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 Overnight, it seemed, our skill set had become outdated, and we needed to learn a new one.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.