To me, the most startling signs of a developing shift were the e-mails we began getting—the striking new language in the messages that management sent around periodically, announcing job openings to staffers who might be interested. At the Washington Post, where I have worked since the mid-1990s, these e-mails had long carried a ring of deep familiarity; they were almost a litany, with a cadence all their own. The paper was looking for a Tokyo correspondent, they would say, or a feature writer, or a beat reporter to cover the Pentagon.
Except that all of a sudden the e-mails changed. Besides invoking the familiar jobs, they sometimes announced different kinds of positions. More and more—starting about five years ago—the e-mails said the paper was looking for people who could aggregate and blog and manage online content and enhance reader interactivity. To many of us, these offerings had little connection to spoken English, never mind journalism. Under normal conditions, we would have had time to adjust to seeing these jobs listed, but the move to online news was taking place during a period of global economic crisis, when the paper was obliged to winnow staff through buyouts. The effect of these twin developments—newsroom shrinking, job descriptions changing—was freak-out inducing. Overnight, it seemed, our skill set had become outdated, and we needed to learn a new one. Fast.
But what skills should we be acquiring, and how long before those, too, were irrelevant? Did we need to remake ourselves entirely or just a little? Many of us were working mothers, some with husbands whose jobs were vulnerable; how could we upgrade our competence when we felt stretched thinner than ever, in a workplace where all of us had to do more with less? In short: Where was this rapid change taking us? What would our professional world look like in a decade, and how could we ensure that our claim to a desk and a paycheck would continue?
These are questions that workers around the country are urgently asking. The changes in journalism may have been especially acute, but owing to the one-two punch of economic downturn and rapid technological development, people in many fields arrive at work in the morning wondering what life-altering upheaval—industry contraction, bad jobs numbers, decision to outsource, changes in economy/industry/top management—might have occurred overnight. Just ask people in the legal profession, which in a major structural realignment is moving paralegal jobs overseas, where documents can be searched more cheaply. Ask people in banking, which is getting more automated by the day. Ask anybody, really, and you will hear workers wondering how to prepare for whatever lies around the corner. “Companies change, managers change,” says Vicki Lynn, a senior vice president with Universum, a firm that specializes in employer branding and talent recruitment. “The future will be here in six months.”
But in the midst of all this turmoil, certain truths about future jobs are becoming clear. The American economy is hollowing out, as MIT economist David Autor has put it, with middle-skills jobs disappearing and employment moving to the lower and higher ends of the spectrum. Despite this evolution away from the industries that have supported the postwar middle class, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that in the next 10 years the economy will grow, albeit modestly. As the massive baby boom cohort ages—and needs more physicians, nurses, home health aides and increased technical staff to support it—the field projected to expand the fastest will be health care. The same is true for social services: We’ll need more counselors, therapists and social workers. Education will see robust growth as baby boom teachers retire. Both health care and education are, of course, female-dominated fields.
In fact, many job developments will favor women, who are less likely to work in declining industries such as manufacturing and agriculture. The BLS estimates that the category of “professional and related occupations,” a catchall encompassing much white-collar work, will grow faster than average, and women make up 57 percent of this group, largely because we have improved our training and education credentials in a way that men have not. Women, who now earn the majority of postsecondary degrees, have positioned themselves to defy the decline in midlevel spots by hoisting themselves into higher-tier jobs rather than slipping, as many men have, into the lower tier.
Also safe: jobs that require physical presence—retail, teaching, public safety, medical work, waiting tables. Similarly, the more a job calls for creative thought, “the less susceptible” it will be to being offshored or automated, says Michael Wolf, a BLS economist. More broadly, there will be demand for white-collar workers capable of gathering, analyzing, projecting and otherwise making sense of the rising tide of information that is engulfing us—Big Data, as it’s called. These skills come down to the ability to sort, to graph, to perceive patterns in numbers, to not only collect and manipulate statistics but also comprehend their underlying message and to develop strategies based on that understanding.
“One of the hottest job categories expected to grow in percentage terms is market research analyst,” says Edwin Koc, who tracks trends in hiring as director of strategic and foundation research at the National Association of Colleges and Employers. “If you combine that with accountants—who are always at the top of the list—you really understand the need for businesses to both develop data and analyze it.” People who possess quantitative skills have a clear advantage in the marketplace, he continues, but even more valuable to employers are people who can be creative as well as analytic. “That requires a deeper understanding of the economy, business in general and the world,” says Koc. “That’s going to be perhaps the biggest change that will occur in the future. How you develop that skill set—that combination of creativity and analytic ability—is going to be the question.”
Contrary to popular belief, we are not becoming a gig-economy nation powered by an army of the pajama-clad self-employed. The BLS projects that the number of self-employed workers will grow more slowly than that of wage and salaried employees. Yet we won’t have the corporate identities our grandfathers did: Our economy is transitioning from the old lifetime-employment model to one in which your job and even your company are likely to disappear in five or 10 years. This means institutions may not invest in training for workers’ long-term future. “A lot of people are functioning as free agents, psychologically, in terms of their attachment to work,” says John Dorrer, program director at Jobs for the Future.
In addition, the baby boomers and those born in the early years of Generation X will be altering the landscape in another way: A decade from now, there will be a surge of workers ages 55 and up. Until recently, it was expected that boomers would retire en masse. “People were predicting a retirement tsunami,” says Lynn, “but it hasn’t happened.” What seems likely is that some boomers will stay in their jobs longer than expected; others will retire but return as contract workers. Of course, there are so many boomers that if only a small percentage retires, there will still be lots of openings for younger Gen Xers, as well as for the millennials coming up behind them.
Through it all, staying employed will mean staying adaptable and unique. “The individual needs to rethink employment,” says Lynn. “It’s not up to the boss to figure out your career development.” But as adults, are we really still capable of substantial adaptive learning? Yes, more so than we might think. “The big surprise out of neuroscience over the last 10 years is that the brain has remarkable plasticity,” says Kurt Fischer, director of the Mind, Brain, and Education program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “Even when we’re 40, 50, 60, the brain adapts to the context that it’s in and does so throughout our lives.” Midlife brains do begin to lose some capacities—memory, for starters—but they are also more stable; the neural connections between the limbic system, which controls emotions, and the prefrontal cortex, which has to do with planning, become stronger. Decision making improves. The adult brain can take into account more-complex factors. This was once known as wisdom, and scientists now believe there’s a neurological basis for it.
Midcareer workers can take comfort from knowing that their situation is better than it feels. Experienced workers are relatively secure in their jobs: In November 2012 the unemployment rate for people 45 to 54 was 6 percent—well below the average of 7.7—while for workers 20 to 24, it was 12.7 percent. It’s true, though, that younger people find new jobs more quickly. “One of the things they’re able to do is think about how their skills relate to lots of jobs,” says Betsey Stevenson, a professor of public policy at the University of Michigan. For older workers—who search longer for work and who can face significant barriers to re-entry, including age discrimination—it’s important to push to recognize new areas where they can apply their expertise.
I’ve seen much of that in my profession: Many colleagues who took buyouts have successfully transitioned into high-level writing and analytical jobs at research firms and think tanks. They are editing speeches and working in public relations. Or they’ve stayed in journalism but left print in favor of digital media. I’ve taken leaves to write books. Like many of my colleagues, I’ve done some blogging and launched myself on Facebook and Twitter. Journalists I know have signed up for continuing-education social media courses and learned from younger staff members. In short: It hasn’t been easy, but we’ve adapted.
And there are subtle reasons that working women may be well suited to this kind of self-reinvention. Unlike men, women don’t have much cause to be nostalgic about the workplace of the past. We never enjoyed a rosy era of high salaries, rapid corporate advancement, stable institutional belonging and easy job seeking. Economists have found that people who experienced abundance can become discouraged when faced with scarcity; people accustomed to doing without are less easily daunted. “Older males are walking around with a lot of psychological scars,” says Dorrer. “They no longer enjoy the perks of malehood in the labor market. Women, who never had this to begin with, arrive without these shackles from the past, and they may find it easier to adapt.” Under stress, people step up their game, and we have been nothing if not stressed. “If they’re motivated to surmount a challenge,” says neuroscientist Lise Eliot, “people can do amazing things.”
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