10 Predictions for Work and Economics in 2012

Universities in decline, women in ascension, China taking off, U.S. jobs staying grounded, and six more forecasts for the year

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My previous predictions have been reasonably but not perfectly accurate. Here's the link to last year's.

Long-term predictions are notoriously inaccurate. For example, 50 years ago, it was predicted we'd be commuting in flying cars. But we're probably wise to incorporate some short-term forecasts into our career, business, and investment planning. So I sally forth with my work-related predictions for 2012 and beyond:

1) Accelerated improvement of the e-commerce experience.

Instead of leaving the mall with two bags full, ever more people will enter the mall with a SmartPhone, browse, feel the fabric and so on, scan desired items into their phone, find the cheapest price on the Net, and, in one click, have it delivered to their home. If you can't find what you want in a mall or prefer to browse at home, improved site navigation will, a la Amazon and Zappos, enable you to, on ever more shopping sites, quickly zoom from millions of items to the just-right one.

So, ever more bricks-and-mortar stores, especially those specializing in hard goods (technology, books, appliances, etc) are likely to close: I predict Barnes & Noble, Best Buy, OfficeMax, Sears, Brookstone, etc., will soon close most or all their stores.

Implications: I have invested in Amazon stock and if I were looking for a job, Amazon would be on my list of target employers.

2) Comprehensive immigration reform will occur in 2012.

I predict President Obama will be reelected. That will enable him to fulfill his promise to provide amnesty/a path to citizenship for America's 12 million illegals. Recall that following the previous amnesty, immigration mushroomed:

In 1990, the U.S. had just 20 million immigrants. Now it's 40 million. So this next amnesty will likely trigger a new round of accelerated immigration.

Implications: Of course, being bilingual and bicultural will be a career booster. Alas, it is difficult to acquire a new foreign language in adulthood so I'm not urging that. I feel more confident suggesting we encourage our children to learn a foreign language such as Spanish, Chinese, Arabic, or Farsi.

We should see job growth in U.S. companies, non-profits, and government agencies serving immigrants from Asia, the Middle East, and especially Latin America.

To continue earning a living wage, Americans in the traditional trades may need to retrain. Hourly wages in fields in which many immigrants have skills such as construction and restaurant work have already dropped from the $20s to the teens and will likely drop further. People with ability to work with their hands may find the job market more felicitous in high-tech, hands-on careers such as repair of robots, SmartPhones, and medical equipment.

3) The U.S. economy will do poorly.

  • Competition from high-skill low-wage countries
  • High immigration and birth rate among the poorly educated and multigenerational poor
  • Low birth rate among the highly educated
  • The government's growing commitment to increasing equality: redistributing resources from job creators to society's poor.
  • Europe's debt crisis will likely have ever greater spill-over effects on the U.S. economy.
Implications: More people will be forced to live under the same roof, so construction businesses might be wise to specialize in adding low-cost housing to existing homes, for example: backyard shed-bedrooms and studio apartments, and in converting basements into bedrooms or apartments. It may also be wise to invest in buildings with 3- and 4-bedroom apartments in cities or close-in suburbs but that aren't subject to rent control. For example, in my locale, Emeryville, CA might be a wise choice.

To land a middle-income earning job, soft skills will rarely be enough. Technology literacy will ever more be required: ability to set up a videoconference, be a SmartPhone power user, etc. And skills such as HTML-5 programming will more often be expected even for non-technical white-collar jobs.

Many former high-level professionals, including retirement-age people who can't afford to retire, will be forced to take low-level jobs. We'll come to not look down on such people. If you're such a person, do remember that all ethical work is worthy of respect. And don't pre-judge: Your customer service rep may be a former executive.

4) Well-paying jobs will be ever more scarce.

  • It's ever more expensive to hire an American, for example, employers will now be forced to pay for employees' health care.
  • Ever more work product can be sent over the Internet, so more U.S. employers are hiring contractors in low-cost countries. For example, a new promotional video for my new book, How to Do Life: what they didn't teach you in school, is being made. Estimates for creating the video in the U.S. ranged from $1,500 to $10,000. Instead, it's being created by a fine studio in the Philippines for $400. Yes, 10 of 10 of mega-job-listing site Indeed.com's fastest-growing job titles are programming-related but programmers expecting American-level wages will increasingly be disappointed.
  • Manufacturing in the U.S. is experiencing a slight uptick but that's, in part, because unions and municipalities, for fear of the jobs being offshored, are deciding not to not fight the low wages corporations are offering. For example, companies such as GE are bringing back some manufacturing jobs to the U.S. but at wages closer to world-competitiveness: $12-$19 an hour for new workers vs. $21-$32 it pays its for long-time workers.
  • The Occupy movement will likely regain strength when the weather gets better. As the economy continues to struggle and especially if it worsens, we'll likely see more protests. It remains a long-shot but it is not beyond the pale that The Revolution is nigh.
5) Medical self-care will grow.

More people will use health care apps (e.g., diet, exercise, vital signs), urgent-care clinics at Wal-Mart, Walgreen, etc. and take more supplements, even the disproven, such as homeopathy. Jobs expanding such services should grow.

6) China's boom will resume.

China plans mammoth spending: from manned flights to the moon to best-in-the-world bridges, tunnels, even a stupendous 1,800-seat opera house in Guangzhou. When China uses non-China workers for construction, it generally partners with prestigious U.S. construction firms like Bechtel, URS, GE, etc. Job seekers might try to become more employable by tackling the challenge of learning Chinese language and culture but I believe the best job opportunities will be for native speakers of Chinese.

7) More students will seek their education outside of universities.

As I summarize in THIS article and video, a number of recent books and articles have exposed how little learning and employability accrues for all that time and money attempting to acquire a college or graduate degree. Thus, higher education enrollment should slow. As argued in a recent KQED piece, that will be replaced by an increase in online certificate and one-time online-based training provided not just by universities but by professional and trade associations. Skype will likely become a major platform for simulated in-person classes. In an attempt to compete, more universities will try to entice students with free courses, for example, MIT will soon offer online courses free to anyone.

Implications: Jobs should be available creating high-quality online courses for professional associations and other non-university-based entities. If I were looking for work, I'd offer to create such courses for associations, explaining that such courses would improve their members' skills and the association's bottom line.

8) The trend to telecommuting will continue.. because it saves employers money and because commute times will get longer as government transportation spending focuses on mass transit, not freeway building.

9) Women will continue their ascendancy in the work world.

  • Women's advocacy organizations such as Catalyst, Emily's List, AAUW, National Women's Law Center, and NOW are ever more influential with the media and government (for example, the new White House Council on Women and Girls, but not one on men and boys), and, in turn, in policy, public opinion, and hiring practices.
  • An ever higher percentage of degree-holders is female, in part because of major efforts to make schools and colleges more female-friendly.
  • The government continues to provide pro-woman initiatives, for example, special training, grants, and loans by the U.S. Small Business Administration, and priority to woman- (and minority-) owned businesses in obtaining government contracts.
  • Ever fewer jobs require physical strength, where men have an advantage.
Implication: This is women's era. Men must resist become depressed or angered by the often anti-male messages and policies and, instead, redouble their efforts in succeed in a work world that is dramatically changing. Not easy but probably necessary.

10) Perhaps most controversial, the Green Movement may start to fade
  • More doubt is being raised about the cost-effectiveness of even future iterations of alternative energy. For example, the solar stock index, a forward-looking consensus of investor opinion on the future of solar is bearish: It is down 95% from its Dec. 2007 high.
  • We will increasingly accept the small likelihood of the 50+-year worldwide compliance with the urged severe reductions of carbon footprint, without which, global warming will not be significantly slowed. That will motivate us to focus our investments in high-power clean-energy technology. (See below.)
  • In our slow economy, we'll see initiatives with clearer and more immediate benefit go unfunded, That will make us ask if our limited dollars are most wisely spent on Green, where the science, economics, and practicalities are more unclear.
Implications: In the energy/environmental space, growth will likely exist in safer nuclear, more efficient batteries, and cleaner approaches to refining fossil fuels.

I welcome your thoughts on my predictions.

This article originally appeared at the blog of Marty Nemko, an Atlantic correspondent.