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Posted: November 12, 2013

The futurist: The coming era of super-employment

And the industries that will take us there

Thomas Frey

(Editor's note: This is the first of two parts.)

It’s easy to spot signs of desperation in people’s eyes. With unemployment rates at persistently high levels and young people unable to find jobs from one year to the next, we have become a society seething with anxiety.

I often get asked if we are headed into an era of 50 percent unemployment because we’ve automated all of the jobs out of existence. There are two parts to the answer.

Every time we download one of dozens of “level apps” on our smartphone, we eliminate the need to own this tool. Levels have traditionally been a tool made of metal with a small elliptical-shaped glass tube for accurately measuring horizontal balance. But the app is far easier. It eliminates the need to produce the metal and glass components, assemble and package the product, ship components halfway around the world, and retail stores no longer need to carry this line of products.

So yes, we are automating tons of jobs out of existence and we will continue to do so. Every downloadable app has the potential of eliminating small fractional jobs. But cumulatively, this amounts to millions of positions around the world.

The second part of the question, however, is a bit more complicated. “Have we simply run out of work?” And the answer is, of course not! 

In fact, we will never run out of work. But there aren’t always jobs associated with the work that needs to be done. And that’s where we find ourselves today – plenty of work, not enough jobs.

Here are some thoughts on how we can escape the downward employment spiral and 24 future industries that will lead to an era of super employment! 

The Crux of the Problem: “People-less” Wealth Creators

The purpose of business is to create wealth. Similar to how our blood supply is the primary circulatory system for sustaining our life, the flow of money is the primary mechanism for keeping a business alive.

Money that is used to fuel a manufacturing business with 10,000 employees and create $100 million in revenue each year is treated the same as an investment business with no employees to produce a similar $100 million revenue stream each year. 

In fact, “people-less” businesses are far lower risk, making the routing of money to these kinds of entities much more appealing.

We have created systems that place people-intensive businesses on an even playing field with businesses that employ no people, and that’s why so many potential job creators have been sidelined. 

Without the right checks and balances, banks are not able to justify lending money to the riskier catalytic innovators. It’s far easier to make money off of money rather than labor-intensive work.

As a result, many of our best and brightest entrepreneurs have been relegated to small lifestyle business operations with little ability to grow.

The solution? We can either penalize the negative or incentivize the positive. Most governments are quick to use taxes as a disincentive. But another option may be to create a system to multiply investments into job-creating businesses with low interest matching funds, based on the number of people employed. This kind of approach would instantly shift investment dollars towards the labor-building side of the equation.

Catalytic Innovation

Unlike “disruptive innovation” that disrupts an existing industry, “catalytic innovations” have the ability to produce entirely new industries

Any technology that becomes a catalyzing agent for opening doorways into a world never before seen, falls into this broad new category of catalytic innovation.

Examples of catalytic innovations in the past included: 

  • Photography
  • Automobiles
  • Electricity
  • Airplanes
  • Telephones

Each technology went on to form a massive new industry that never existed previously.

Naturally everyone is interested in knowing what innovations are on the verge of creating massive new industries, so I’ll mention a few.

24 Future Industries primed for creating the jobs of the future

Future jobs are being created every hour of every day in the minds of visionary thinkers. But only the true catalytic innovators are creating entire new industries.

Many traditional occupations like accounting, management, and sale will be reworked to fit the context of these new industries. Other more creative positions like wizard of light bulb moments, brand warrior, digital overlord, mobile sensei, code monkey, derma-pigmentation technician, overseer of order, godfather of talent, beervangelist, or number ninja are creative occupational titles designed around the new breed of skills needed to succeed in these businesses.

Here are a number of both emerging and rapid growth industries that will be employing millions of people in the coming years.

1.) Atmospheric Water Harvesting – The earth’s atmosphere is a far more elegant water distribution system than rivers, reservoirs, and underground waterways. Our current ground-based systems involve pipes and pumping stations that are expensive to operate and maintain, and easily contaminated. Since we all depend on the rains to provide the water we need, what if we could extract this rain at the very time and place we need it? On-demand water harvesters are being developed by a new breed of inventors wanting to tackle this exact problem.

2.) Commercial Drone Industry – The U.S. Congress has mandated the FAA develop a plan to incorporate drones into national airspace by Sept. 30, 2015. Many in this new industry are chomping at the bit to get started. According to the Association for Unmanned Vehicles International, once drones get okayed for the national air space, the first 3 years will produce $13.6 billion in economic activity along with 34,000 new manufacturing jobs. But more than just manufacturing, there will be a need for drone pilots, drone farming specialists, drone security, drone data analysts, drone mosquito killers, and much more. China is moving faster than we are on this one. 

3.) Software Developers – With a programming universe comprised of over 8,000 different languages, dated languages like Fortran, Jovial, and Cobol that lie buried inside corporate IT departments are coming back to haunt their host companies. As an example, the day-to-day operations at the Mellon Bank of New York are based on 112,500 Cobol programs – 343 million lines of code – that run core-banking functions. Mellon Bank is not alone. Thousands of other companies have similar issues. The ticking time bomb behind this problem is that the people familiar with this code are nearing retirement age. For companies that wait until that the institutional knowledge is gone, the costs for converting over may be as much as ten times higher than it would have been beforehand. There is now a massive push to teach coding as a fundamental skill like math, reading, and writing. Developers will be our chief innovators in the future. The push for new talent is driving salaries well into the six-figure range.

4.) Mobile Apps – When Apple introduced their iPhone software developer’s kit on March 6, 2008, no one had a clue about the tectonic plate-shifting nature of this announcement. In just a few short years the number of apps has mushroomed into a force of nature, radically shifting how products are created, and more importantly, how people in the physical world interface with information in the digital world. With over 2 million apps currently available for download on smartphones, next generation apps will be for smart shoes, smart homes, smart guitars, and much more.  

5.) Our Trillion-Sensor Future – In the last six years, we’ve gone from 10 million sensors—in things like the Nintendo Wii and iPhones—to 3.5 billion. This is why Janusz Bryzek, an executive at Fairchild, organized the Trillion Sensor Summit, which took place recently in Palo Alto. Bryzek is projecting 1 trillion sensors by 2020 and 100 trillion sensors in the mid 2030s along with literally millions of new primary and secondary jobs to manage this emerging sector.

6.) 3D Printing – 3D printing was recently named by Goldman Sachs as one of eight technologies destined to creatively destroy how we do business. Currently making inroads into everything from pharmaceutical drugsto food, to antibodies and new life forms, to clothing and shoes, it’s projected to reach $3.1 billion worldwide by 2016 and $5.2 billion by 2020. As an industry making inroads in thousands of different businesses simultaneously, former Wired editor Chris Anderson is famously quoted as saying, “3D printing will be bigger than the Internet.”

Thomas Frey is the executive director and senior futurist at the DaVinci Institute and currently Google’s top-rated futurist speaker.  At the Institute, he has developed original research studies, enabling him to speak on unusual topics, translating trends into unique opportunities. Tom continually pushes the envelope of understanding, creating fascinating images of the world to come.  His talks on futurist topics have captivated people ranging from high level of government officials to executives in Fortune 500 companies including NASA, IBM, AT&T, Hewlett-Packard, Unilever, GE, Blackmont Capital, Lucent Technologies, First Data, Boeing, Ford Motor Company, Qwest, Allied Signal, Hunter Douglas, Direct TV, Capital One, National Association of Federal Credit Unions, STAMATS, Bell Canada, American Chemical Society, Times of India, Leaders in Dubai, and many more. Before launching the DaVinci Institute, Tom spent 15 years at IBM as an engineer and designer where he received over 270 awards, more than any other IBM engineer.

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