It's 2026. You lost your cashier job five years ago, when Wal-Mart Stores switched to automatic checkout. A job at the post office only lasted a few years, since no one sends mail anymore. Then came the avian flu, decimating populations around the world. Your new office job shut down because everyone was afraid of getting sick.
What's next? Be a quarantine enforcer! These crucial public servants patrol the streets in quarantined neighborhoods, ensuring no one leaves, except in a hearse. With your gas mask and bio-hazard suit, you wait for a signal from blighted households before calling the morgue. No matter how the economy changes, at least one skill will always be in demand: Dealing with the dead.
This apocalyptic scenario may never come to pass, and may be just as unlikely as a utopia where everyone has a sinecure in the so-called Knowledge Economy.
But one thing is clear: In two decades, your job probably won't exist, at least not in the same form. "I think there's going to be an enormous shift of occupations," says futurist Alvin Toffler, author of Future Shock and Revolutionary Wealth. "Most jobs are going to change. They'll survive, but they'll change."
It's hard to think of an industry that's not undergoing upheaval. From newspaper publishers to movie makers, media firms are adjusting to the digital age. The Big Three auto companies — General Motors, Ford and Daimler Chrysler — must transform to compete in the global marketplace. Pharmaceutical giants that focus on blockbuster drugs are languishing, while biotech upstarts with tightly targeted medicines are on the rise.
Meanwhile, computers continue to take over the world. Machines will learn to perform most translation services, eventually making language experts unnecessary, Toffler says. Robotic aircraft will put fighter pilots out of business.
But there's good news: Technology will create new jobs as well. Out-of-work Top Gun pilots may find jobs captaining dirigibles, says Joel Barker, author of Five Regions of the Future. A relic from the 1920s and 1930s, these rigid blimps will revolutionize travel in the developing world, Barker says. They don't require expensive infrastructure like runways, and they can stop in midair to drop off passengers or deliver goods, a boon in rural areas.
Hollywood's woes may be solved by holography. Since consumers are perfectly happy watching DVDs at home on big flat-screen televisions, box-office receipts have slipped and movie moguls are scrambling. But eventually, Barker says, film companies will start producing three dimensional holographic movies that require equipment too expensive and complicated to set up at home.
It's too early to declare the end of oil, but alternative energy will create dozens of new careers in the next two decades. Hydrogen fuel could be cost-competitive with gasoline if refueling stations were mass-produced, according to a study conducted by Ford. The hydrogen at these stations would be produced on-site, so managers would need an entirely different set of skills than required in today's gas stations, which are mainly retail operations.
Eventually, of course, cars will be obsolete, and teleport repairmen could replace auto mechanics. "People look at teleportation and say, 'That will never be real,'" says Robert Herman, a management consultant, futurist, and founder of the Herman Group. "But people looked at planes and said, 'There's no way that can fly.' These things are not outside the realm of possibility."
OK, so 20 years might be a little early for teleportation to materialize. But commuters can dream.