The Re-Bundled Worker
With colleges struggling to keep up with increasingly rapid shifts in the economy, how do tomorrow’s workers build reliable pathways to success?
By TODD OPPENHEIMER
In February of 2018, staff members for the Institute for the Future (IFTF), a well-known Silicon Valley research and forecasting firm, decided to figure out what skills and personal traits are the best markers of success in today’s rapidly changing economy. To do this, they spent the summer traveling across the globe looking for young workers, in a broad range of fields, who were navigating today’s employment challenges in new ways.
In Jeddah, IFTF foresees someone who might live in 2030 using Blockchain technology to create emergency IDs for the world’s growing number of stranded refugees.
By the end of the summer, IFTF had found 500 people that it thought exhibited “leading edge behaviors.” IFTF’s research team then winnowed this list down to 60 different people in six different locales—Mexico City; Austin, Texas; Lagos, West Africa; Jeddah, Saudi Arabia; Berlin, Germany; and ChongQing, China. With the kind of extrapolation tools that futurists use (more qualitative than quantitative in this case), the team created nine different composite characters who were, in the year 2030, charting unusually inventive paths to work that was not only lucrative but also deeply satisfying.
To make these nine hypothetical lives understandable to people like us, who are stuck in the worrisome present, IFTF gave each character type a thematic name: “The Startup Artist,” “The Eco-Maker,” “The Transitionist,” “The DJ,” and so on. For anyone tasked with solving the nagging workforce challenges that we all hear too much about these days—disadvantaged workers, for example, workforce development in general, and the growing irrelevance of today’s college curricula—these hypothetical trailblazers might speak volumes.
Most of the methods they employ are pretty high-tech. For example, “The Global Citizen,” a 26-year-old composite based in Jeddah named Ayah, uses Blockchain technology to create citizenship credentials that allow entrepreneurs to operate in a “decentralized borderless voluntary nation.” Her system also creates emergency IDs for the world’s growing number of stranded refugees. In Lagos, “The Speedrunner,” a 27-year-old named Yabani, uses simulations and gaming technology to devise optimal approaches to challenges, resulting in a lucrative career as a life coach and an inventor.
However, a few of IFTF’s nine archetypes take approaches that feel like the real world as we know it. In Mexico City, Sofia, IFTF’s 23-year-old “Eco-maker,” creates a network of Zero Waste hermanas (sisters), who handcraft reusable versions of disposable diapers from materials scavenged from local landfills. That sounds disgusting, of course, but thanks to photo-recognition software, the women are able to sort the usable from the gross. They take the same approach to wastewater, plucking out nutrients that can be turned into fertilizer. And Abieyuwa, “The DJ” in Lagos, uses the Internet to find peers, mentors, and build a global network of exciting innovators in sound. Among this crowd, I felt I could recognize some well-established principles of excellence and craftsmanship, and perhaps a long-term future with some balance. (If you want more, here is IFTF’s full account of their process, their archetypes, and the real people who served as the ingredients for these composites.)
Despite their varied interests, all nine characters exhibit some important common traits. They are all fearless, highly self-motivated, and unusually eclectic in their experiences. They comfortably embrace new technologies, and they aggressively network with people who can speed their advancement. (Their networks include potential peers; mentors; future employers; and, most important, people with very nimble promotion skills.)
In February, 2019, IFTF tested this future on a select group of educators, entrepreneurs, and philanthropists. (Full disclosure: we were invited as well to discuss The Craftsmanship Initiative’s perspective on the future.) As IFTF staffers rolled out their forecasts, it wasn’t long before an awkward question emerged: What about all the people who aren’t so energetic—those who like safe, traditional pathways, are introverts, or who just don’t like spending their time sitting on their butts staring at computer screens? More important, what about the world’s hordes of disadvantaged citizens—those who don’t have the education, the financial resources, the connections, the shining work history, or the confidence to compete with top achievers? Will they be increasingly relegated to lousy jobs, or no jobs at all?
Before we got bogged down in the potential downsides to what IFTF sees coming, Marina Gorbis, the institute’s executive director, urged us to take a more historical perspective.
First, Gorbis ran through some discouraging data showing how today’s employment market is increasingly failing us. She noted that wages have been in steady decline as a percentage of GDP (in the wealthy state of California, for example, a full 30 percent of the workforce is employed at less than $15 an hour). She said “good” jobs—with predictable schedules, comfortable work conditions, and decent wages—are also in decline; and that while shares in the stock market are rising, those investments aren’t well shared. Today, the bottom 80 percent of American citizens own only eight percent of the stocks on the market.
Then again, Gorbis argued, our corporate economy represents only one stage of the American story. “People didn’t always work in large, formal institutions,” she said. In other words, the big factories and other industrial enterprises that many consider the norm today, and a requisite for career advancement, are actually a relatively recent invention. They are by-products of the Industrial Revolution, and therefore something of an historical interloper. Before the mid-18th century, when mass manufacturing began, most people had to build their own work lives—as farmers, artisans, merchants, and so forth—almost entirely by their own wits, unassisted by the crutches of government or big industry.
Now that our institutions are cutting back their systems of training, employee support, and basic compensation, we may just have to work much the same way our ancestors did. (For details on how our leading institutions are pulling back from systems of support that have sustained American workers for generations, see our 2018 article, “The Workforce Dilemma.”)
Gorbis finished her history lesson on the bright side. While tomorrow’s workers might be left more on their own than their parents were, she argued that they will also have an array of tools at their disposal that previous generations couldn’t dream of. Thanks to high-tech innovations that are increasingly geared to personal use (examples include digital printing machinery, Wikipedia, apps galore, a YouTube library that grows exponentially by the day, and the Internet itself), today’s workforce can, in many cases, finally own the means of production. Maybe Karl Marx’s dream will come true after all, with or without socialism.
I know, it’s probably not that simple. Even if more of today’s “means of production” can be downloaded on a laptop, or even a mobile phone, making smart use of these tools takes resources, education, and vision that many people obviously don’t have. And that’s what worries Daria Lamb, IFTF’s director of partnerships, and the one who led the institute’s composite study. “I hope we don’t lose a generation, just because they don’t have the resources to keep up with this,” she told me later. Lamb also worries about older workers, whose skills are often seen as obsolete, when in fact their wisdom is exactly what ambitious start-ups often need.
These issues lead to a secondary question—how do we prepare today’s youngsters, no matter what their backgrounds, to compete in such a fragmented work world? That question was actually the ultimate focus of IFTF’s gathering. Not surprisingly, there were as many opinions as there were attendees (roughly 70). If there was any consensus, it was around the notion that traditional, four-year college degree programs—where students spend most of their time sitting passively in classrooms listening to lectures, with some extra sitting time reading in libraries or at home—have become obsolete.
“I hope we don’t lose a generation, just because they don’t have the resources to keep up with this,” says Daria Lamb of The Institute for the Future.
This is not news; the perception that our system of higher education is increasingly out of step with today’s fast-changing, disruptive work world has spawned books such as Ryan Craig’s “College Disrupted: The Great Unbundling of Higher Education” (2015); think-tank studies by places like The Brookings Institution; and nervous responses from the protectors of higher education.
Whatever one’s opinion, it is clear that our colleges and universities are under growing stress: tuition costs have more than tripled since 1980, causing debt on student loans to skyrocket. Meanwhile, more than half of all college graduates are unemployed, and 37 percent of those who are employed are doing work that requires only a high-school diploma. (For more on this phenomena, and an overlooked solution to it for many youngsters, see our article, “The Apprenticeship Ambivalence.”)
Fully aware of this background, IFTF asked its conference attendees to come up with new ways for tomorrow’s workers to get the education they need, and then prove their skills in a fashion that can be broadly trusted.
Ideas of course ranged widely. Joshua Fost, the associate dean for Curriculum and Assessment at Minerva Schools, one of the more interesting new alternatives to a traditional college program, suggested using advances in technology to create a “Skills Frontier Map.” Ideally, Fost said, we would “capture how people acquire skills and knowledge over time, moving from A to B to C.” This would allow educators to pinpoint student weaknesses on a micro scale, and automatically offer resources for support. Others suggested that students start using technologies like Blockchain to “signal” their skills and accomplishments across the world.
If any of this feels sci-fi to you, Daria Lamb wants to remind you that some of this future is already here. “In Lagos, people are developing job skills through WhatsApp classes,” she says. “And that’s today!” Clearly, if the world of stable employers is coming apart, their employees—at least the most ambitious among them—seem to be cobbling together their own new career tracks. Maybe our next economic phase is the era of “The Re-bundled Worker.”
If this rubric is apt, I have an question: When tomorrow’s workers are going to be increasingly on their own, re-bundling their careers as they go, what kind of studies and work will they have done in their lives to inform their choices?
In many ways, this question pertains primarily to the curricula we offer in the lower grades, where the building blocks of creativity and innovation have been steadily cut back in recent years. I’m talking, first, about shop classes, fully equipped science labs, and studies in applied arts like music, painting, and sculpture. In schools across the U.S., many of these mainstays of a well-rounded education have been gradually eliminated. This has been partly to create room, and the budget, for computers, but it was also caused by the growing emphasis on measuring student progress through standardized testing in just a narrow range of subjects (primarily math and reading).
This is no way to help Yabani, Lagos’ “Speedrunner,” make sure that his simulations are accurate and relevant. Nor does it help Abiewuwa, “The DJ” of tomorrow, create the richest music. If tomorrow’s leaders are going to be truly creative, then we need to pay more attention to the foundation of creativity. In England, long respected for its sterling education system, creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson has gained a huge following for his argument that schools have killed creativity, largely by instilling a fear of failure. Not coincidentally, the U.K., much like the U.S., makes heavy use of standardized testing.
Whatever course we take, we at The Craftsmanship Initiative hope that tomorrow’s educators don’t forget studies that teach people how to use their hands—as well as the other parts of the body that develop the five physical senses. No matter what work we do, our senses have always served as the building blocks of imagination, and our pathways to mastery. (For a living example of this happening right now, see our sidebar article, “Tomorrow’s Craftsmen and Craftswomen.”) Years ago, when I was writing about technology in schools, a veteran teacher told me that she and her colleagues always taught according to a simple saying: “The more muscle, the more memory.”