5 trends driving the future of work

From legions of independent consultants to cities dotted with coworking facilities, the future of work is virtual, online and global.
Written by Chris Jablonski, Inactive

As the year draws to a close, you may be assessing your career plans against the backdrop of holiday hoopla and the uncertain employment climate. To get a leg up, grab an eggnog and read on to learn about trends that could change how you'll be making a living in the years to come:

Trend 1: Independent consulting to see hockey-stick growth curve

According to a new study from MBO Partners, a company offering services to independent consultants, by 2013, the number of independent workers in America is expected to grow from 16 million to more than 20 million. By 2020, that figure could climb to include more than half of U.S. workers, leading to a new independent majority comprised of freelancers, consultants and other independent workers.

Blame the economic turmoil or a change in values, but more people are demanding greater self-reliance, control and satisfaction in their professional lives. For example, 75 percent of independents surveyed by MBO Partners stated that doing something they love was more important than making money while 74 percent stated that they wanted a job where they know they were making a difference.

MBO CEO Gene Zaino highlighted results from the national study last week at the GigaOM Net:Work conference in San Francisco. In an accompanying article, he writes optimistically about the promise of a pioneering, independent workforce but warns that there are obstacles standing in the way, including a surge in government regulations and corporate complexity in engaging independent talent.

"If we do not address the obstacles and complexity around the free and productive use of independent talent, companies — as well as these talented experts — may choose the troubling path of leaving this great country and going elsewhere," warns Zaino.

Other key findings from the study:

  • The independent workforce spans gender and generations and is currently 16 million strong in the United States
  • Nearly 60 percent of independent workers stated that they are highly satisfied with their work situation versus half of employees who are unhappy
  • More than half of independent workers (55 percent) say it was their proactive choice to become an independent worker

Trend 2: Order books, movies and now ... workers online

Elance, one of several growing platforms for online work, has released figures from its 2011 Online Employment Review. The big takeaway is that in 2011, businesses hiring online shot up 120 percent and the market for contingent online work is expected to grow at record pace and double again next year.

“This year’s job numbers suggest a structural change in traditional employment, as more businesses are adopting online and contingent work as a core business strategy,” said Elance CEO Fabio Rosati.

Rosati points to technology and independence as the main drivers:

“Fueled by technology, work is no longer confined to the 9-5 and the office. Knowledge workers are building independent careers by working online with multiple clients, from their home, from public spaces or from co-located offices. The ability to gain instant access to qualified talent with in-demand skills regardless of location is a global trend that is starting to change the way businesses and people work.”

Key findings include:

  • 83 percent of small businesses surveyed by Elance plan to hire up to 50 percent of their workers as online contractors online in the next 12 months
  • Nearly 1 in 3 workers began freelancing to be their own boss and work on the type of projects they love
  • The top benefits of online work cited include the ability to control their own schedule (90 percent), follow their passion (87 percent) and eliminate the commute (85 percent)

The hottest skills in demand according to an analysis of the more than 650,000 jobs posted on Elance this year include:

  • Software development skills such as HTML5 (+238 percent), Mobile (+137 percent), WordPress (+100 percent), Facebook (+66 percent) and Twitter (+47 percent)
  • Creative skills like Graphic Design (+176 percent) and Content Writing (+72 percent)
  • Marketing skills such as Internet Marketing (+132 percent), Marketing Communications (+53 percent) and Telemarketing (52 percent)
  • Administrative skills, including Transcription (+114 percent), Administrative Support (+87 percent) and Data Entry (+69 percent)
  • Consulting skills ranging from Product Manufacturing (+186 percent), Architectural Design (+185 percent), Financial Analysis (+140 percent) and Legal (+86 percent) to Business Strategy (+76 percent)

Check out the study for more details and to see Elance's best and worst moments in work in 2011 along with 2012 predictions.

Trend 3: Coworking moves beyond early adopter stage

Coworking is not a new idea (ZDNet coverage goes back to 2007), but it has grown popular in places like the United States and England, and is now seeing steady export elsewhere like Madrid, Spain. Originally starting out in apartments and libraries where telecommuters gathered to socialize and boost creativity, the practice has grown into a marketplace with diverse providers such as CoCo, Rocket Space, Sandbox Suites, and LiquidSpace.

Coworking offers another alternative to workers as flexible and mobile ways of working are becoming more common. In fact, many early corporate users using coworking facilities were "going rogue" with supervisors not knowing that their employees were working in a shared office space, points out Don Ball, co-founder of the CoCo coworking and collaborative space. Today, 9 percent of people who frequent coworking spaces in the U.S. come from corporations with more than 100 people, according to Emergent Research. That's not significant but does point to where the future is potentially headed.

Trend 4: Adaptive lifelong learning the norm

Not all foresight exercises are equal. The Institute for the Future first looks at big disruptive shifts and how they work in concert to produce true disruptions, then determines which are relevant to a particular study. Ten years from now, relevant work skills will be shaped by the continued rise in global connectivity, smart technology and new media, among several other drivers.

A 19-page report (PDF) published by the non-profit research group analyzes the key drivers that will reshape the landscape of work and identifies key work skills needed by 2020. Below is a summary image:

Trend 5: Jobs of the future will either retrofit and blend existing jobs, or solve entirely new problems

For a sense of what kinds of jobs will be around in the future, we turn to the World Future Society. The organization has been serving as a "neutral clearinghouse of ideas on the future" for over 40 years. A special report (PDF) published earlier this year predicts 70 specific jobs for 2030.

The WFS approach to predicting future careers is to first focus on what may be a problem in the future and then invent a job that will solve it. The result is thought-provoking and novel. Can you envision today's high school or college students at mid-life, carrying out roles like these:

  • Amnesia surgeon
  • Brain signal decoder (mind reader)
  • Chef-farmer (agri-restaurateur)
  • Clone rancher
  • Digital archaeologist
  • Drone dispatcher
  • Exozoologist
  • Global system architect
  • Holodeck trainer
  • Personal brand manager
  • Smart car interior advertisement sales representative S
  • Space junk hauler
  • Transhumanist consultant


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