Paths to Prosperity: What Workforce Development Will Look Like in 2040

July 14, 2015

This week, the Roosevelt Institute’s Next American Economy project is releasing a series of thought briefs in which experts examine how the economy will change over the next 25 years. Read the introduction here.

Fifty years ago, the path to professional success and economic stability was pretty clear:

Get good grades -> Go to college -> Find a well-paying job -> Climb the corporate ladder -> Retire

Today, this path is much more ambiguous. Many icons of modern-day success—Zuckerberg, Gates, Jobs—are college dropouts. In lieu of lifelong employment, young people are encouraged to develop “entrepreneurial skills” so that they can launch their own startups or, in other words, create their own jobs where there are none. But what will those jobs look like?

Recent technological breakthroughs in the fields of machine learning and robotics engineering have led to dramatic changes in the nature of work across many different sectors. Some researchers predict that over the next 20 years, 45 percent of jobs in the U.S. will be “computerized,” meaning that they will be broken down into automatable tasks that can be carried out by robots of one form or another.

Against this backdrop, it is no longer clear what skills, experiences, and knowledge are necessary in order to succeed in today’s rapidly evolving economy.

A few months ago, the Roosevelt Institute invited me to speculate on what the future of workforce development will look like in the coming decades, as technology continues to drive fundamental shifts in the nature of work in the U.S. economy. In my thought brief, I explore the following questions:

What skills and competencies should we focus on equipping the workforce with in order to meet the labor demands of the future economy?

Are university degrees dead? How will we demonstrate and package our competencies in order to find gainful employment in the future?

How will companies find skilled workers in the future? What institutions are needed in order to mediate fair relationships between potential employees and employers in the labor market?

In order to answer these questions, I outline a few specific trends currently underway in the arenas of workforce development, recruitment, and hiring. I examine the emergence of alternative higher education programs that seek to foster metacognitive competencies alongside the training of in-demand technical skills. In addition, I discuss the rise of online platforms like Khan Academy and Degreed, which could provide more customized educational experiences to a wide range of students. And finally, I touch on the opportunities and challenges that accompany the rise of recruitment methods that are driven by big data analysis.

These trends serve as an anchor for a much broader discussion on what the pathways to prosperity could look like in the rapidly changing U.S. economy. Although the future of workforce development remains highly ambiguous, my hope is that this thought brief can serve as a guide to thinking about the immense set of opportunities and risks that lie before us as we figure out how to prepare coming generations for the future of work.