Looking for a job in the future? Try the behavioural economy

Skills and competencies that drive, interpret, and respond to the behaviours of people will dramatically increase in demand.

| 13 min read

65% of children in primary school today will ultimately end up working in completely new job types that do not yet exist.[1]

This has been one of the projections of the World Economic Forum and such projections require a diverse range of inputs, with many forms of modelling and analysis. As part of an international cohort, I had been inputting into one of the Forum’s 14 System Initiatives on human capital and the shaping of new narratives for societies. I was part of a team trying to map out how to change consumption and materialistic fixations to a more idealistic, humanistic focus. An ambitious exercise, at odds with late capitalism’s social and cultural foundations and direction of travel.

I was recruited because my doctorate had researched Renaissance humanism and, in part, the recovery of ancient Greek idealism. The Forum was interested in investigating transferable methodologies, especially those that might have completely re-shaped the West, as the Renaissance had.

The idea of rediscovering the past to help regenerate our world might seem romantic to us now. And yet my team’s work around multidisciplinary approaches and cultural exchanges was important. Especially in regard to the recovery of emotional intelligence as one of the key advancements in recent human evolution, which helps us to empathise with - and so better understand - our societies, ourselves and our planet. Tracing and forecasting the growing role of social-emotional intelligence was key to our work.

My cohort was assigned this challenge:

Can we really predict, with any degree of certainty, where there might be growth narratives in the future? Especially cultural and social narratives that will drive forward the human story? And thus start preparing….

I chatted with my cohort over countless cups of coffee, long before the arrival of Covid-19. We could do no more at first than joke and welcome each other aboard. With no crystal ball we were sorely tempted to turn from coffee to something stronger. For it’s a strangely perplexing scenario to seriously think about looking into the future. Not necessarily in terms of markets and technology, but specifically cultural and societal futures. It requires deep, searching questions about ourselves as humans.

Some of the rough contours began to present themselves.

For instance, irrespective of opinion on whether to stay or leave the European Union, it is projected that in 50 years Europe will only comprise 4% of the world’s population. By the end of the current century the population of the world is likely to have stopped growing for the first time in modern history. This will be due in large part to falling global fertility rates, with an annual growth of less than 0.1%. A steep decline from the current growth rate of between 1% and 2% each year. Over 50% of that world population will be living in India, China, or Africa. But even then, the population of China will be 26% less than it is now, while five of the world’s 10 largest countries by population are projected to be in Africa (currently only one is, Nigeria).[2]

A key point here is that societies exist in time and so: (i) societies will change, and (ii) change is therefore normal, to recast the current idiom.

But those deep, forward-looking questions about ourselves as humans can be laden with anxiety. Not least in terms of the climate emergency, but also other shared anxieties around what we can bring to the future ourselves, and what we can expect, as well as do, in terms of preparing. Looking forward can at times run counter to ‘staying present’.

In this context, my cohort was proposing to model what are popularly called mega-trends that would, in our case, become social drivers for how people might come to live.

Some among my cohort were formidable linguists, particularly in ancient languages, and so could access thought processes of the ancient world. And it is very interesting to see how such thought ‘echos’ across the centuries.

Take for instance the aesthetic debates of the ‘physical forms of beauty’ from ancient Greece, which are echoed deeply in the ideal of the perfected body encouraged by the modern cults of celebrity and fitness. However problematic that may be, socially and psychologically, particularly when projected now through the prism of social media.

Throughout it all there is at least one dominant trope that societies, cultures and economics evolve around. This, I would suggest, could be summed up as behaviour.

The psychological and emotional drivers of why societies do what they do can help us to understand the direction they might be heading in.

And if we project from where we currently stand, we see the further rise of a behavioural economy.

There are already clues.

The data of our lives has been collected and stored by governments and corporations - what appears to be free is in fact an exchange of consumer data, exemplified by the Internet of All Things. Although there is a buoyant market for data scientists right now, it is likely that we are on the cusp of a significant shift.

It is not so much the consumer data of our lives that will be increasingly of interest. But rather our very human emotions and behaviours.

The Internet of All Things is likely to give way to the Internet of All Behaviours. And jobs, companies and economies will require new skills and competencies that can drive, interpret and respond to the behaviours of people.

The technologies we use, and the tech breakthroughs that will come, are not only generating data about the digital and physical realms through which we move. Much more significantly, we reveal more about our wishes and anxieties to search engines than to our families or friends. That’s extraordinary when we think about it. But ordinary practice now.

Our phones and social media platforms reveal more about our behaviours, preferences, and states of mind than we may be aware of.

What we are looking at here then is the growing role of our emotions and behaviours in an economy that will be further built around the output of those emotions and behaviours. And the degree to which persuasiveness will be applied to our lives in what we feel and do.

Put another way, we are entering a world of increasingly advanced instruments of persuasion, specifically to direct the behaviours of people.

The impulse to control behaviour is hardly new. Historically, kings, armies, governments, organised religions, educative systems, and even prisons, have all sought to modify behaviours to varying degrees and in different ways.

One modern idiom is the social rise of ‘influencers’, who are looked to, in order to ‘influence behaviour’, and are usually promotional, be that self-promotion, or on behalf of a brand, company or an organisation. But this is at an embryonic and infantile stage currently, when compared with how this economy is likely to develop.

The role of influencing behaviours across societies and cultures will expand exponentially and in ways that we cannot yet imagine.

Behavioural change could generate better societal outcomes

For decades, academics have studied behavioural economics, which uses psychology to better understand human decision-making. The discipline has now gone mainstream. By understanding human biases, governments and companies are now helping people to lead healthier lives and make more environmentally sustainable choices. Not least engaging with ‘anti-vaxxers’ for instance on why it might be a good idea to have a coronavirus vaccination for the sake of society at large.

As an example, the UK’s Behavioural Insights Team, as a social purpose company, applies behavioural insights to inform UK policy, improve public services and deliver positive results for communities.[3]

Marketers and advertisers have also been using behavioural economic principles to boost sales and profits.

But this goes much deeper.

The role of a ‘consumer’ is changing. And social media is becoming problematic for encouraging misinformation and causing mental health problems. The environmental impact of consuming materials leads us to rightly question the role that consumption plays in our lives.

For many brands, this presents a conundrum: relating to people as consumers encourages constant switching from one brand to another. This propels people to buy, and so consume, more.

Therefore ‘future-focused’ brands will need to deploy behavioural design principles. These will engage with people to fix, rather than replace, products, for example. This would involve brands helping people to buy less and be more resourceful, and in this way engendering brand loyalty.

Behavioural economics would also help to create strategies for companies so as to increase their impact in serving the greater good.

And significant growth opportunities might go to those who can create the new business models that this segment requires. Current consumers crave innovative approaches using behavioural capabilities that will empower and engage with them, rather than exploit and alienate them. Companies that can fill this gap could see mass market potential, when identifying and building the relevant skills and competencies needed.

Emerging skills - a ‘talent’ revolution

It may be that in the future we will work less, and have more time to pursue leisure, which might possibly increase ‘happiness’ overall. This was a theory that was expounded long ago by Bertrand Russell, which is beginning to return in debates about the future of society, as we recover from the impact of Covid-19.[4] But even in that scenario, an economy using behavioural capabilities would still engage with how we live and in what we do with our time.

For now, we are looking at Gen Z as the largest generational cohort in history,[5] who will drive the behavioural economy over the next 20 years.

And an economy that is increasingly driven by behaviour is laden with creative potential, opening up new paradigms and new ways of thinking, as well as of working.

One of the underlying principles of a society is its differences of aptitude. As pointed out by the ancient Greek philosopher Plato, different people are good at different things - and it is best for all that each should concentrate on developing their own particular ‘thing’.[6]

This will sound comfortably familiar to modern ears.

And the emerging skills to be most valued across global regions and sectors will include analytical thinking, innovation, creativity, originality.

Equally prevalent will be social skills - such as persuasion, emotional intelligence, and teaching others. It is likely that these will be in higher demand across industries than narrow technical skills, such as programming or equipment operation and control. Technical skills will need to be supplemented with strong social and collaboration skills.

A whole new breed of consultant is likely to emerge, specialising in the ability to start - and then competitively ‘win’ - conversations.

In other words, it is highly likely that many future jobs will evolve around measuring, understanding, and shaping behaviour - which will drive value and competitive success. As well as being a direct conduit working for the greater good of societies and the environment.

Glenn is part of the Charles Stanley Professionals Network; designed to connect and educate the next generation of investors. Read more articles from our network contributors and find out how you can be part of the network.

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[1] Source: World Economic Forum, ‘Future of Jobs: Employment, Skills and Workforce Strategy for the Fourth Industrial Revolution’, 2016.

[2] Source: United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, ‘World Population Prospect 2019’.

[4] See Bertrand Russell, In Praise of Idleness, Routledge, 2004 and The Conquest of Happiness, Liveright Publishing, 2013.

[5] Loosely, people born between 1995-2010. Comprising 1.8 billion people, equating to approximately a quarter of the global population.

[6] Plato, The Republic, Penguin, 1965, pp. 100-06.

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Looking for a job in the future? Try the behavioural economy

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