty and benefits. One of the biggest questions is what role automation will play.

Automation Is Coming

Through current technology, about half the tasks people are paid to do could hypothetically be automated. It is encouraging to note that less than 5 percent of all jobs consist of tasks that could be completely automated.

However, in about 60% of professions, at least a third of the tasks could be automated, which could lead to workplace transformations and redefinition of job duties for workers. Taking a look at current technology and estimating how quickly automation could replace human workers, only about 30% of hours worked globally could be automated in the next decade.

The impact of automation on employment depends greatly on occupation and job title. Automation jobs would most likely include physical ones in predictable surroundings, like making fast food or operating factory machinery. Data collection and data processing are two other jobs that have the potential to be done better and faster with machines.

This particular AI innovation could displace hundreds of workers in mortgage origination, accounting, paralegal work, and back-office transaction processing.

There are, of course, jobs that absolutely require human labor forces, such as management, scientific research, and customer service. So, will the displaced workers have to change careers to keep a job?

future of work

What Job Sectors Will Sustain or Grow Their Numbers?

Displaced workers are easily identified, but new jobs that are created due to advancements in technology are less obvious and exist in different sectors and regions.

Experts estimate that, globally, 250 million to 280 million new jobs could be created due to rising incomes on consumer goods, with an additional 50 million to 85 million jobs created in health care and education spending.

In 2030, researchers estimate there will be at least 300 million more people aged 65 and older than in 2014. As people age, their spending on healthcare and other personal services increases, taking their consumer dollars out of retail and luxury purchases. This will increase new demand for doctors, nurses, and health technicians, as well as home-health aides, personal-care aides, and nursing assistants. There could be 50 million to 85 million new jobs in healthcare by 2030.

And let’s not forget the jobs created by the development and implementation of new technology. Spending on technology will double between 2015 and 2030. About half the spending would be on information-technology services. This could create 20 million to 50 million new jobs by 2030.

Even with substantial growth in technology and AI, there are still jobs that require human labor: architects, electricians, engineers, carpenters, and construction trades. The world is also increasing its interest in renewable energy, so there will be more jobs in renewable energy, like manufacturing, construction, and installation of new energy options.

So, it’s possible for a former auto factory worker from Detroit could be retrained quite efficiently in manufacturing for renewable energy. But, what would that training entail?

Job Training for the Future

To make sure the human labor force can accommodate newer jobs, people must be prepared to learn new skills. According to the Pew Research Center,

”[automation and AI] are taking a bite out of manufacturing; automation, robotics, algorithms and artificial intelligence (AI) have shown they can do equal or sometimes even better work than humans who are dermatologists, insurance claims adjusters, lawyers, seismic testers in oil fields, sports journalists and financial reporters, crew members on guided-missile destroyers, hiring managers, psychological testers, retail salespeople, and border patrol agents.”

People will not just train for the jobs of the future, they will create them, and technology is ready and waiting. Pew Research conducted extensive polls to find out what the members of the current job market see for the future and what will be some of the main themes:

Theme 1: The training ecosystem will evolve, with a mix of innovation in all education formats

The next decade will bring a diversified world of education and training options where various entities design and deliver services to those who want to learn. They expect that some innovation will be aimed at emphasizing the development of human talents that machines cannot match and at helping humans partner with technology.

They say some parts of the ecosystem will concentrate on delivering real-time learning to workers, often in formats that are self-taught. Also, more learning systems will go online. Workers will be expected to learn continuously. Educators have always found new ways to train the next generation of students for jobs of the future.

Theme 2: Learners must cultivate 21st‑century skills, capabilities and attributes

Will training for skills most important in the jobs of the future work well in large-scale settings in upcoming years? Improvements in education are expected to continue. But, many of the most vital skills are not easy to teach, learn or evaluate in any educational setting.

Those skills, capabilities and attributes include emotional intelligence, curiosity, creativity, adaptability, resilience and critical thinking. The skills needed to succeed in the future are curiosity, creativity, taking initiative, multi-disciplinary thinking and empathy, skills that machines cannot yet demonstrate.


Theme 3: New credentialing systems will arise as self-directed learning expands

While the traditional college degree will still be a necessity in the near future, more employers may be willing to accept alternate credentialing systems because traditional college is becoming less popular. Online learning is the education of the future.

Employers will also begin to consider experience and skill sets over education. It is likely that employers will appreciate a college degree, as it does demonstrate a willingness to attain goals with determination and discipline.

However, those characteristics can also be demonstrated in the workplace. Deeply detailed reference letters may begin to carry more weight than a college degree.

Theme 4: Training and learning systems will not meet 21st‑century needs by 2026

Jobs of the future may change too quickly to allow today’s workers to get up to speed in time to fill positions. Many workers are unable to take on or unwilling to make the self-directed sacrifices they must to fine-tune their skills.

This leads educators to emphasize STEM learning (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) in our public schools. Teachers and politicians are working to ensure the next generation is well-trained in technology in the hopes of staving off a job market starving for qualified candidates.

Theme 5: Technological forces will fundamentally change work and the economic landscape

There is a loud cry in the job marketplace that advances in technology will overtake the time it takes to train new people. Many see a society where AI programs and machines do most of the work.

There is no doubt there will be many millions more people and millions fewer jobs in the future. But, if industry does a good job increasing skills training, technology may not quite take over at the rate many see as inevitable.


Regardless of automation and AI, there will always be a need for a human labor force. While robots and smart computers can take over some menial tasks, as well as cognitive driven tasks, humans will be required to maintain and program our artificial workforce.

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