The Jobs of Tomorrow: Part 1 of 2

Virtual and augmented reality technologies will soon deliver high quality substitutes for many “real world” experiences, and a staggering number of completely unprecedented experiences, to nearly all humans around the globe. They will deliver these experiences while leaving much smaller ecological footprints in their wake than our Industrial Age economic “machine” would be able to for comparable experiences. Their supporting physical infrastructure will also require significantly less human intervention to operate than our Industrial Age economic “machine” does today.  These and many other benefits that these technologies will provide to society make their widespread adaptation inevitable in my view.

Widespread consumer use of these technologies will lead to the Industrial Age clearly ending and giving way to what I term the “Virtual Age” by the early 2040s, following an approximately 25-year transition period.  In this two-part post, I will discuss the basics of how I expect this transition period to transform the global economy and shape the nature of “the jobs of tomorrow.”

notes slide 11 pdf

I anticipate a two-part transition period leading society from the Industrial Age into the Virtual Age, which I illustrate in the diagram above (please click on the diagram to expand it). Technology will act to increase efficiency in natural resource use throughout the period, paving the way for the global economy to shift from a focus on reality molding activities to reality mimicking activities.

Unfortunately, most countries will delay making the necessary upgrades to their national economies until the second part of the transition period (from ~2031-2040).  By this time, the severe employment and financial crises associated with the first part of the transition period (from ~2016-2030) will be well underway.


The Transition Begins

During the “Remote Control” period (from ~2016-2030), telecommuting and telepresence will become key aspects of most real world jobs (that have not been automated yet). Although these changes will most strongly affect jobs in developed countries, their repercussions will be experienced worldwide. [1]  The increased ability of workers to operate machinery remotely, and communicate in 3D with others over long distances, will lead to stunning improvements in corporate operational and logistical efficiency.

For example, managers and expert employees will be able to supervise less experienced staff in distant locations as if they are present in person.  They will also be able to take control of machinery remotely as needed, making better use of their time by cutting down on travel.  Some potential side effects of the inevitable increases in employee monitoring are described in Marshall Brain’s short story “Manna”, and humorously illustrated in The Simpsons episode #541, titled “Specs and the City.”

For machinery or tools that are challenging to operate remotely (e.g. plumbing tools), less experienced staff will be able to be hired in areas close to customers, while experts can be located remotely.  This will enable experts to assist less experienced staff in many more locations per day than is currently possible, helping to raise the overall quality of customer service, while minimizing travel times for both groups.

For machinery that is easier to operate remotely, jobs are likely to be opened up to a wide variety of non-local applicants, enabling the best person to do the job even if s/he is located thousands of miles away.  However, the resulting competition for these types of jobs is likely to put serious downward pressure on wages, particularly if workers located in other countries are permitted to compete with domestic workers.

As should be clear by now, the “Remote Control” period will unfortunately be a time of severe economic difficulty for societies.  Times will be especially tough when the effects of the virtual reality spiral have become obvious on a global scale.  On the positive side, exponential gains in broadband speed [2], dramatic reductions in the uncertainty of GPS coordinates [3], and increasing market saturation by dynamic 3D displays [4] during this time will provide the public with access to increasingly amazing virtual and augmented reality experiences.  Yet, as the public increasingly substitutes these experiences for traditional “real world” experiences, the resulting crunch on the revenues of “real world” oriented companies is likely to lead to numerous layoffs, debt defaults and corporate bankruptcies.

In desperate efforts to cut costs, many companies will upgrade their operations to incorporate the latest advances in automation, 3D printing, telecommuting, telepresence and “the internet of things.” [5].  However, the public and many municipalities will simultaneously be struggling to cut costs too as they absorb the impact of the huge number of resulting layoffs. [6]  By necessity then, resource sharing technologies, and cheaply priced virtual and augmented reality substitutes for real world experiences will skyrocket in public popularity during this time.

I must emphasize though, that all of these cost cutting measures (i.e. both individual and corporate) should be properly seen as transitional side effects of society’s shift from reality molding activities to reality mimicking activities.  See my posts “The Virtual Reality Spiral,” “Molding Versus Mimicking Reality” and “After Automation” for additional insights on this.

By the end of the “Remote Control” period around 2030, people around the globe (and the municipalities they live in) are highly likely to be clamoring for government solutions to the terrible social effects of unemployment and underemployment.  “Bread lines” and impoverished migrants traveling in search of work are also likely to be widespread, as previously occurred in the Great Depression.  In addition to all of this, the global economy will also be extremely weak after absorbing wave upon wave of debt defaults in the process of shrinking to a highly efficient configuration.  Yet, there will be significant cause for optimism even in the face of these great difficulties.

The good news is that governments that spend wisely at this time will be able to greatly alleviate their domestic employment crises, while simultaneously preparing their citizens and upgrading their national infrastructures for the coming Virtual Age.  In my next post I will explain how this is likely to occur. [7]


References and Additional Notes

[1]  The “telecommuting” and “telepresence” links provided are to Wikipedia articles.

[2] According to this Nielsen Norman Group website, “Nielsen’s Law of Internet Bandwidth states that…a high end user’s connection speed grows by 50% per year.”  A chart that corroborates this exponential growth is also shown on that site.  Rapid increases in internet connection speeds will support increasingly advanced virtual and augmented reality applications as the “Remote Control” period progresses.

[3] For example, according to this UT Austin press release from May 25, 2015, “Researchers in the Cockrell School of Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin have developed a centimeter-accurate GPS-based positioning system that could revolutionize geolocation on virtual reality headsets, cellphones and other technologies, making global positioning and orientation far more precise than what is currently available on a mobile device.”  Further future reductions of this sort in the uncertainty of GPS coordinates will enable virtual objects to be located extremely precisely in virtual and augmented reality worlds that are shared across different access devices.

[4] I expect dynamic 3D displays to fully saturate the domestic marketplace within the next 15 years, i.e. before the end of the “Remote Control” period.  See my blog post “Saturation’s Implications” for further details about this.

[5] The “internet of things” is a phrase generally attributed to Kevin Ashton (see e.g. this RFID journal articlethis Guardian article and this Wikipedia link for additional information).  It paints a picture of a world in which numerous electronic sensors deployed across various physical devices are able to communicate with each other, thus driving unprecedented increases in efficiency.  Jeremy Rifkin has also widely popularized this concept, for example in his book “The Zero Marginal Cost Society.”  Although I agree that the rise of the internet of things will lead to large increases in efficiency, I see this process as a transitional side effect of society preparing to shift its focus from reality molding activities to reality mimicking activities.  I view it as an indication that the Industrial Age is nearing an end, rather than moving on to a new phase.  In contrast to Rifkin, I also believe that the government sector will employ far, far more people than the nonprofit sector in the future, in response to technological unemployment and underemployment.  I will discuss the reasoning behind this employment view in my next post, which will be titled “The Jobs of Tomorrow: Part 2 of 2.”

[6] Jeremy Rifkin has also discussed the rise of the “collaborative commons” quite broadly, for example in his book “The Zero Marginal Cost Society.”  As with the “internet of things,” I see this increasing sharing of physical resources and ideas as a transitional side effect of society preparing to shift its focus from reality molding activities to reality mimicking activities.  By maximizing the efficiency of our use of “real world” materials (via resource sharing, automation, and other methods), we are effectively freeing up time and energy for more versatile and socially beneficial pursuits in the virtual world.  See my posts “After Automation” and “Molding Versus Mimicking Reality” for additional insights on this.

[7] In a future post, I also plan to write about how individuals can intelligently plan their educations and career paths in anticipation of the rapid sequences of changes that the “Remote Control” period is likely to bring.

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