Looking at the future Essay

“We should all be concerned about the future because we will all
have to spend the rest of our lives there,” said Charles Kettering,
American manufacturer and inventor. The success of books like John
Naisbitt’s Megatrends and Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock is
testimony to the concern many people have about the future. Alvin
Toffler, in Preview and Premises, expressed well the reason for our
interest in the future: “Looking into the future–which no one can
do except in a metaphorical sense–is a way of improving decisions in
the present.” Thus, by listening to the weather forecast we can
make a better decision about the clothing to wear. By anticipating
changes in the needs and tastes of consumers, businesses can introduce
products more likely to sell. Similarly, information about the future
job market serves students who are planning their careers, counselors
who are assisting them, and educational planners who are structuring
curriculums to meet the needs of tomorrow’s economy.

Recently, interest in future job market opportunities has been
heightened by two factors. First, major industries such as automobile,
steel, machinery, and textile manufacturing have been racked by two
major recessions and increased foreign competition, causing plant
closings and sharp declines in employment. Second, there has been a
much heralded appearance of new technologies–such as microelectronics
and genetic engineering–that have the potential to alter greatly old
industries and occupations and create new ones. Students, counselors,
and planners wonder how these factors are likely to affect the
industrial and occupational makeup of the economy and what skills
tomorrow’s workers will need.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics has been projecting occupational
employment trends for nearly 40 years for use in career guidance and
educational planning. But the Bureau is not alone in developing
information about the future world of work. Many others also publish
such material. This article seeks to alert users to the different
approaches authors use when writing about the future; points out the
limitations of the literature; and highlights some of the different
views that have been expressed on two major issues concerning the future
job market–the importance of manufacturing and emerging careers.

How Authors Look at the Future

Predictions about the future are not new. In his recent book, The
Patterns of Expectations 1644-2001, Ignatius F. Clarke states that
modern literature about the future had its origins in the late
1700’s, at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. During this
period, there was a growing awareness that the future would differ from
the past because of advances in science and technology. This
realization led to many works in which authors discussed the shape of
the future. The books that appeared then and since can be grouped
roughly into two categories–the speculative and the scientific.

Many writers about the future have relied largely on speculation to
describe the shape of things to come–writers such as Jules Verne and
H.G. Wells. One of the earliest and most important of the speculative
works was L’An 2440 by Sebastian Mercer. L’An went through 11
editions between 1771 and 1793, was translated into three languages, and
inspired books by a host of other writers. Mercer’s predictions
for the year 2440 were the result of his speculation about the effects
of the technology emerging during his time. Mercer predicted that this
technology would enable society to create a near perfect world. He
envisioned, for example, that balloons, which had first been flown in
Paris in 1783, would transport goods and people around the globe. To an
extent, Mercer’s predictions came true. In the 1920’s and
1930’s, giant dirigibles were used to transport people across the
Atlantic, and today there is increased interest in using dirigibles as a
fuel-efficient form of transport. However, as we know, technology has
developed far more than Mercer anticipated. And, while technology has
improved many aspects of life, it has not created a near perfect world.

Five years after the last edition of L’An was published,
another author tried to anticipate the future through a more scientific
approach. In 1798, Thomas Malthus’s Essays on the Principle of
Population used geometrical and arithemtical ratios to show that as
scientific advancement increased life expectancy, the population would
grow faster than food supply–resulting in widespread famine.
Malthus’s predictions proved incorrect because he had not
anticipated improvements in agricultural technology. However, his ideas
gained enough attention to spur other attempts to ‘forecast’
the spur and to earn the discipline of economics a nickname that has
stuck to this day–the dismal science. According to Ignatius Clarke,
forecasting was given impetus by the problems caused by
industrialization, the development of social science theory, the
improvement of statistical methods, and the advance of literacy and
education. Both speculative writings about the future and forecasts
continued to develop in the 20th century as technological advance and
social change constantly reinforced the idea that the future would
differ from the past.

Today, many individuals and groups are writing about the future.
Authors such as Arthur Clarke and Alvin Toffler use their knowledge of
technology and society to speculate about many political, social, and
economic issues. Many groups do forecasting. Private consulting firms
forecast how stock prices will move, how citizens will vote, how
consumers will spend money, how many houses will be built, and a variety
of other items. Federal agencies also produce many projections: the
Bureau of the Census projects population growth, the National Science
Foundation estimates the future demand and supply of scientists and
engineers, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects the size and
composition of the labor force and industrial and occupational

BLS publications such as the Occupational Outlook Handbook and
Occupational Projections and Training Data present information on future
employment opportunities specifically for the use of students,
counselors, and educational planners. Some other publications also
focus exclusively on the future job market, such as Emerging Careers:
New Occupations For The Year 2000 and Beyond, by Norman Feingold and
Norma Miller, and the Science Resource Studies of the National Science
Foundation. In other works, information about the future job market is
presented along with discussions of other social, political, and
economic topics. Some examples are Naisbitt’s Megatrends, Alvin
Toffler’s The Third Wave, and Encounters With The Future by Marvin
Cetron and Thomas O’Toole. Some works, however, are so speculative
and broad in scope that their application to career planning is
marginal. Even eliminating these leaves a wealth of information–some
of it conflicting–about the job market. When using this information,
counselors and jobseekers should remember that all information about the
future contains elements of uncertainty and subjectivity.

Limits of Forecasting

The future is not predetermined; rather, it is largely, though not
completely, a matter of the choices we all make in the present. Because
forecasters cannot accurately account for all the economic, technical,
political, and other changes that our choices bring about, it is not
possible for them to describe the future with certainty.

There are differing degrees of uncertainty, however. General
trends can be described more confidently than specific changes. It can
be stated with a relatively high degree of certainty, for example, that
computers will become increasingly important in many businesses.
Predictions about the number of jobs that will be available in
computer-related occupations are much less likely to be accurate. Such
predictions require the author–unless he or she simply pulls a number
out of the air–to define the relationship between the use of computers
and the level of employment in each computer occupation, the growth
expected in the use of computers, the effects of changes in technology,
and many other factors. Because many of these factors are difficult to
predict, any specific forecast based on them is of course uncertain.

Both specific and general information can be useful in evaluating
future job markets. Consider, for example, the information in
Naisbitt’s Megatrends and in BLS publications.

Naisbitt writes about 10 trends that he believes are shaping the
future. Two of these ‘megatrends’ are that most people will
produce information rather than goods and that many American firms will
compete with foreign firms. Although Naisbitt makes no numerical
projections, he does point out some of the implications of these two
‘megatrends,’ such as a shift in the occupational composition
of the work force and a decline in employment in certain manufacturing

The Bureau, on the other hand, produces a set of numerical
projections for 260 industries and 675 occupations. These projections
are intended to describe in detail future job market conditions for the
entire economy. The projections are based on assumptions about broad
trends in the economy that could be viewed as BLS’s

BLS projections are developed primarily for the use of young people
who will have to implement their plans within 10 to 15 years. Many
other authors such as Naisbitt do not have this specific purpose as the
primary objective of their work; rather, they are interested in broader
and longer term directions of society and the economy. Students should
be cautious in using information developed primarily for other purposes
in planning their careers, as they must be cautious in using all
information about the future.

Authors use many methods to determine the “range of real
possibilities” for the future. However, virtually all methods
depend on jugments and assumptions. Companies such as Chase
Econometrics use complex mathematical models to project economic
indicators. Naisbitt analyzes the content of newspapers to identify
major concerns of the country. Marvin Cetron has stated that events in
Sweden often point the direction that America will follow. BLS
projections of employment are developed from a model of the economy that
is based on many assumptions about the structure and level of economic
activity. The BLS projections also rely on the judgment of economists
about changes in trends. The necessity of using judgment and
assumptions means that all forecasts will be somewhat subjective. As
Clarke says in Patterns, “. . . as belief or temperament inclined
some writers to describe the worst of all possible futures, different
ideas or a more sanguine frame of mind caused others to imagine the far
happier condition of life in coming centuries.”

Views on the Future of Manufacturing

Several authors have stated that they expect the manufacturing
sector of the economy to decline in importance. Increased factory
automation, competition from foreign firms, and the movement of American
manufacturing facilities overseas are the key factors expected to
contribute to this decline. But this proposition is put forth in
several forms.

In Megatrends, Naisbitt states that we have become an information
society instead of an industrial one. He dates this change to the
mid-1950’s, when white-collar employment began to exceed
blue-collar employment. Since white-collar workers create and process
information instead of goods, information, according to Naisbitt, will
be the driving force in the future economy, the force creating new jobs.
In The Third Wave, Toffler contends that smokestack industries such as
iron and steel, automobile, and textile manufacturing–the backbone of
the ‘second wave’ economy–are declining in importance, but
that the ‘third wave’ industries such as electronics, lasers,
optics, genetics, and ocean science are becoming more important. In an
article in The Futurist, Marvin Cetron predicts that manufacturing
employment will account for only 11 percent of total employment by 2000,
down from 28 percent in 1980.

It is important to note that most authors do not expect
manufacturing to disappear from the economy. Naisbitt says,
“finally, the transition from an industrial to an information
society does not mean manufacturing will cease to exist or become
unimportant.” And Toffler states that some second wave industries
will survive in the third wave economy by taking advantage of third wave
technology such as robots.

Other authors are more optimistic about the future of
manufacturing. Keith McKee, Director of the Manufacturing Productivity
Center, says that increases in output resulting from the use of
automation could offset productivity gains and keep employment from
declining drastically. BLS has for some time stated that manufacturing
employment will decline relative to that of service-producing industries
and that certain manufacturing industries will experience declines in
employment. However, BLS does project manufacturing employment to grow
as a whole and some manufacturing industries such as computer
manufacturing to grow rapidly. Part of the difference can be explained
by the time frame of the forecasts. BLS’s latest projections are
for 1995. Some of the new industries discussed by other authors will
only be in their fledgling stage by then. Space manufacturing cannot
become a significant business until there is a permanent space station
and it is cost effective for businesses to establish manufacturing
plants in space. This will not occur by the mid-1990’s. But much
of the difference between the BLS views and those of others results from
an honest disagreement over the shape of the future economy.

Views on Emerging Occupations

Most forecasters recognize that changes in technology will alter
the types of occupations in the future economy, and they have identified
many emerging fields. In Emergin Careers: New Occupations for the Year
2000 and Beyond, S. Norman Feingold and Norma Miller point to careers in
computer-aided design and manufacturing, robotics, space manufacturing,
ocean development, and energy sources. Cetron and O’Toole, in
Encounters with the Future, also list a number of emerging occupations,
including robotics technician, laster technician, housing rehabilitation technician, and others. Caroline Bird, in The Good Years, suggests that
teaching will reemerge as an important career in the years ahead as
people have more leisure time to spend studying.

While few forecasters question the necessity of identifying new
occupations or the employment potential in some new fields, several have
questioned the emphasis put on emerging occupations in career guidance.
In an address to the National Center for Research in Vocational
Education, Herbert Bienstock, a former BLS Regional Commissioner, stated
that we have spent a great deal of time looking for the new and emerging
occupations although our real challenge is to improve the skills of
people for the great array of jobs that already exist. He also contends
that, while it is important for the researchers to keep an eye on the
new occupations and activities, it should not be the major focus of
career planning.

There are several reasons for not focusing too much attention on
emerging occupations. Many traditional occupations will offer
substantial employment opportunities in the future. According to BLS
projections, for example, there will be about 700,000 new jobs for
secretaries between 1982 and 1995. Because emerging occupations are
small, none are likely to offer that many jobs during the time period.
BLS is not alone in projecting ood opportunities in existing
occupations. Cetron and O’Toole indicate that several existing
occupations are expected to have bright futures. These include
operating engineer, heating/air-conditioning mechanic, and appliance
servicer. In other articles, Cetron also states that no occupation will
be in greater demand in the future than computer programmer–an
occupation that has existed for 20 years. Even Toffler, who foresees a
massive shift in the nature of the economy, has stated that there will
be demand for many kinds of skills in the future.

Another reason for not focusing exclusively on emerging occupations
is the risk of planning to enter a field that will not in fact emerge as
expected or as soon as expected. During the energy crises of the
1970’s, for example, many forecasters predicted substantial growth
in industries and occupations involved in developing alternative energy
sources. In an article in the Occupational Outlook Quarterly in the
Spring of 1977, Russell Flanders stated: “In addition, expanded
efforts to utilize new sources of energy, such as solar or geothermal,
may create new industries and occupations or special ties within
existing occupations.” Such predictions created a great deal of
interest in occupations such as solar technician. However, limitations
of solar power kept the occupation from growing as rapidly as
anticipated. The unexpected oil glut of the early 1980’s further
dampened the growth of this occupation, at least for the time being.
Industries and occupations concerned with developing alternative energy
sources probably will grow over time, but it would be folly for too many
young people to focus on them now when the demand is low.

A final consideration about emerging occupations is that many
evolve as specialties within existing occupations. In Encounters, the
authors contend that tool and die makers will become the laser
technicians of the future as more metalworking is done with lasers. By
recognizing that the skills of today’s traditional occupations can
often be applied to tomorrow’s emerging fields, individuals can
prepare for work in both today’s and tomorrow’s job market.
The necessity and advantage of being adaptable to a changing job market
have been recognized by many writers. In Megatrends, Naisbitt says,
“We are moving from the specialist who is soon obsolete to the
generalist who can adapt.” And, in Education for Tomorrow’s
Jobs, the authors state, “Given the uncertainty regarding the skill
requirements of the economy, it is essential that the education of
America’s young people is designed to enhance their abilities to
adapt as necessary to these changing requirements.”

Which views of the future will prove to be correct? Perhaps none.
We will only know in the future; until then counselors and students must
make the best use they can of the information available to them. As
Naisbitt says in Megatrends, “Trends tell you the direction the
country is moving in. The decisions are up to you.”


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