It’s true. Robots will eventually make your job obsolete—but that doesn’t necessarily mean the world’s end is nigh. In fact, the coming decades between 2020 and 2040 will see an explosion of job growth … at least in select industries.
You see, the next two decades represent the last great age of mass employment, the last decades before our machines grow smart enough and capable enough to take over much of the labor market.
The last generation of jobs
The following is a list of projects, trends, and fields that will comprise the bulk of future job growth for the next two decades. It’s important to note this list doesn’t represent the full list of job creators. For example, there will always be jobs in tech and science (STEM jobs). Trouble is, the skills needed to enter these industries are so specialized and difficult to attain that they won’t save the masses from unemployment.
Moreover, the biggest tech and science companies tend to employ a very small number of employees in relation to the revenues they generate. For example, Facebook has roughly 11,000 employees on 12 billion in revenue (2014) and Google has 60,000 employees on 20 billion in revenue. Now compare this with a traditional, large manufacturing company like GM, which employs 200,000 employees on 3 billion in revenue.
All of this is to say that tomorrow’s jobs, the jobs that will employ the masses, will be mid-skilled jobs in the trades and select services. Basically, if you can fix/create things or care for people, you’ll have a job.
Infrastructure renewal. It’s easy not to notice it, but much of our road network, bridges, dams, water/sewage pipes, and our electrical network were built more than 50 years ago. If you look hard enough, you can see the stress of age everywhere—the cracks in our roads, the cement falling off our bridges, water mains bursting under the winter frost. Our infrastructure was built for another time and tomorrow’s construction crews will need to replace much of it over the next decade to avoid serious public safety hazards. Read more in our Future of Cities series.
Climate change adaptation. On a similar note, our infrastructure wasn’t just built for another time, it was also built for a much milder climate. As world governments delay making the hard choices needed to combat climate change, world temperatures will continue to rise. This means parts of the world will need to defend against increasingly sweltering summers, snow dense winters, excessive flooding, ferocious hurricanes, and rising sea levels.
Most of the world’s most populated cities are located along a coast, meaning many will need seawalls to continue existing into the latter half of this century. Sewers and drainage systems will need to be upgraded to absorb excess water runoff from freak rain and snowfalls. Roads will need to be resurfaced to avoid melting during extreme summer days, as will aboveground electrical lines and power stations.
I know, this all sounds extreme. The thing is, it’s already happening today in select parts of the world. With each passing decade, it will happen more often—everywhere.
Green building retrofits. Building on the note above, governments attempting to combat climate change will begin offering green grants and tax breaks to retrofit our current stock of commercial and residential buildings.
Electricity and heat generation produces about 26 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Buildings use up three-fourths of national electricity. Today, much of that energy is wasted due to inefficiencies from outdated building codes. Luckily, the coming decades will see our buildings triple or quadruple their energy efficiency through improved electricity usage, insulation, and ventilation, saving 1.4 trillion dollars annually (in the US).
Next generation energy. There’s an argument that consistently gets pushed by opponents of renewable energy sources who say that since renewables can’t produce energy 24/7, they can’t be trusted with large-scale investment, and claim that’s why we need traditional base-load energy sources like coal, gas, or nuclear for when the sun doesn’t shine.
What those same experts and politicians fail to mention, however, is that coal, gas, or nuclear plants occasionally shut down due to faulty parts or maintenance. And when they do, they don’t necessarily shut off the lights for the cities they serve. That’s because we have something called an energy grid, where if one plant shuts down, energy from another plant picks up the slack instantly, backing up the city’s power needs.
That same grid is what renewables will use, so when the sun doesn’t shine, or the wind doesn’t blow in one region, the loss of power can be compensated for from other regions where renewables are generating power. Moreover, industrial sized batteries are coming online soon that can cheaply store vast amounts of energy during the day for release during the evening. These two points mean that wind and solar can provide reliable amounts of power on par with traditional base-load energy sources. And if fusion or thorium power plants finally become a reality within the next decade, there will be even more reason to switch away from carbon heavy energy.
By 2050, much of the world will have to replace its aging energy grid and power plants anyway, so replacing this infrastructure with cheaper, cleaner, and energy maximizing renewables just makes financial sense. Even if replacing the infrastructure with renewables costs the same as replacing it with traditional power sources, renewables are still a better option. Think about it: unlike traditional, centralized power sources, distributed renewables don’t carry the same negative baggage like national security threats from terrorist attacks, use of dirty fuels, high financial costs, adverse climate and health effects, and a vulnerability to wide-scale blackouts.
Investments in energy efficiency and renewables can wean the industrial world off coal and oil by 2050, save governments trillions of dollars annually, grow the economy through new jobs in renewable and smart grid installation, and reduce our carbon emissions by around 80 percent.
Mass housing. The final mega building project we’ll mention is the creation of thousands of residential buildings across the world. There are two reasons for this: First, by 2040, the world population will balloon to over 9 billion people, much of that growth being within the developing world. Housing that population growth will be a huge undertaking regardless of where it takes place.
Second, due to the coming wave of tech/robot induced mass unemployment, the ability for the average person to buy a home will fall substantially. This will drive the demand for new rental and public housing residences across the developed world. Luckily, by the late 2020s, construction-sized 3D printers will hit the market, printing entire skyscrapers in a few months instead of years. This innovation will drive construction costs down and make home ownership once again affordable for the masses.
Elderly care. Between the 2030s and 2040s, the boomer generation will enter their final years of life. Meanwhile, the millennial generation will enter their 50s, nearing retirement age. These two large cohorts will represent a substantial and wealthy portion of the population that will demand the best care possible during their declining years. Moreover, due to the life-extending technologies to be introduced during the 2030s, the demand for nurses and other healthcare practitioners will remain high for many decades to come.
Military and security. It’s very likely that the coming decades of increased mass unemployment will bring with it an equivalent rise in social unrest. Should large chunks of the population be forced out of work without long-term government assistance, increased drug use, crime, protests, and possibly rioting can be expected. In already poor developing countries, one can expect a growth in militancy, terrorism, and government coup attempts. The severity of these negative social outcomes depends greatly on people’s perception of the future wealth gap between rich and poor—if it gets substantially worse than it is today, then watch out!
Overall, the growth of this social disorder will drive government expenditure to hire more cops and military personnel to maintain order on city streets and around sensitive government buildings. Private security personnel will also be in hot demand within the public sector to guard corporate buildings and assets.
Sharing economy. The sharing economy—usually defined as the exchange or sharing of goods and services via peer-to-peer online services like Uber or Airbnb—will represent a growing percentage of the labor market, along with service, part-time, and online freelance work. This is especially true for those whose jobs will be displaced by future robots and software.
Food production (kind of). Since the Green Revolution of the 1960s the share of the population (in developed countries) devoted to growing food has shrunk to less than one percent. But that number could see a surprising upswing in the coming decades. Thank you, climate change! You see, the world is getting warmer and drier, but why is that such a big deal when it comes to food?
Well, modern farming tends to rely on relatively few plant varieties to grow on an industrial scale—domesticated crops produced either through thousands of years of manual breeding or dozens of years of genetic manipulation. Problem is, most crops can only grow in specific climates where the temperature is just Goldilocks right. This is why climate change is so dangerous: it will push many of these domestic crops outside their preferred growing environments, raising the risk of massive crop failures globally.
For example, studies run by the University of Reading found that lowland indica and upland japonica, two of the most widely grown varieties of rice, were highly vulnerable to higher temperatures. Specifically, if temperatures exceeded 35 degrees Celsius during their flowering stage, the plants would become sterile, offering little to no grains. Many tropical and Asian countries where rice is the main staple food already lie on the very edge of this Goldilocks temperature zone.
That means when the world passes the 2-degrees-Celsius limit sometime during the 2040s—the red line rise in average global temperature scientists believe will severely damage our climate—it could mean disaster for the global agricultural industry. Just as the world will have yet another two billion mouths to feed.
While the developed world will likely muddle through this agricultural crisis through massive investments in new state of the art agriculture tech, the developing world will likely depend on an army of farmers to survive against wide-scale starvation.
Working towards obsolescence
If managed properly, the mega projects listed above may shift humanity into a world where electricity becomes dirt cheap, where we stop polluting our environment, where homelessness becomes a thing of the past, and where the infrastructure we depend on will last us into the next century. In many ways, we’ll have moved into an age of true abundance. Of course, that’s exceedingly optimistic.
The changes we’ll see in our labor market over the next two decades will also bring with it severe and widespread social instability. It will force us to ask fundamental questions, like: How will society function when the majority is forced into under- or un-employment? Just how much of our lives are we willing to allow robots to manage? What is the purpose of life without work?
Before we answer these questions, the next chapter will first need to address the elephant of this series: Robots.