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Kai Ryssdal: According to the Department of Labor, there are -- give or take -- 155 million people in the American workforce. That number's going to grow, because people tend to make more people. Kids who're going to grow up and in 20 years have to figure out how to compete a global economy that's probably not going to look a whole lot like the one we have now.
The job market has our attention this week. Today, what the present might mean for workers of the next generation. From the Marketplace Sustainability Desk, Sarah Gardner reports.
Sarah Gardner: That's how baby Maxwell reacts when you take his dad's cell phone away from him. He likes holding it and putting it in his mouth. But he's not just a gadget guy. Maxwell likes books. He puts those in his mouth too.
Virginia Kim: I have no idea what he's going to be like. I mean, ideally, I would love for him to be some type of human rights advocate or an engineer.
Gardner: Gee, I wonder which pays more?
Mom Virginia Kim and Dad Chris Burciago are raising Maxwell in Orange County, Calif. She's a public school teacher. He works for a translation services company. They lead a comfortable, middle-class life. But they've read the studies. They know a college degree is now the minimum Maxwell will need to stay in the middle class, let alone rise higher.
Chris Burciago: Yeah, there's an Orange County school that's nearby us that there are people, they kind of fudge their address so they can go to these particular schools over here, because it looks good going into college.
Kim: I've already looked into his kindergarten.
But aside from a good education, Virginia and Chris, like many parents, wish they knew the magic formula that would guarantee Maxwell's future prosperity.
Mr. McGuire in "The Graduate": I just want to say one word to you: Plastics.
Paul Saffo: You can't think about the future of jobs without thinking of the line from the movie "The Graduate."
Futurist Paul Saffo gets paid to forecast long-term trends for investors and other clients of San Francisco-based Discern Analytics. He says if that late 60s movie were made today, he might whisper "biology" into Dustin Hoffman's ear. Saffo's a big believer in the future of biotechnology, a big-umbrella sort of industry that promises everything from faster-growing fish to a cure for cancer.
Saffo: So the first question is, what are the jobs that spin out of the biology revolution?
Gardner: What do you see?
Not possible? Labor economists will tell you their efforts to predict jobs 20, even 10 years out, often prove fruitless. But Saffo is convinced of one thing: Maxwell's job market will be even more competitive than today.
Saffo: This is becoming a borderless, global workplace. Children born today will spend part of their lives abroad, if they are successful professionals, in the same way their parents moved to different states.
Maybe the most important question, Saffo says, is what kind of skills Maxwell and his classmates will need to succeed. Saffo weighed in, along with some other job experts.
Job experts: Analytic and quantitative skills; social awareness, social IQ as I call it; creative problem-solving; the ability to be adaptable; language skills, foreign languages; and then of course, communications skills.
Sounds like Baby Maxwell has his work cut out for him. But our experts are convinced they'll all be needed in what they predict will be an even more globalized, digitized, technology-driven economy.
Marina Gorbis is executive director of the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, Calif. She envisions a world where computers, robots and other sophisticated machines have overtaken many of the middle-class jobs that involved routine work.
Marina Gorbis: In the next 10 to 20 years, we see these very smart "machines" entering every domain of our lives. We're going to be interacting with them on a massive scale.
"The Jetsons" theme song
If you're skeptical of a Jetsons-like future, Gorbis says, just ask teaching assistants in South Korea. They're already being replaced by robots that can recite stories and lead routine math drills. Now, that doesn't mean all teachers will disappear, but Gorbis says well-paid work will demand more skills than it does today. And it will be the sort of creative work that machines can't do.
Gorbis: Everything that cannot be defined, that's novel, improvisational, where you need to quickly adapt on the spot. Anything related to kind of abstract, high-level thinking.
That's why Gorbis says emphasize creative problem-solving. Schools can teach it; it's usually done in group exercises. They can take a lot of class time, but Gorbis says creative problem-solving is a key to innovation, and a necessary skill in a lot of the new jobs created by all those smart machines that are destroying some old jobs.
Michael Mills: My name's Michael Mills and I'm a senior user-experience designer at Schematic in Los Angeles.
That's user-experience designer. Sort of like architecture, but for digital information, Mills says. It's the kind of job we'll see more of in the future, as consumers demand more complex technology that's really easy to use.
Mills: So the simplest way I explain it to people is think of anything that has a screen on it and I try and figure out what needs to be on there and how it needs to work.
In college, he majored in math and art. So he's got the creative and the problem-solving down pat. A high degree of empathy is called for too. Add that to Maxwell's 21st century skill set.
Jonas Prising, the president of Manpower's Americas division, is pushing today's parents to think about an even less quantifiable skill.
Jonas Prising: The very rapid change means that it's going to be hard to be proficient at a skill that will take you through 40 years of workforce career. So your ability to be adaptable is going to be extremely important.
This is all pretty heavy lifting in a country where the public schools are struggling, kids rank 21st internationally in math and 25th in science. Prising says mastering those basic skills -- not to mention things like creativity and adaptability -- is the most daunting task ahead.
Prising: This will be one of the most strategic and important challenges for our nation to resolve, because it is really the key to our future prosperity as a nation, and of course, those of our children and our children's children.
Maybe it's a good thing Baby Maxwell's oblivious to the challenging future ahead of him. Besides, he's busy mastering more primary skills right now. His mom reports that he just learned to clap and crawl.
In Orange County, Calif., I'm Sarah Gardner for Marketplace.
Ryssdal: Tomorrow in our series: How some companies are redefining the very definition of job to make room for more people. For now, check your industry's prospects with our Future-Jobs-O-Matic -- the fastest-growing, fastest shrinking, highest paying, and lowest paying jobs of the future.