The Next 10 Years: Looking Into the Future of the Talent Economy

01/07/20209 min read
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Kerry Brown
Vice President of Workforce Adoption
Kerry Brown, SAP's VP of Workforce Adoption, is a talent economy evangelist and thought leader. She previously worked at Coca-Cola, Baker Hughes, and CSR.
The Next 10 Years: Looking Into the Future of the Talent Economy

As we close out the second decade of this new millennium, it’s worth reflecting on how drastically the staffing industry, the workforce, the function of human resources, and the concept of talent have evolved thanks to digital transformation.

It’s even more exciting, however, to look to the future and begin a conversation about what we can expect in the roaring 2020s. Millennials and baby boomers are driving so much of the change in the talent economy because they are empowered by choice. They can leave jobs that don’t suit them. Baby boomers have largely raised their children and don’t have the financial commitments they did in the past. Millennials have entered a workforce where the average job tenure is less than three years -- they expect to leave their job.

Obviously, I do not have a crystal ball. I do, however, have 20 years of experience in change management and adoption. From my observations over the last several years, I believe we’ll see the following unfold in our next decade:

1. Talent Will Continue to Hold the Power

Until recently, the world of work was crafted based on the needs of the organization. The current talent shortage and skills gap have shifted the balance of power toward the talent. Staff shortages have escalated in the last three months to become the top emerging risk organizations face globally, according to Gartner’s Emerging Risks Survey. As a solution, companies are tossing out traditional roles and hierarchies and taking a look at the underlying skills people have. “We find that when companies start with skills—the ones they need, the ones they have, and how the mix may change over time—they can free up their thinking and find more creative ways to meet the inevitable mismatches,” according to McKinsey. Included in these creative ways to close the gap in skills is an increase of contingent workforces, including freelance and on-demand talent. In 2020, the number of self-employed workers in the United States is projected to reach 42 million people.

Increasingly, corporations are redefining themselves, from an acute focus on profits to a focus on their customers and employees. The consumerization of business has changed the way employers interact with their employees, including their contingent workforces. There’s an increased burden on the corporation to be considerate of the employee because for the first time -- possibly in the last 100 years -- they have a choice about whether to stay with a company or leave for greener pastures. This choice reaches to freelance and on-demand talent, perhaps even more so.

2. The Role of Higher Education Will Shift

Not all baby boomers attended college but they made sure their children did. As such, they began the strong trend connecting higher education and career success, a belief that continues today. Universities are not immune to the changes the talent economy is ushering in, however. The role of education is changing dramatically. Higher education institutions are being challenged to provide lifelong degrees because four years isn't enough to teach us what we need to know. Considering the pace of change and the half-life of knowledge, however, this is an impossible task. Up to 85% of the jobs that will exist in 2030 haven’t even been invented yet. (Consider the proliferation of new jobs since 2010, like social media managers and Uber drivers.) By 2030, according to a recent McKinsey Global Institute report, “375 million workers—or roughly 14 percent of the global workforce—may need to switch occupational categories as digitization, automation, and advances in artificial intelligence disrupt the world of work. The kinds of skills companies require will shift, with profound implications for the career paths individuals will need to pursue.”

Today, companies are removing years of experience and education requirements from their job postings. There are just too many examples of people without traditional credentials that are more than qualified. A high school student with 2 million followers doesn’t need a degree in digital marketing. Similarly, a teenager who has been programming robots since he was six years old has proven he can acquire the necessary skills.
Higher education will be challenged to help develop skills that are increasingly in-demand, though arguably more difficult to teach. These include grit, creativity, motivation, commitment, and critical thinking -- the uniquely human traits robots cannot take away from us. In fact, automation will drive an increased need for social and emotional skills in the workplace. Most importantly, colleges will have to teach students the importance of lifelong learning. People entering the workforce today will not only have to reskill every several years, but they’ll also have to unlearn and relearn knowledge and processes.

3. Workers in the “Blindspot” (Largely Gen X) Will Get Attention

Organizations have, unfortunately, taken the established worker for granted by not giving them the same level of attention and accommodation they’ve given millennials. In other words, established workers are in an organizational “blindspot.” These are the folks -- boomers still working and Gen X -- who began their careers before the talent economy took off and agreed to the terms of traditional employment, like commuting to an office every day. Then, millennials entered the scene and defined new terms, including freelance, on-demand, and even wandering the globe as a digital nomad. Baby boomers took notice and adopted these same terms, rather than fully retire. Older millennials (especially those 28-35 years old) sometimes “have higher and, some might say, unrealistic expectations about their lives and opportunities. This is likely the result of growing up in a time of greater economic stability and being raised by baby boomer parents who sheltered them from many of the dangers of the world while reinforcing their specialness and their extraordinary potential. This trait is reflected in the work attitudes older millennials who have challenged norms, are demanding more from employers, and have reshaped today’s workplace to be more casual, open and flexible,” according to an EY report.

Corporations had to accept these changes in order to attract and retain younger talent. Meanwhile, established workers have been in the background, diligently doing their jobs, without special treatment. Now, they’re beginning to ask, “What about me?” They’re calling for increased opportunities to work remotely, job share, and rotate through various departments. In the next decade, we’re going to see corporations reinvent how they engage with their established talent. This will include building bridges between established talent and younger talent, creating more shared jobs, and increasing transparency.

4. People Will Become the CEOs of Their Own Careers

In the past, people have abdicated that responsibility to a corporation and a hierarchy of managers who may or may not promote them. The globalization of the workforce has given all of us more opportunity to find work. Taking advantage of these increased employment options, people will continue to specialize in certain skills and choose to switch jobs to gain experience and hone these skills.

I believe this will hold true even if the economy weakens. At the senior level, the talent would continue to be in a position of choice because of their experience and expertise. In the younger generation, we’ll see the scrappiness and hustle of an entrepreneur. Freelancers can manage five or six projects, and eventually shift to the one that holds the most opportunity.

5. People Will Write Their Own Job Descriptions

Recently, I learned that for some roles at Facebook, Netflix, and Google, these companies are hiring early talent and then saying, “Spend the first three months figuring out what your job should be, and then tell us how you can contribute.” That’s a completely different relationship than traditional, top-down hierarchies.

The problem with most job descriptions is that they’re too general. When the applicant conforms to the job description, he or she may be leaving out critical skills that might contribute in unexpected ways. Recruiting the best talent involves letting them know you appreciate them as a whole person. Companies have the aptitude and the capability to do that, and I believe we’ll see more personalized job descriptions to reflect this.

6. Offices Won’t Go Away, But Office Hours Might

The concept of traditional office space is currently in dispute. While data shows people increasingly prefer remote work, companies are investing billions in new brick-and-mortar offices. How will the compromise play out over the next 10 years? In the recent survey What Workers Want, Savills UK found that “The key trends indicate that the most important factors that occupiers want in their ideal workplace are choice and control, commute, and connectivity: choice and control over their workplace, length and cost of commuting, and provision of quality IT infrastructure.”

According to a survey by Harvard Business Review, a preference for remote work does not preclude the need for people to connect and collaborate in person. People like people. I believe we’ll see a more fluid workweek, a construct where employees don't have to be somewhere from 8:00 am until 5:00 pm, where rush hour is not a part of anyone’s life. Rather, I think offices will serve as connecting and collaborating points, as needed. HBR’s survey reported “managers who insisted on some face time with remote employees were more successful,” and recommended managers schedule mandatory in-office days once a week, month, quarter, or year for teambuilding. Technology, too, will continue to enable workers to “meet” virtually. Ten years from now we may sit in each other’s home offices as holograms (or augmented reality), rather than merely a video conference.

Certainly, reduced costs associated with maintaining fewer office buildings will become a factor, as will the environmental impact of removing cars from the road. Cebr research states, if given the opportunity, “95% of knowledge workers would opt to work from home, on average 2.4 days per working week. This would amount to cost savings of $44.4 billion on commuting spend, while simultaneously reducing 5.8 billion hours a year commuting to and from work.” The combination of time savings and real costs (gas and tickets, for example) would result in a $107.6 billion a year cost savings for the US population. This same group would gain 11.9 billion hours each year in leisure time. Autonomous driving will also change how we get to work. We’ll continue to see talent challenge traditional work habits and make them fluid, and involve more employee-led choice.

The truth is, the workforce is going to change in ways we don’t yet know. Fluidity and choice in the workplace will continue to be themes. AI, machine learning, and robotics will create new opportunities and technologies for the next decade. Most certainly, remote work and the on-demand talent economy will continue to grow and shape not only who is in the workforce, but how work is done.

As a change management expert, I know change is a constant. Success will be determined by our ability to focus on how people’s lives and jobs will be impacted by these changes. I know I’m looking forward to it.

Kerry Brown
Vice President of Workforce Adoption
Kerry Brown, SAP's VP of Workforce Adoption, is a talent economy evangelist and thought leader. She previously worked at Coca-Cola, Baker Hughes, and CSR.