It’s January 2020. You’ve commuted to the office in your titanium flying car, to be greeted by a robotic receptionist. You travelate to your 3D, virtual, interactive desk which pours you a tall decaf and scans the morning’s to-do list on to your retina!
Or maybe not. Just as we’re still waiting for the paperless office to arrive, the workplace of the foreseeable future will probably still be open-plan, beige and soulless. But according to futurists, trade unionists and human resource specialists, there’s a strong chance that in 10 years’ time, your job will be very, very different. So, what better time than the start of a new year to figure out which sectors, industries and jobs are destined for growth?
By 2020, the UK economy will be even more globalised. The transition from fossil fuels to alternative energy will be in full swing. Rapid development in China, India and elsewhere will place huge strain on resources.
The gaming generation will be middle-aged – and virtual services will be the basis for many jobs. There will still be real jobs to be had – but you may have to switch careers to find one.
“Start from the assumption that 2020 will look nothing like now,” says Stephanie Bird, director of HR capability at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.
“We can’t ‘future-proof’ careers,” she says, “but we can ‘future-adapt’ them.” So strap yourself in for the Guardian‘s glimpse of the future.
Green jobs are arriving in two breeds: some focused on reducing human environmental impact, others to “greenwash” their organisation’s image. But Ian Pearson, a futurist who established BT’s futurology practice, recommends caution. “There are some key experiments taking place by organisations such as Nasa and Cern which could turn our thinking on the causes of climate change upside down.”
Traceability manager Examines global supply chains and checks for suppliers that might be excessively pollutive or carbon-costly to buy from.
Cloud controller Buys the planet time – maybe 25 years – in the fight against climate change, by increasing the ability of clouds to reflect solar radiation.
Alternative fuels – solar, wind, tidal, hydrogen – are going to be huge, although renewables might also see an influx of workers from the disappearing oil and gas industries. Nuclear too, will return, though a shortage of uranium might spoil that particular party.
Hydrogen fuel station manager Produces hydrogen on site, so will need science as well as retail skills.
Uranium recycler Converts bomb-grade uranium from warheads into low-enriched uranium for use in nuclear power plants.
The next decade will see the return of manufacturing in Britain, forecasts Tim Page, senior policy officer at the TUC.
“The UK will identify niche sectors of manufacturing that are highly skilled and knowledge-intensive,” he says, pointing to the government’s recently announced strategy on composite materials as an example of the kind of state intervention needed to make it happen.
Mechatronical engineer Combines mechanical engineering, electronics, controls engineering and computers into the product design process.
Metal skin consultant Manufactures self-healing composite materials for use on aircraft, ships and spacecraft.
When the internet, video gaming and 3D TV collide with the real world. “In just a few years’ time, video visor extensions to your Bluetooth earpiece will give you a full 3D overlay of the high street you’re walking down,” says Pearson. “It will merge everything you can find on the web and all you can do on a computer game with everything you can do in the real world.”
Digital architect Designs a range of virtual buildings for advertisers to market their products and services.
Avatar design-security consultant Designs, creates and protects the virtual you.
Robots and artificial intelligence
With search engines already guessing what we want almost before we ask, artificial intelligence will eliminate and transform many jobs by 2020. “We’ve just seen the NHS unveil a system that can predict the probability of a patient developing cancer,” says Pearson. “Robots will take over the high-precision, high-value surgery, leaving surgeons redundant.”
Personal bot mechanic Domestic assistants will work 24/7, but will still need the occasional tune-up.
Powered exoskeleton engineer Designs wearable robots that assist and protect soldiers, construction and rescue workers or other people working in dangerous environments.
In the wake of the financial crisis, business will seek to build on more solid foundations, Page predicts. And “entrepreneurs” – an “overused word for a tired stratagem of creating a company, jumping through venture capital hoops and cashing out”, says American futurist and author Faith Popcorn – will receive a long-overdue makeover.
Simplicity consultant Simplifies and streamlines processes, technologies and branding in an organisation.
LocaPreneur Starts up a local bank, makes local cosmetics or soft drinks that are able to compete head-to-head with the big corporations that no one trusts any more.
Nanotech and biotech
This could be the decade we witness an explosion of technological advances in nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology and cognitive science, collectively known as NBIC. As these fields expand and converge, opportunities will arise to reprogram our bodies’ “software”, extending life, reducing deaths and alleviating poverty.
Bioinformationist Scientist who marries genetic information with drug development and clinical techniques.
Geomicrobiologist Pieces together bits of geology, environmental science and microbiology to figure how micro-organisms might help make new medicine or clean up pollution.
Our ageing populations are already generating booms in home healthcare and nursing homes. But expect the growth to come at the sharp end of social services – nurses and carers – rather than in admin roles.
Experimental therapist Connects patients with new and emerging treatments and navigates them through the maze of patient services.
Home companion-caretaker Enables people to stay in their homes and live with dignity.
As future-proof a sector as exists, with schools, universities and private providers expanding to keep pace with the accelerating need to train and retrain.
Online education broker Tailors a bespoke learning package for the client, dovetailing relevant modules from courses and syllabuses around the world.
Space tour guide With Virgin Galactic planning commercial flights from 2011, space tourists will need cosmic enthusiasts to shed light on all that darkness.
The demand for organic, healthy, locally sourced food will continue to increase. But since sustainable agriculture is all about small-scale methods rather than big machines and fertilisers, the world will need more, not fewer agricultural workers – up to tens of millions of them, according to journalist and food guru Michael Pollan.
Farmer Agricultural entrepreneur as skilled in genetics as in marketing.
Personal food shopper Enables clients to hit their recommended daily allowance targets for nutritional balance, food-miles and organic sourcing.
…and the careers that could be at risk in 2020
If your current job relies purely on intellect and knowledge, assume that you won’t be getting paid to do it by the end of this decade, warns Pearson. “It’s the human side of your job – that’s where you will still be able to add value.”
Hospital consultant Consultants can be replaced by a robot, but nurses can’t, says Pearson. Nurses are making a huge mistake if they swap the most valuable part of their job, caring for the patient, in some misguided attempt to become more “professional”, and effectively, cheap doctors.
Shop assistant Will decline gradually as online shopping continues to grow and existing stores install self-service scanners and robotic shelf stackers.
Union organiser Will become surplus to requirements unless unions arrest the trend of membership decline, and adapt to the needs of workers in knowledge, science and technology sectors.
Construction worker “3D printing” techniques, in which solid objects can be constructed automatically from computer models, will enable buildings to be erected in a matter of hours.
Soldier Why send men and women into combat when you can send a machine? The growing use of unmanned combat air vehicles suggest the job of fighter pilot may be the first to go.
But some jobs never go out of style !
Lawyers While much of the knowledge side of the law can be automated, there will always be a need for lawyers with persuasive people skills to sway judges and juries, particularly in the growing areas of patent and intellectual property law.
Politician OK, so some of them fiddle their expenses, but we’ll never rid ourselves of the need to be governed and led.
Writers The days of journalism (as we know it) may be numbered, but someone needs to write technical manuals for all these bots, rocket ships, prostheses and enhancements: all of these are new or evolving technologies, and none of them is exactly simple and self-explanatory. Someone needs to be there to write the manuals for these products, and that person could be you.
Artists and entertainers The impact of CGI on actors presents some risk, but art will continue to change and evolve with technology, not disappear.
Undertakers, tax collectors and religious leaders… because life, and death, go on.