The Future of Unconventional Jobs

With the economy now on a wild roller-coaster ride, with career paths taking sharp turns and sudden frightening drops, a lot of people are nervous–very nervous. What will happen to your job? How do you choose a profession that won’t disappear in five years? The conventional wisdom, reinforced daily by the business press, is to scramble any way you can to a field with a future: software engineering, say, or global marketing. Otherwise, you may end up the 21st century equivalent of a blacksmith–trained to do a job that hardly anyone needs.

But a detailed look at the job prospects of tomorrow offers a more complicated and yet hopeful picture for people seeking an alternative to the typical lists of “hot jobs.” Take a look at the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook, which forecasts 50 million new jobs opening up by the year 2006, a net increase of 14 percent over 1996. Surely, there’s something in there for you. It’s easy to get lost in the bureau’s minutiae and the wacky job titles (head sawyers, down 10 percent; shampooers, up 7 percent). But if you look long enough, patterns begin to emerge. The job outlook is bleak for people who do not acquire specialized skills (farmworkers, down 9 percent) or cannot adapt to technological change (telephone operators, down 9 percent). But it’s much brighter for folks seeking something other than life as a computer jockey or corporate honcho. If you can heal people, resolve conflicts, or tell a good story, for instance, a good job is probably waiting.

These may account for 14 of the 30 fastest-growing jobs in the next decade. The 77 million baby boomers, now ages 36 to 53, are enduring an increasing burden of minor aches and chronic conditions, and their woes will create millions of new jobs for healers. As aging boomers search for relief, they will look beyond traditional Western medicine. The number of nationally certified massage therapists in the United States has quadrupled since 1990, according to the American Massage Therapy Association. The need for healing also will go beyond easing physical pain. Depression and major life changes become more prevalent in middle age, which is why the number of counseling therapists is projected to increase dramatically. And even the most well-adjusted 50-year-olds find themselves paying more attention to spiritual matters once a parent or close friend dies. The number of jobs for directors of religious activities and education in churches and temples may increase 36 percent. In all, over 100,000 new jobs for clergy and religious directors are expected between 1996 and 2006.

The government expects the number of lawyers to increase 19 percent in the next decade, while the number of judges may increase only 2 percent. The result will be worsening gridlock in the courts. At the same time, the demand for simpler, more humane ways of resolving disputes will increase for another reason. A pioneer generation of college-educated women joined the labor force in the 1970s and 1980s and is finally entering the ranks of top management. As managers, women are more likely than men to talk through conflicts instead of reaching for a hired gun.

The first storefront businesses offering dispute mediation opened in the mid-1970s. Ten years ago, there were about 150 such centers; today there are at least 500 in the United States, and perhaps many more than that.

The explosion of media choices in the past decade includes the Internet, but it extends to cable television, CD-ROMs, home videos, specialty magazines, and other forms of entertainment. Thanks to the middle-aging of the population and rising education levels, the share of Americans who go to a concert, play, or art museum at least once a year rose from 41 percent in 1992 to 50 percent in 1997, according to the National Endowment for the Arts. And by several measures, entertainment is America’s most powerful export product.

The Bureau of Labor expects that the demand for writers, artists, and entertainers will increase 24 percent over the next decade, with a total of 772,000 new jobs in those fields. The bureau projects a 33 percent increase in the number of jobs for musicians, 28 percent increases for artists/commercial artists and dancers/choreographers, and 26 percent for designers and interior designers. If you can tell a good story in music, movement, or pictures, someone probably wants to hire you.

For people who tell their stories in words, the forecast is partly cloudy. Overall, the number of jobs for writers and editors is expected to increase at a good clip (21 percent). Yet this is a catchall category that includes everyone from the most exalted novelist (not many jobs available) to the lowliest writer of technical manuals (many more jobs available). The government apparently expects happy talk to do well, too: The number of jobs in public relations is expected to increase 27 percent. Yet the number of jobs for old-fashioned journalists (print and broadcast reporters) is expected to decline 3 percent. Yikes.

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Brad Edmondson lives in Ithaca, New York. The 1998-99 edition of theOccupational Outlook Handbook is available for free at

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