Time to dust off your jazz albums and flapper dresses: The roaring ’20s are back. A century after an unprecedented time of economic prosperity — albeit mostly felt by privileged Westerners — many are predicting similar fortunes for the 2020s as the world emerges from a year of shutdowns. Mass-scale pandemic investments could spur innovation the way World War I military mobilization did. Changing social norms inspired by the global pause have already altered how we work, play and think. This revolutionary boom will inspire new professions, with the help of new technologies and societal values. Join us on this journey into the possibilities of a decade that’s just revving up.
The music industry was hit as hard, or worse, by the pandemic than just about any industry, given most musicians rely heavily on live shows and merchandise sales to make ends meet. With little work to be had, some turned to sound therapy — using metal singing bowls and gongs to fight anxiety, depression, insomnia and other ailments exacerbated by the pandemic. Many of these classes began in a virtual setting and have now transitioned to in-person sessions amid wider vaccination rates, extending an earlier budding self-care trend. “It definitely seems like it’s starting to blow up right now,” says Alex Ballew, who recently signed a lease for studio space in Atlanta for his company, Secret River Sounds. “People need it more than ever. After a year of so much uncertainty, stress, anxiety, people are feeling disoriented.”
2. Got a Doc in the Virtual House?
Even though Skype and other web services had already been around for a decade, telemedicine didn’t really take off outside of rural communities that lack hospitals . . . until the COVID-19 pandemic forced services for both physical and mental health to go virtual. The remote diagnosis service Zipnosis saw a 3,600% increase in usage last year, and the U.S. and Australian governments, among others, are now reimbursing telehealth appointments. Patients get faster, cheaper treatment, while docs can potentially see many more clients from more far-flung locales.
3. Equity Economist
A key part of worldwide healing will be figuring out a more equitable way to share the wealth, particularly after so many lives and jobs have been lost while the richest experienced meteoric gains. American billionaires saw their total net worth surge by $1.6 trillion between March last year and April this year, a 55% increase, according to Inequality.org. That represents one-third of their total gains over the last 31 years, even as nearly 600,000 Americans lost their lives and millions struggled to find work or pay bills. Economists have traditionally focused on what helps economics writ large, influenced perhaps by the ethos “a rising tide lifts all boats,” but the world’s next generation of economists are focusing on equity over sheer GDP growth.
4. Online Nanny or Caregiver
As tools for virtual surveillance expand, so does the ability for your children or elderly loved ones to be watched from afar . . . especially when combined with artificial intelligence robots that can hand your child a juicebox or dispense medicine to your parents. Sittercity, among other organizations, began offering virtual babysitting services during the pandemic. While a personal touch may be appreciated after so much distance, making use of virtual caregivers could help reduce both the spread of diseases that are deadly to seniors and instances of elder abuse. Turns out, patients may actually prefer the new model: 36 of 40 participants in a study conducted by Oregon Health and Science University said they were happy with, or preferred, virtual consultations.
In an effort to fend off heartburn, indigestion or bloating, health-conscious eaters are increasingly turning to food sensitivity home tests to identify the dietary causes of their discomfort. With blood and genetic tests more widely available, people are making informed decisions about their health without visiting a doctor’s office. Scientists tracking this trend are finding huge demand for these services — although skeptics say the work is so medically dubious that it may be no more valid than reading tea leaves. Still, genetic testing is rapidly advancing in other scientifically valid uses, from diagnosing rare diseases early to aiding fertility treatments.
Remember those lines at the gas pumps a few weeks back? Thanks to a ransomware attack, the Colonial Pipeline was shut down for days, leading to surging pump prices and many East Coast service stations running out of gas. It was just one stark example of the myriad threats cyberwar poses. President Biden signed an executive order calling on government and private industry to work together to fight back against “malicious cyber campaigns” and requiring IT providers to report breaches that could compromise U.S. networks, among other measures. One Pew Research poll of 26 nations from 2018 revealed that cyberattacks were the third most feared threat, behind climate change and ISIS. Which makes white hat hackers — coding experts who expose vulnerabilities for the greater good — ever more necessary. But it is a profession that carries serious risks: Chris Kubecka, credited with saving Saudi Arabia from financial ruin, has faced legal intimidation from corporations that don’t appreciate their security flaws being exposed, while Marcus Hutchins, dubbed “the hacker who saved the internet,” was slapped with lengthy charges by U.S. officials.
2. Drone Pilot
Joystick jockeys are in for more than a joyride these days. Militaries are slowly replacing jet fighter pilots with soldiers who can steer a drone through a video game-like environment. Everyone from farmers and conservationists to insurance companies and video crews are sending commercial drones into the skies. While the salary potential for these jobs is as hard to pin down as the drones themselves, Glassdoor estimates that yearly earnings range from $33,000 to $79,000 — and that doesn’t include drone pilots who choose to freelance.
3. Deepfake Animator
Fears of election-altering deepfakes in 2020 never quite came true, but the proliferation of deepfakes will only increase as the tech improves: DeepTrace Technologies counted close to 8,000 deepfake videos online in December 2018 and watched that number nearly double by September 2019. However, deepfake careers don’t have to be nefarious. A skilled deepfake animator could help influencers create more social media content, for example, or solve a key problem filmmakers face with big names: lack of access. China has already used deepfake tech to create a 24/7 news anchor that could work “tirelessly” day and night. Still, the potential dangers are abundant.
4. Internet Archivist
Love history? Historians are accustomed to working with ancient texts, but as data shifts increasingly online, massive amounts of information are at risk of being lost forever — unless they are preserved. We’re talking about everything from six-second Vine videos created by hundreds of millions of users to news archives that evaporated in the wake of bankruptcy to digital content “vaporized” by design updates. The number of archivist positions is expected to grow 11% from 2019 to 2029, a much faster rate than other professions, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
5. Blockchain Engineer
The value of blockchain is that it is on a ledger that can be tracked, but the ramifications of that tech have yet to be fully realized. Now that banks and major companies are making significant investments in Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, governments are likely to take the industry more seriously as well — spurring demand for people who are crypto savvy and know how to get the most out of blockchain.
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Sex dolls are all the rage in Asia, with hotels springing up in Taiwan and mainland China where people can book a night with an almost lifelike companion. And the interest is truly going global: Australia, Norway, Finland, Denmark and the U.S. led in Google searches for sex dolls. As AI matures and robots become more capable of mimicking human speech and movement, human pimps capable of matching customers with their ideal companion will take “robo-prostitution” to the next level. There is already a term for mechanized lovers: B.O.B. . . . your battery-operated boyfriend. Of course, not all robot love includes plastic: Everything from girlfriend chatbots to therapist apps could become part of our autonomous amorous futures.
2. Speakeasy Operator
If people prefer more intimate settings over bars in the post-pandemic world, speakeasies could rise to a prominence unseen since Prohibition. Booze delivery straight to your door, made possible by the government finally removing puritanical laws stifling alcoholic e-commerce to promote social distancing, led to skyrocketing U.S. online sales. Startups like Thirstie, Speakeasy Co. and Drizly — the latter bought by Uber for $1.1 billion — are catering to consumers’ new appetite for home delivery. And while speakeasy-style bars could proliferate, it’s also not hard to imagine people promoting their homes as boozy retreats: Think Airbnb for speakeasies.
3. Weed Ph.D.
Marijuana scientists have typically been forced to grow their knowledge secretly. But as the legalization of weed spreads — strengthening the economics around the weed economy, there is a need for more trained professionals. Oaksterdam University in California calls itself the first “cannabis college,” while Northern Michigan University offers a degree in medicinal plant chemistry. The University of Vermont and Florida Gulf Coast University are offering relevant coursework as well, paving the way for pot pop quizzes.
4. Professional AI Athlete Coach
Physical sports with human athletes remain hugely popular, but esports are becoming a billion-dollar business. Cut to the merger of the two: AI athletes created by engineers and programmers who may even helm the controls to boot. The moral and health issues plaguing violent sports, from UFC to American football, are bound to catch up to them as more research into the effects of CTE reveals the dangers to humans. Plus, there are already three robot-related, Olympic-level competitions — World Robot Olympiad, RoboRAVE International and RoboGames (which features more than 70 events, including robot soccer, sumo and firefighting). Will young robotics club members become the new high school jocks?
5. VR Tour Guide
Tourism and travel is a trillion-dollar industry. And as virtual reality tech improves and becomes more widely accessible, would-be travelers are considering the benefits of seeing the world from the safety of their home — a logic that’s even harder to argue with since the pandemic. A number of virtual tour guide companies have cropped up to meet the growing demand for interactivity, especially as standard smartphones can be easily transformed into VR headsets with an app and some cardboard and plastic fashioned into a viewer.
6. Marriage Proposal Planner
The promposal generation is growing up . . . and getting engaged. With social media fueling a desire to continually one-up one’s peers, proposal planning is primed to become a big business. One U.S. company, The Yes Girls, has more than 3,000 clients who’ve paid thousands for its proposal service, with one customer spending $100,000 to pop the question on a private island. Another company, The Heart Bandits, has raked in over $5 million planning proposals for athletes and business executives across five continents.
the agents of change
1. Chief Ethics Officer
Consumers want the companies they support to share their values. As a result, businesses are being held accountable for the ethical ramifications of their products like never before, particularly as they stretch into morally fraught fields. In response, more C-suites are adding a new title to the mix: chief ethics officer. These other CEOs are taking a crucial role in confronting a wide array of topics. Consider medicine, which is increasingly grappling with hot-button issues like bias in clinical trials and gene banks and the problem of unequal health outcomes for people of color. Then there’s the world of AI, which is being forced to address charges of racial bias in its facial-recognition technology.
2. Digital-First Educator
No more snow days. Not after COVID-19 ensured that online teaching isn’t going away. Teachers who excel at virtual instruction are the future. Jonte Lee turned his home kitchen in Washington, D.C., into a chemistry classroom to live stream for his students during the pandemic. The African American physics teacher has a speech impediment but worked to show his students that they “can do anything.” Indian teacher Ranjitsinh Disale, who won the $1 million Global Teacher Prize from the Varkey Foundation in December, learned new languages and created QR-coded lesson plans to help his students. The latter tactic has spread across the Indian state of Maharashtra and proved essential when schools closed during lockdowns.
3. Economic Security Officer
In Japan, the government is requiring companies in certain strategic industries — including semiconductors, nuclear power and AI — to appoint an executive charged with protecting their exclusive technologies from intellectual property theft. That initiative reflects a broader global concern as countries participate in an innovation arms race with geopolitical stakes. China is often accused of surreptitiously seizing others’ intellectual property, although that charge is shifting as U.S. and European companies are increasingly being called out for copying Chinese tech innovations. Though companies have always tried to hide their secret sauce, the digital world is generating new threats that may require dedicated economic security officers to combat.
4. Climate Change Insurance Agent
A majority of insurers are citing climate change as one of the biggest challenges their industry faces, pointing to events such as wildfires in California and floods in Iowa. That’s led to an increase in companies that are unwilling to do business in high-risk environments. However, startup insurers are seeing an opportunity in running toward the flames (or waters, winds and other environmental scourges). To pull it off, they will need agents with skills tailored to assessing the volatile threats posed by a warming planet.