I have been asked to speak to a group of 14 to 16 year olds about the importance of finishing high Graduation school and attending college. It’s one of my favorite topics. But as I thought about the talk I realized that I better say something about the future of work and why college has become more important than ever.  It’s fun but risky to speculate about the future of work and learning. The world is changing so fast. It’s hard to know what will happen next week, let alone 10 years from now.

As leaders, we should be thinking about the future, including whom we will be leading and what they will be doing in our organizations. We need to be prepared and we need to make sure our employees are prepared.  

A good place to start is with the tech industry because that industry will affect the nature of everyone’s work in the future. Chris Jablonski, in a ZDNet post titled, 5 trends driving the future of work, describes five major ways in which work is changing:

  1. More independent workers (one estimate is 20 million by 2013) – These are the independent consultants, contract workers, free lancers, free agents, and temps who cycle in and out of organizations in a constant flow. More people want to work with more flexibility and choice in what they do and more companies want to have more flexibility and choice in who they hire.  I think we will see the rise of a permanent-temp labor force.
  2. Working online – Workers will find jobs and do their work via email and Web sites and apps, possibly without ever setting foot inside their employers’ organizations. It’s outsourcing and it’s telecommuting and it’s working remotely; not as an exception, but rather as the principal mode of work.
  3. Co-working – For cost reasons or social reasons or convenience, workers are choosing to share work space with people from other occupations and organizations. Sometimes they start out in business incubators and then grow into a more cooperative arrangement. Co-working is more about community than entrepreneurism, although it is some of both.
  4. Lifelong learning – Workers need to be learning continually because of a world that is constantly changing.  Jobs are evolving and new jobs are being created in much shorter time frames than ever before. Whether one stays in the same job or moves to a new job, there will always be more to learn just to stay current. People will be working longer, much past the traditional retirement age, and doing that in new careers that require new knowledge and new skills.
  5. Businesses that solve new problems – For example (from a list prepared by the World Future Society), we might need chef-farmers who can bridge the gap between farm and restaurant, or clone ranchers who can raise cloned animals, or drone dispatchers who can manage remote-controlled vehicles, or space junk haulers who can clear the skies of unwanted debris. It's fascinating to think about the possibilities.

To Jablonski’s list, I would add five more trends:

  1. More small, entrepreneurial businesses – A desire for autonomy, control, and meaning, will drive many new workers (as well as baby-boomers) towards starting and growing their own businesses. New technologies and new consumer attitudes make these kinds of endeavors possible. However, there is a limit to this growth; not everyone is psychologically and financially equipped to take the risks associated with starting and managing a new business.
  2. Knowledge workers needed for nearly every job – From assembly line workers to auto mechanics to farmers to truck drivers, jobs will require increasing sophistication in the management of information. Because they have the tools, workers today, especially in developed nations, are retrieving, storing, sorting, and making sense of vast amounts of information as a normal part of their jobs.
  3. Changing jobs and careers frequently – Workers will no longer seek stability in their careers. It will become normal to move from job to job, “stop out” of the workforce from time to time, move in new directions and with different organizations, and form different kinds of work relationships with their primary employers. Change, not stability, will be the order of the day.
  4. Just-in-time learning – New technology is connecting more people globally and bringing more information to our fingertips (literally) whenever and wherever we need to know something. Workers will become mobile learners and learning will be on-demand rather than learning according to HR’s schedule.
  5. Solving complex and difficult global problems – Workers will be called on to solve, not just observe, the most intractable problems of our era: poverty; hunger; disease; global warming; energy conservation; violence; war and peace; and economic equality. We believe that we should be able to solve these problems and many young people are choosing to dedicate their careers to these issues.

Each of these 10 trends suggests that we need a workforce that is more informed, more able to integrate information from multiple disciplines, more able to interact effectively with diverse co-workers and business associates, and more skilled and knowledgeable about technology of all kinds. This is why I think a college education (two- or four-year degree) will be the “cost of admission” in the future, if it hasn’t become this already. To work for someone else or to work for yourself will require the breadth of knowledge, skills, and emotional intelligence that is developed in college.

What workforce trends do you see and how do you think a college education plays a role in the development of workers that will be needed in the future?


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