The Firing Squads Are Coming

Think you're irreplaceable? don't get too cozy in your cubicle.

Think you're irreplaceable? don't get too cozy in your cubicle. If experts are right, you'll be working someplace else sooner than you think. And you have the Internet, along with the increasingly fast pace of technological change, to thank for it. If you can imagine a computer program doing what you do, start checking the Help Wanted ads, suggests Nathan Newman, coordinator of the Yale Law Workers' Rights Project. He's not alone. There's broad agreement among everyone from business consultants to the U.S. Department of Labor that the accelerated sophistication of information technology and the Internet means that many jobs—possibly your own—are doomed.

Ironically, the jobs most at risk are those that involve providing information, whether to consumers or corporate clients. "Anyone who produces 'unfocused information' is in trouble," said Gerald Harris, a principal at Global Business Network, a strategic consulting firm.

Information itself is becoming a commodity, no longer valued simply for being there. Instead, "you'll be paid a premium for your perspective or your processing of the information," Harris said, not just your access to it.

Free Fall Online

The increasing availability of Internet-based resources and the steadily climbing power of computers suggests that fields once considered human-only will become dominated by software. Program wizards that step people through complicated processes now let the average worker accomplish specialized professional tasks. Web production and presentation applications have already made art departments obsolete in many companies. Even advertising may soon follow—ads created by a software-based expert system were recently judged to be superior to all but award-winning human-designed advertisements.

The wide availability of data will empower consumers, driving down prices and forcing companies to squeeze every last penny to remain profitable. Those industries that profit from being secretive about pricing, margins, or other information—electric utilities, brokerages, health-care institutions, and even auto makers—will be forced to evolve or die.

Experts agree the economic landscape will continue to change radically over the next decade as the Internet continues to obscure the difference between local and global. Intense price competition may eliminate many local mom-and-pop businesses even as entrepreneurs generate record numbers of start ups. The resulting employment churn—the average job tenure is now two years, and today's typical 32-year-old has held nine different jobs—means more risks as well as more opportunities to discover new paths.

Professions requiring greater levels of education will be among the fastest growing over the next seven years, while jobs involving manufacturing and clerical tasks will decline. Employees will need to be hyper aware of the transformation of their work landscape and be ready to reinvent themselves. Forrester Research analyst Chris Charron referred to this as becoming Individual Inc.—"in order to survive, you have to think more about transferable skills that survive the ups and downs."

E-Lance Economy

Already a number of companies such as Guru.com and Monster.com are helping freelancers, or e-lancers, run their business lives. According to Guru.com's Tricia Chan, there are already more than 25 million e-lancers—"gurus," as she calls them—in the United States, crossing all sorts of disciplines. That number is set to grow quickly as the Internet makes it possible for independent professionals to practice their trades. Anyone can set up a storefront on the Web to advertise his or her products and services, and people whose work focuses on information can literally work anywhere. A writer can live in Los Angeles and submit articles to editors in Seattle and South Africa. A Web designer in New York can program Flash objects for sites in London and Singapore. With the global client base, however, come concerns about pay, language, and taxes.

"Guru.com has found that there are many similar issues and concerns that all gurus share, no matter what discipline they practice, whether it's yoga, massage therapy, Web architecture, [or] IT planner," said Chan.

So if you fall off the employment tightrope, remember that you're working with a Net.

Although there are reasons to be cautious about the next decade, there are also sources of optimism. Rising new technologies—from biotech to energy to microengineering—hold the potential for entirely new careers. The Internet is critical here too. The amount and transparency of information it provides makes for a fertile business environment. From networked biosensors to chips that evolve, ideas from disparate disciplines come together in novel ways to create opportunities.

No one will be immune to the sudden transitions over the next decade; preparation is critical. Global Business Network's Harris put it this way: "There's a premium on learning, a premium on the ability to manage change—across all education and work classes."

In short, be ready for anything.

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