Twenty-First Century Workplace Trends
Joseph H. Boyett and David Pearce Snyder

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Twenty-First Century Workplace Trends
Joseph H. Boyett
Boyett and Associates

David Pearce Snyder
Snyder Family Enterprises

For some time now, the simple extrapolation of a number of underlying socioeconomic trends has portended an increasingly unattractive future for America. From 1973 to 1995, for example, average U.S. wages fell 15 percent and family income stagnated, even while the number of two-income households doubled. Crime and divorce rates soared, as did personal bankruptcies, and perhaps most ominously, as U.S. News & World Report (Boroughs, 1996) notes, the gap between the average incomes of the lowest-paid Americans and the best-paid widened sharply, with the ratio between the average CEO's salary and the average worker’s wages exploding in the 500 percent range!

Executive Compensation

For the years 1973 through 1975, the ration between the average income of the CEOs of ten Fortune 30 companies and the income of the average U.S. worker was 41:1. For the years 1993 through 1994, the ratio for the same ten companies' average CEO salaries to the average U.S. workder had risen to 225:1 (a 450 percent increase).

Source: The Crystal Report, published by Graef Crystal, an executive compensation expert, in Boroughs (1996).

        The future implicit in these trends—one in which U.S. society is dominated by a high-paid technocratic elite while the rest of us (75 percent to 85 percent) are employed in low-value-adding service work—has become a widely held expectation in American public opinion. By comparison, declining numbers of Americans indicate that they believe in the postindustrial future long promised by academics and corporate visionaries, in which high-tech tools, products, and services engender entirely new forms of enterprise, leading to ever-higher levels of general prosperity for all. For nearly a quarter-century, successive waves of computerization, downsizing, and deregulation failed to improve either our productivity or our prosperity, while the numbers of high-value-adding jobs in the United States—including those requiring four-year baccalaureate degrees—declined as a share of all U.S. jobs. By the late 1980s, the annual output of new college graduates was clearly exceeding workplace demand, and the notion that the average person would be better off in a high-tech future simply became less and less believable in the face of most people's experience ... until now!

The Light at the End of the Twentieth Century
One by one, over the past three years, essentially all the statistical indicators of our twenty-year socioeconomic degradation have begun to reverse themselves. Average wages and benefits—as well as average household income—are now rising for all income groups and ethnicities. What's more, rising productivity improvement rates mean that—so far—the increased labor costs have not proven inflationary. Simultaneously, welfare rolls have shrunk by about one-third, crime rates have dropped by one-fourth, and divorce rates, teen pregnancy, and most recently, juvenile drug use are all declining! For the nation's colleges and universities, the bounty of the new prosperity is reflected by the fact that recruiters are back on campus.
        All this good news has not been lost on public opinion, which began to reflect a rising optimism in 1996. Indeed, at this moment, it would be comfortable and convenient to assume that,

American enterprise is finally back on track to a high-tech future in which essentially all high-value jobs will require some form of postsecondary education.

after a decade or two of getting "lean and mean," American enterprise is finally back on track to a high-tech future in which essentially all high-value jobs will require some form of postsecondary education.
        But U.S. enterprise has not merely been getting leaner and meaner during the past twenty years, it's also been getting keener. Specifically, it's been adopting new structures and practices to take advantage of the unique value-adding capabilities of our rapidly maturing info-com technologies. And as our private and public sector employers have increasingly undertaken productive new organizational arrangements, several workplace trends have emerged in the United States that are already having a profound impact on American workers and on educational institutions seeking to prepare workers for the new workplace. These trends have, in fact, long been forecast by the major futurists, notably Daniel Bell in The Coming of Post-Industrial Society (1973), Alvin Toffler in The Third Wave (1980), and John Naisbitt in MegaTrends (1982). The fact that these long-range forecasts are rapidly becoming universal realities is a measure of how far into the future we have come in the past twenty-five years.


Info-com is derived from a simple contraction of the words INFOrmation and COMmunication, and is used here as many people use "information," as in information revolution or information technology. The productive power of electronic information systems does not rest solely on the computer's capacity to assimilate large amounts of data in a moment; it also rests on our newly gained ability to gather data and information from anywhere and distribute it to anywhere instantaneously.

Trend #1: The Growing Contingent Workforce
The social contract that promised job security in exchange for employee loyalty has been broken. American companies continue to downsize, restructure, and lay off thousands of workers. Work that is not considered to be part of the "core competency" of the corporation is being outsourced or performed by temporary, part-time, or contract workers. Today, there are twenty-eight million temporary workers in the United States, representing over 20 percent of the workforce—up more than 400 percent since 1980, when temps represented only 4.5 percent of all workers (five million people). The upside to this initially dismal trend is that, as the marketplace regularizes the use of contingent workers throughout all levels of employment from the rank and file through professional and managerial jobs to the executive suite, the pay and benefits of temporary workers have rapidly begun to catch up to those of full-time wage earners over the past thirty-six months.
        If this trend continues, many Americans—by some estimates as much as half of the workforce—will be contingent workers who will be employed in part-time, temporary, contract, or other nontraditional employment within ten years. Many of these highly skilled workers will be self-employed solo professionals. Meanwhile, the other half of the workforce will be employed in full-time permanent jobs where they will be expected to behave as continuously adaptive, self-developing team players in exchange for the benefits of career employment.

Trend #2: Flexplace Work
The number of employees who are telecommuting or working at nontraditional work sites such as satellite offices has been growing at the rate of 20 percent or more per year throughout most of this decade. Thanks to new technology and the changing nature of work itself, fully 60 percent of the workforce today perform jobs for which physical location is no longer critical. Already, one-third of American households have at least one person performing compensated work at home for at least one day per week. The geographic same-time-same-place workplace is being replaced by dispersed, anytime-anywhere workspace networks. Within a few years, the phrase "going to work" will become meaningless for most Americans. Work, for them, will be what they do, not the place they go to.

Trend #3: Upskilling of Jobs and Workers
Practically all jobs are being "upskilled." The technical workforce is growing in size and importance. Today, there are some 20 million technical workers in the United States and one in four newly created jobs is technical. Workers with strong technical skills—lab technicians, computer professionals, drafters, paralegals, medical technicians, designers, engineers, and so on—are becoming the front-line workers of most organizations. Even jobs that have not traditionally been considered technical positions, such as the job of a courier, now have a strong technical component and require the use of computers and other sophisticated electronic devices. At the same time, the semiskilled and unskilled jobs that employed masses of illiterate or semiliterate workers in the past are disappearing at a rapid pace.

Trend #4: Self-Managed Teams
Finally, we are seeing rapid growth in the use of cross-functional, multidisciplinary teams with globally and ethnically diverse memberships. Already, one-third of American companies with fifty or more employees have half or more of their employees working in self-managed or problem-solving teams. Many of these teams have no traditional boss or supervisor. Instead, team members take on responsibility for planning, organizing, staffing, scheduling, directing, monitoring, and controlling their own work.

Fully 60 percent of the workforce today perform jobs for which physical location is no longer critical.

Perhaps more important, these teams are increasingly linked via the Internet or other global networks, with instantaneous and unrestricted flows of information within and between teams and team members and among outside suppliers and customers. Charles Manz and Henry Sims (1993), authors of Business Without Bosses, have estimated that 40 percent to 50 percent of the entire U.S. workforce will work in some type of empowered, self-managed team by the year 2000 (p. 12).

Taken together, these four trends represent forces of truly transformational change in the workplace, destined to dramatically alter the day-to-day content of most jobs, as well as the traditional patterns of lifetime employment. These imminent changes, in turn, pose powerful implications for every individual who enters the workplace, and for the institutional processes—from kindergarten to the college campus—by which our society prepares people for that workplace.

Implications for Individuals. To succeed in the new workplace, workers will have to have the skills and abilities to add value quickly. The new workplace will reward those "specialized generalists" who have a solid basic education plus deep professional or technical skills in demand across a range of companies and even industries. A solid basic education, as in the SCANS competencies (The Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills, 1993), will no longer be enough. Everyone will have to be able to do something that adds value now—or be able to learn such value-adding skills quickly—to be considered for employment in all but the most marginal twenty-first-century jobs. (An HR executive with a Fortune 30 firm recently described liberal arts graduates as "literate, unskilled recruits.")
        While large employers (such as GM, Lockheed Martin, or the armed services) will continue to provide their employees with career counseling and retirement planning, most Americans will be responsible for managing their own careers from now on. As Charles Handy has written, we will all need an agent—much as writers, actors, and sports figures have agents today. Temporary staffing services, career counselors, and employment agencies in particular will rapidly redefine their missions and marketing strategies to stress their role as agents in an emerging human resources industry.
        Since most Americans will not have full-time permanent jobs—and even those who do will have no real job security—most workers will be financially insecure. Americans will be forced to build and maintain liquid savings equivalent to a year or more of income as a shield against periods of unemployment or underemployment. Today's concept of retirement will all but disappear, since most Americans will have to work through their sixties, just as we did fifty years ago.
        Meanwhile, the barrier that since the rise of industrialization has separated work and the rest of life will be shattered. Work will intrude into every aspect of life, and life will intrude on work. As a result, housing will change dramatically. Homes will be wired for commerce as well as for recreation. Houses and apartments will become both homes and work sites.
        Essentially all employees will be expected to demonstrate strong team skills and to have the ability to function effectively in a new team from the start. Employers will no longer accept or tolerate six to twelve months of "team building." Like a second- or third-string tail back, everyone from the rank and file to the senior staff will be expected to come off the bench on short notice and help the team gain yardage right away.
        As we move increasingly to self-managed teams, everyone will be expected to contribute to the team by performing one or more of the following leadership roles:

Re: "Sociolyzing"

While facilitating conveys much of what is intended here, the word suffers from the same shortcoming that socializing does; the colloquial understanding of both terms crucially misapprehends what is involved--that is, purposeful but transparent intervention in a small group's dynamics by one or more members of that group in such a way as to both facilitate and shape consensus.
        The retention of the "y" to indicate a conjunction between social and analyze describes a process developed over years of practice and field application and reported in the literature on "competent organizations." Elements of sociolyzing are crucial to the success of all types of un-led small groups, including teams, civic and community organizations, and neighborhood projects, that must function in an open, unstructured, egalitarian setting. The practice is also reflected in successful online forums and symposia that involve subtly interventionist "moderators," editors," or "fair witnesses" who help naturally diverse participants discover consensus.
        In the delayered, authoritative, collegial, and collaborative social technologies that are now supplanting our old hierarchical, compartmentalized, authoritarian, industrial bureaucracies, the principles and practices of sociolyzation will replace the coerced social engineering of Taylorism.

Envisioning: facilitating idea generation and innovation in the team and helping the team members think conceptually and creatively
Organizing: helping the team focus on details, deadlines, efficiency, and structure so the team gets its work done
Spanning: maintaining relationships with outside groups and people, networking, presentation management, intelligence gathering, developing and maintaining a strong team image, and locating and securing critical team resources
"Sociolyzing": uncovering the needs and concerns of individuals in the group, ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to present his or her views, injecting humor when it is needed to relieve tensions, taking care of the social and psychological needs of group members

Since most teams will be cross-functional and many will be international, everyone will require strong language skills (fluency in at least one language other than English) and the ability to appreciate individual differences and to work effectively with people from diverse cultures.

Implications for Organizations. Every business—indeed every organization, whether public or private, profit or nonprofit—will be forced to clarify its core competencies and reason for existence. Those organizations, including educational institutions from K–12 to grad schools, that fail to identify and nurture what are truly their value-adding core activities risk keeping the wrong things inside the organization while outsourcing those things that make them unique and vital. By doing so, they will condemn themselves to becoming hollow, unnecessary, untenable shells.

Since most teams will be cross-functional and many will be international, everyone will require strong language skills (fluency in at least one language other than English) and the ability to appreciate individual differences and to work effectively with people from diverse cultures.

        Traditional methods of management and motivation, such as employee-of-the-month awards and the promise of a future promotion, will be much less effective than they were just a few years ago. Highly skilled contingent workers, in particular, will be more loyal to their disciplines than to their employer of the moment. Threats of job loss will have little meaning to these workers, since they expect no job security. Instead, these new workers will demand respect, interesting and challenging work, the chance to develop their skills further, freedom and resources to use their talents and knowledge to do the work they were hired to do and enjoy doing, and an equitable share in the financial rewards that flow from their contribution.
        As work is increasingly performed away from the traditional work site, managers and supervisors will have to learn to manage without depending so much on "face time" as a criterion of contribution. Performance goals will become more explicit, and measurement will become more sophisticated and objective. Results will count more than activities.
        A key role of leaders of the new organization will be to create a shared vision that both permanent and contingent employees can grasp and commit to. We are building organizations that are, in reality, enterprise constellations.

A key role of leaders of the new organization will be to create a shared vision that both permanent and contingent employees can grasp and commit to.

The gravity that holds the constellation of teams together and keeps them from spinning out of control or colliding with each other will be the shared and unifying vision of who we are. Without such a unifying vision and specific team goals and mission statements that link teams to the overriding vision, there is perpetual conflict, competition for resources, and misdirected energy.
        Organizations will succeed or fail based on the ability of their leadership to assemble teams with the right mix of talent quickly. Just one missing technical or leadership skill can doom a team and the organization that depends on its success to failure.

Implications for Educational Organizations. As continuous lifelong learning becomes the norm, educational institutions will be swamped with demand. The new students—especially adults in midcareer transition—will expect value, quality, speed of delivery, and effectiveness in addition to availability and convenience. Education will be a critical personal investment for which the consumer will demand an exceptionally high return. The sheer scale, intensity, and diversity of demand for adult and continuing education, plus the schooling of the Baby Boom Echo, will simply overwhelm our traditional instructional systems and methods, requiring technology to play an increasingly important role in the delivery of education. As schools assimilate new technology, the delivery of education at all levels will become less labor intensive and more capital intensive. The majority of education resources will no longer be devoted to salaries, but instead to software, computers, multimedia equipment, and so on.
        Info-com technology will, among other things, free educational institutions from their current geographical boundaries. Fifty percent or more of students at most postsecondary educational institutions (particularly colleges and universities) will never set foot on the campus. Students will participate in seminars with instructors and fellow students who are scattered across the continent, and take tutorials from scholars on the far side of the planet. Already some six hundred college-level courses are being offered via the Internet and new courses are being added every day. Within a few years, tens of thousands of such courses will be available to anyone with access to the Internet.
        The trend toward hiring part-time and temporary faculty will continue and accelerate, mirroring developments in government and industry. Fully 38 percent of faculty members work part time today; half will be part-timers within five years or less.
        And not only will info-com free educational institutions from their geographical boundaries, it will also free educators from educational institutions. The most highly skilled teachers will sell their courses to national and international education packagers and virtual universities. Rather than seeking the security of tenure, these skilled instructors will become "knowledge entrepreneurs," selling their knowledge to a global mass market.

The most highly skilled teachers will sell their courses to national and international education packagers and virtual universities.

A few will gain international recognition—and, in a world thirsty for knowledge, will command fees rivaling those of highly paid athletes and entertainers.
        As a consequence of the explosion in pedagogical info-preneurship, students will have access to a limitless variety of courses. Eventually, almost every course taught anywhere in the world will be available to anyone who has access to inexpensive hardware and software. Students will be able to construct their own unique curriculum with courses taught by internationally recognized experts in each field.
        Micro-niche knowledge markets will develop. Any course, any subject matter—no matter how nontraditional or narrowly focused—will find an audience in what will become a vast global educational marketplace. Educational consumer rating services will review and rate educational offerings much the way they now review and rate movies, books, and music.
        As technology shatters geographic educational boundaries, it will shift the locus of power over education content. Local and regional educators and public policymakers will lose out to national and international educational impresarios, who will produce and distribute their courses directly to students on an international basis. Students will gain power through choice, their course selections no longer mediated by local or regional policymakers.
        Meanwhile, teachers of some subjects will become endangered species. Today tens of thousands of teachers are employed to provide basic instruction in core subjects such as

Students will be able to construct their own unique curriculum with courses taught by internationally recognized experts in each field.

introductory language, history, biology, math, and so on. New multimedia educational technology will make it possible for a few hundred of the most skilled teachers to provide the instruction of several thousand.
        Finally, within the next five years, three-quarters of new Ph.D.'s—up from one-half today—especially in such fields as engineering and chemistry, will forgo an academic career for employment in the private sector. This migration of Ph.D.’s to business is being driven by a combination of forces including government cutbacks in funds for basic research, tighter restrictions on granting of tenure (or the elimination of tenure entirely), and an increased demand for employees with graduate training to conduct applied research in the private sector.
        As the demand for employees with graduate-level expertise increases in the private sector, universities and colleges will be under significant pressure to drastically reduce the time to degree for graduate students, particularly Ph.D. candidates, and to supply graduates who can effectively communicate complex technical knowledge to nonspecialists and can work well in teams.

The Greatest Implication of All. With every passing month, the accumulating economic indicators make it clear that the United States has just passed through a historic inflection point in the information revolution. The primary focus of corporate America is no longer the dismantling of our old industrial institutions,

Three-quarters of new Ph.D.'s will forgo an academic career for employment in the private sector.

but rather the creation and staffing of high-value-adding info-mated operations. Major U.S. employers are currently creating almost twice as many new jobs each year as they are eliminating, and 60 percent of all new jobs are offering above-average wages. Taken together, the ongoing changes in both the nature of work and the structure of employment foreshadow not just change but a seismic quake; a quantum shift in our very understanding of what it means to work, learn, and live.
        The American economy—and society—are about to experience a wave of change that will crash upon us with a force we have never known before. For higher education, this will mean dramatic changes in the requirements that graduates will be expected to meet, and in the makeup and needs of the postsecondary student population. It will also mean revolutionary innovations in the ways that colleges and universities deliver their services and how they organize themselves to develop products to meet new marketplace demands. Many who read this article will see this wave of change as frightening. But it does not have to be viewed that way.

Major U.S. employers are currently creating almost twice as many new jobs each year as they are eliminating.

In fact, for all the loss and risk our collective future portends, it also offers unparalleled opportunity. In a very real sense, for higher education, for America, and for humankind, the light at the end of the twentieth century is the limitless promise of the twenty-first century.


Bell, D. The Coming of Post-Industrial Society: A Venture in Social Forecasting New York: Basic Books, 1973.

Boroughs, D. L. "Winter of Discontent." U.S. News & World Report, 1996, pp. 47–54.

Manz, C. C., and Sims, H. P., Jr. Business Without Bosses: How Self-Managing Teams Are Building High-Performing Companies. New York: Wiley, 1993.

Naisbitt, J. MegaTrends: Ten New Directions Transforming Our Lives. New York: Warner Books, 1982.

The Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills. What Work Requires of Schools: A SCANS Report for America 2000. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Labor, 1993.

Toffler, A. The Third Wave. New York: Morrow, 1980.

Bibliographic citation for the paper copy of this article:

Boyett, J. H. and Snyder, D. P. "Twenty-First Century Workplace Trends." On the Horizon, 1998, 6(2), 1,4-9.