It’s easy to become a pessimist in the Information Age. Being an optimist is harder – it takes concentrated discipline. What’s harder still, I think, is not only recognizing the things unique to our time worth being optimistic about, but also learning to leverage those opportunities to create the life you want.
In honor of this Thanksgiving week, I want to organize some thoughts on why I think we live in one of the most exciting times in human history.
Earlier this year, student debt stole the national spotlight as it hit an all-time high, topping $1.6 trillion. Meanwhile, in the most educated population of recent history, millions of Americans face economic vulnerability, working hourly low-wage jobs.
By many meaningful measures, there is real cause for concern about the economic climate for American consumers, especially for those just starting their careers. Consider a few statistics:
Today, the path to prosperity seems riddled with tough questions like, “Is it worth it to finance my education?”, “Should I take a low-paying job to get experience”, or, “Can I still be successful if I can’t afford college?”
Despite all the challenging circumstances for many American young adults, I believe now – more than any other era in history – is a time to be hopeful of the bright(er) future rapidly unfolding before our very eyes.
If I’m being completely honest, I believe we’re on the verge of an unprecedented shift in the way people earn a living and choose what to do for work. To support this, I’d like to highlight a few key trends happening right now that give me extreme hope for the future of work, and what that means for people just starting their careers.
A revolutionary new technology called peer-to-peer lending (P2P) is making capital more accessible than ever before for both businesses and individuals. By cutting out middlemen and accelerating the approval process, P2P has given rise to a new wave of financial instruments that make it easier for people to fund their ideas, consolidate debt, finance purchases more affordably, and more. This same wave is strengthened by a number of entries into the personal finance learning space – companies that aim to educate or assist consumers toward better managing their personal financial journey.
These changes unlock awesome possibilities as it relates to careers. Just think about it: what if you could finance your dream business tomorrow (without the traditional friction of borrowing from a bank)? Or what if you could instantly refinance all of your debt at a lower interest rate and decrease your monthly payments by hundreds of dollars – essentially freeing up a big portion of your existing income?
Let’s take it one step further. Whether you consider it sound financial practice or not, a startling number of people charge big purchases to credit cards with exorbitant interest rates. What if, instead, people had an avenue to finance those same purchases at lower interest rates with fixed payback schedules – offering a better safeguard against accumulating massive credit card balances in the first place?
Both scenarios offer competitive and greater access to capital. Whether people use these types of options to fund their business ideas or just to get a better handle on their personal finances, they open up major possibilities that used to be guarded by stricter requirements and less-maneuverable routes to capital. Because let’s be honest, the less you’re strapped-down with debt, the more flexibility and freedom you retain in your personal life and career.
Some companies who are leading the charge in these spaces:
The better part of a decade ago, Marc Andreessen famously coined the phrase, “Software is eating the world.” Andreessen optimistically defended the burgeoning new markets this trend created.
That wake of ‘software’s appetite’ dramatically decreased the cost of doing business – and introduced a new concern for many people: the threat of automation replacing jobs.
The predicted impact wildly varies – both in the number of jobs at risk from automation, as well as the number of new jobs that might be created. One study from McKinsey suggests as many as 400-800 million jobs could be displaced by automation by 2030, with the creation of an offsetting 250-365 million new jobs.
I don’t want to be dismissive of the real potential consequences of automation – anytime anyone loses their job, regardless of why, peoples’ lives are impacted. People at risk of automation might need to find new jobs, learn new skills, or learn how to do their jobs differently, which can cause real anxiety.
But let’s keep this optimistic, shall we?
If you can look past the fear for a second, imagine a world where automation can clear your plate of the rote, mundane tasks that suck the job out of your work. Instead of replacing you, what if you could enhance your abilities by leveraging automation?
Obviously some industries and professions will be more at-risk than others. Still, I believe automation presents a massive upside opportunity for anyone who can figure out how to leverage it as a force multiplier.
Regardless of your current employment status or skillset, automation – especially simple automation – offers a legitimate, affordable avenue for increasing productivity – which opens up new possibilities to redefine how you make the same amount or more money in the same amount of time.
Here are several companies making the power of automation readily accessible, especially for individuals like you and me:
Another major byproduct from the increasing prevalence of software has been the expansion from a local talent pool to a global talent marketplace.
In other words, where businesses used to have to hunt for labor in their own backyard, a fully digitized world means anyone can do business with anyone, anywhere, anytime. Overlooking any kind of legal restrictions related to a borderless future of work, the possibility of accessing talent from anywhere in the world holds two exciting possibilities I want to highlight.
First, consider the impact of no longer being limited by geography. In a world without artificial borders or distance barring labor supply and demand, skilled workers can simultaneously expand their personal addressable market while increasing their leverage. In other words, freelancers can now access clients globally, and the most talented workers can command a premium for their labor.
Second, precisely because an expanded talent market increases leverage for talented people, it also creates an incentive structure for businesses to respond to retain their best and brightest. One interesting hypothesis – beyond obvious higher compensation opportunities or the freedom to work remote – could be a move toward fragmented employment for talented individuals. Basically, I imagine a world where skilled professionals gain a competitive advantage to focus only on the type of work they want while still enjoying the benefits of secure employment.
Of course, this transition to a readily-accessible, global talent marketplace won’t happen overnight. Present day, skill gaps remain a serious concern for companies. So, in the meantime, companies are investing in a number of different channels to train their existing workforce.
This presents another interesting opportunity for individuals to leverage the dollars companies are pouring into employee training and development to invest in their own personal development on the job.
Many companies that are contributing to the development of a global talent marketplace:
Last year, Robert Half released a study that articulated what appears to be a growing sentiment: people increasingly recognize the advantages of regularly changing jobs. The study indicated that 75% of employees ages 18-34 viewed job-hopping as beneficial.
Other reports have covered a different side of the same coin – suggesting changing jobs every 2-3 years is a much more certain route to earning more money. One went so far as to claim people who stay at a company longer than two years get paid 50% less.
This evolving sentiment – paired with the likelihood to advance earnings – may either be a lagging indicator of a growing trend or the earlier stages of an even greater professional diaspora in the making. Whatever the case, people are not spending their entire careers at one company. In fact, the median employee tenure in 2018 was an estimated 4.2 years.
But switching companies to access better opportunities or higher pay isn’t the only form of arbitrage gaining steam. Geographic arbitrage is also gaining notoriety as people seek to escape the high cost of living in major metropolitan areas to get more bang for their buck elsewhere. These trends are interesting developments toward offering individuals more leverage toward accessing their own personal marketing clearing prices.
Several companies are making interesting contributions to this space – by providing information or services:
The gig economy is on the move. I don’t just mean literally, like freelancers driving Uber and Lyft, either. But more and more people are actively participating. A recent poll by Gallup suggests 36% of US workers – that’s 57 million people – have some kind of gig-working arrangement.
Without diagnosing the driving forces behind this, I want to highlight some exciting innovations taking shape – including some that on the surface look nothing like byproducts of the typical gig economy.
Sure, companies like TaskRabbit, Thumbtack, Uber, Lyft, or PostMates all offer platforms for – dare I call it traditional – types of gig economy workers to easily coordinate and access opportunities.
But beyond the familiar ecosystem, another interesting development is taking place – I’ll call it The Maker Ecosystem. You might find members of this community organizing around themes like #digitalnomad, #nocode, or #indiehacker.
Whatever you call it, there is a burgeoning ecosystem of people – both technical and non-technical – abandoning traditional employment arrangements to leverage technology and create their own livelihood. This is more than just classic freelancing. The movement is giving birth to an entire new toolset and suite of services for anyone interested in creating – as a hobby or a way of life.
There is an interesting blend of both old and new technologies, companies, and resources I want to tip my hat to. Many of them I mentioned earlier in the section on automation. Here are some others:
There’s been a lot of chatter recently around the “unbundling” of services – basically, it’s where a company builds a business model upon a standalone feature that used to be served by a larger platform. Think what Airbnb, Zillow, Indeed, and others have done to Craigslist.
Others have written much more extensively on this than I can. Here are two great articles I suggest:
Platforms vs. Verticals and the Next Great Unbundling, from Jeff Jordan and D’Arcy Coolican of Andreessen Horowitz
LinkedIn is the New Craigslist, from Jeff Fluhr
The part I find most intriguing about “unbundling” is what it means in terms of quality, experience, and choice as a consumer – especially as it relates to the education and career space. I think the far-reaching effect of unbundling holds exciting possibilities for the future of how people discover and do what makes them come alive.
It’s no secret that universities have little financial skin in the game as it relates to student outcomes. As student debt continues to rise, so does the percentage of graduates who are underemployed in their first job.
But what if there was some way to align the incentives of both higher education institutions and students? Well, it turns out there already is. Introducing the Income Share Agreement (ISA).
In an article titled Life Capital, partner and co-founder at Village Global and OnDeck, Erik Torenberg, described ISAs: “An Income Share Agreement is a financial arrangement where an individual or organization provides something of value to a recipient, who, in exchange, agrees to pay back a percentage of their income for a certain period of time. In the context of education, ISAs are debt-free alternatives to loans.”
With an ISA, an investor fronts someone money in exchange for a percentage of their future earnings. The ISA has gained increasing notoriety recently, as coding bootcamps such as Lambda School have promoted a fresh new idea for people looking to get ahead with offers like, “Get a coding job in nine months, and don’t pay a cent until you’re hired making $50k.”
Basically, an ISA allows students to defer payments until they’re actually generating income – then payments kick in for a set period of time, at a set percentage of their income, and usually payments are capped at a certain amount. Plus, most ISAs also include a feature where payments pause if employment is lost – adding even more skin in the game for lenders and education programs.
Though ISAs are relatively early in their lifecycle and still largely focused on education, the part that interests me most are the additional markets waiting to be unlocked. Just imagine for a second a future where, instead of debt, you could trade equity to finance big investments.
ISAs are just one of many other exciting trends to watch. If you’re interested in learning more about ISAs, the implications, or even just day-dreaming about the long-term impacts, here are a few resources and people I suggest you check out:
Sure, people might be asking, “Is college still worth it?” But what if they still want to learn?
Over the past decade, alternative education has made giant leaps. We now have Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and a variety of courses on almost any topic across a number of different digital learning platforms, like Lynda, Coursera, Udemy, and Class Central.
But beyond the classroom – digital or physical – alternative education has expanded to include entirely new concepts: bootcamps and career accelerator programs. Bootcamps and career accelerators have been a natural response to what might be the early phases of a massive unbundling of higher education.
Programs like these offer short, affordable, and highly-specialized tracks directly into a career path – and added benefit: many programs have adopted flexible financing, often including an Income Share Agreement option, to make them even more widely accessible and align program incentives to student outcomes.
This space is growing fast, so I’ll limit this list to a few notable organizations and resources for learning more:
Let’s face it. We live in a world where every business competes for our attention. But today, as they target consumers on the same platforms many people use for entertainment, businesses face a new challenge. Instead of competing head-to-head against other businesses for mindshare on popular advertising platforms – like Instagram, Snapchat, or Facebook – businesses also compete against all the noise of celebrities, influencers, sports, and games. You name it, they’re up against it.
What I’m saying is that competition is as tough as ever to get in front of potential customers – especially consumers. So how can businesses reasonably compete?
Without diving into all of the many tools in a modern day marketer’s tool belt, I want to highlight an interesting development in one popular traction channel: content marketing.
Maybe it’s too early to tell, but I’m sensing – as influencer-fatigue sets in (not to mention sheer information overload) – people will continue to seek out more than endorsements and social proof. They want information presented to them in a way that’s both accessible and objective. This creates a potentially interesting direction for the future of content marketing – content that taps into the aspirational version of readers and makes them the heroes of their own story by helping bridge the gap between where they are and where they want to be.
It’s hard to say whether the brands that execute this well will be creating content that’s noticeably packaged as curriculum, information wrapped in entertainment, community-as-content, or some combination of all of the above. But one fact is unavoidable: content creation continues to accelerate – an estimated 2.75 million blog posts are published each day on WordPress alone!
The result of this is great for anyone early in their career who is eager to learn: there are more free learning resources available than ever before. Any kind of trend toward making content even more valuable and educational for consumers seems like a net positive.
A few companies I really like whose content fits the mold of what I’m talking about:
In an article titled Markets are Eating the World, Taylor Pearson highlights some of the key historical innovations that have transformed modern life and work – from the mechanical clock and division of labor to currency and digital platforms. He makes a compelling argument for the future of blockchain, not just as a digital currency, but as a mechanism for reducing transaction costs globally.
This gives rise to a picture of the future in which doing business no longer requires lengthy legal formation processes, government registration, bank verifications, etc. Basically, imagine a world where you no longer need any vehicle for enforcing that separate parties act in good faith with one another.
Now, imagine the same type of technology applied to verification of someone’s skills and abilities. I’m not just talking about certifying someone’s educational achievement through a publicly-accessible ledger, either. I also don’t mean some Big Brother-esque mass-surveillance engine (like the social credit system China’s government created).
What I imagine is a decentralized network for tokenizing reputation, both generally – as an actor in a global market – and specifically – as it relates to the type and quality of work we’ve done in the past. Think of it like a Klout score on steroids. In other words, imagine a future where anyone could instantly validate someone’s experiences and skills before they ever decide to do business with them.
This is mostly an imaginative idea I have, but the trend of blockchain technology toward reducing transaction costs and establishing decentralized networks of trust – I see it all as strong reason to be hopeful of the future.
There’s a larger movement happening in the background as all the other trends I’ve detailed here continue to pick up steam: career launch.
In one way, career launch embodies the attitude behind many of the trends I’ve highlighted above. And in other ways, career launch is simply the activation of what Venkatesh Rao dubbed “Breaking Smart”: an economic actor using early mastery of emerging technological leverage — in this case a young individual using software leverage — to wield disproportionate influence on the emerging future.
When I say career launch, I don’t mean getting hired, graduating from college, enrolling in vocational training, working with a career service, or hiring a talent agency.
What I mean by career launch is the brash, irreverent, rebellious attitude toward the traditional nine-to-five, corporate-ladder-climbing, credential-seeking mindset. That might mean opting out of college for a bootcamp. It could mean entering the workforce instead of pursuing higher education. Or it could mean starting a company instead of getting a job.
Whatever the specific avenues people choose to take, there’s a major wave coming in the way people discover and do work that makes them come alive – and I believe career launch is the embodiment of this new, rapidly-evolving market category that’s going to fill the needs of consumers who want more than what the traditional route to success has to offer.
I believe this space will be dominated by people just starting their careers or people changing careers – but a defining characteristic of people who decide to launch their careers versus hunt for a job is that they’ve consciously chosen to take matters into their own hands, instead of passively waiting for someone else to give them a job. There are a number of ways this might play out.
I’m certain there are other emergent behaviors I’ve missed. But the main ingredient in all the above suggestions is a rejection of the status-quo mindset in favor of forging a unique, personal career path.
I consider myself lucky to be working right in the thick of the career launch space with companies like Crash and Praxis. But I’d be remiss to pretend that each of the companies and trends I’ve highlighted in this post aren’t also serious contributors to creating the market conditions for career launch.
So, what’s the point of all this?
In spite of the pessimism I often feel has become popular public sentiment, I believe we’re living in quite possibly the greatest convergence of opportunity of all time (so far). The internet is hitting the glory days of its youth – and it has massive potential to change the way we all live, make money, and discover opportunities. There are countless trends all around us transforming the future of how we live and work.
If you ask me, there’s never been a better time to be alive – and to be right on the cusp of your future. We are still in the very early innings of what’s likely to be an absolutely revolutionary era for humankind.
And if that doesn’t excite the hell out of you, then I don’t know what will.
Breaking Smart – Venkatesh Rao
The Rational Optimist – Matt Ridley
The End of Jobs – Taylor Pearson
The Fourth Economy – Ron Davison
The Future of the Professions – Richard Susskind and Daniel Susskind
The Last Safe Investment – Bryan Franklin and Michael Ellsberg
The Sovereign Individual – James Dale Davidson and William Rees-Mogg
Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital – Carlota Perez
The Fourth Industrial Revolution – Klaus Schwab
Becoming Employable Sucks – Isaac Morehouse
How to Find Fulfilling Work – Roman Krznaric
The New Rules of Work – Kathryn Minshew and Alexandra Cavoulacos
Show Your Work – Austin Kleon
The Start-Up of You – Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha
A show all about creating a career outside the boring, debt-laden, conveyor belt humdrum.