Making the Future Work for Us

By Sean Mullin and Creig Lamb
October 10, 2017

Last month, Nesta, the UK’s Innovation Charity, released its report The Future of Skills: Employment in 2030. This report employs a novel mixed method approach that combines historic trends analysis, insights from experts, and machine learning algorithms to map how the job and skill compositions of the US and UK labour markets are likely to change.

Nesta’s report shines a bright light not only on the jobs and skills that may decline in prominence, but also on those that are likely to become more important. Its insights will be valuable to governments seeking to design new policies and programs to help citizens navigate a changing economy.

As the authors rightly state, this report “challenges the false alarmism [typical of many predictions about the future of work] that contributes to a culture of risk aversion and holds back technology adoption, innovation, and growth.”

What did Nesta do differently?

To date, research on the future of work has been largely limited to whether or not a job or task is at risk of being automated. However, this approach downplays the role that technology plays in creating jobs and de-emphasizes how other trends like globalization, climate change, and an aging population might impact the future of work. Most studies have also been less focused on how these changes influence the skills that workers will need.

Nesta’s study addresses many of these gaps by examining how a variety of mega trends might impact job demand, and what skills are most likely to be important in the future.

What did Nesta find?

The study found that, in general across the UK and US labour markets:

  • Roughly one-tenth of people in the labour force are in occupations that are expected to grow, whereas roughly one-fifth are in occupations expected to shrink.
  • Similar to our conclusions in The Talented Mr. Robot, the jobs expected to experience declines in employment are typically low- and medium-skilled. However, not all of these jobs are expected to have the same fate. Some service areas like food preparation and hospitality are likely to experience both growth and redesign as more emphasis is placed on product variety and artisanal employment.
  • Unsurprisingly, engineering, design, and digital and creative occupations are expected to grow. So too are architectural and green occupations, which will likely benefit from urbanization and a growing focus on environmental sustainability. However, expected growth varies considerably depending on the job. For example, demand for management analysts is expected to grow considerably in the US, but demand for financial specialists is expected to decline as a result of automation technology.
  • Future employment will require strong interpersonal and broad-based cognitive skills such as originality and active learning. Each job will also require a variety of specialized skills and broader knowledge.
  • Historically, many occupations have adjusted to economic shifts — redesigning themselves and their skill requirements in the process. Nesta’s model provides workers, employers, and policymakers with a useful understanding of the skills that are likely to grow in importance. This could inform investments in skills training designed to help workers and employers get ahead of the curve.

What are our next steps?

Over the past year, we’ve been working to understand what the jobs of the future will look like for Canadians and what skills they will need to adapt. Our initial report, The Talented Mr.Robot, estimated that 42 percent of the Canadian labour market is highly susceptible to automation over the next 10 to 20 years. Since then, we’ve been examining what these trends mean for different towns and cities and for skill demand across the Canadian economy.

We believe that Nesta’s study is crucial in furthering our understanding of the future of work. However, the study is designed to examine each country individually, which limits the relevance of its findings for other countries. As a result, we cannot simply apply these findings to the Canadian context. What we can do is bring this study to Canada. The Brookfield Institute is working with Nesta to explore options for replicating and building on Nesta’s existing research, to help Canadians better prepare for the future of work.

That’s where you come in. A study of this magnitude and complexity will require input from experts across Canada. If you’d like to get involved, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us at brookfield.institute@ryerson.ca.

For media enquiries, please contact Coralie D’Souza, Director of Communications, Events + Community Relations at the Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship.

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