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An uncertain future for "jobs of the future"

Data: Cognizant; Chart: Axios Visuals

Despite recession worries, demand for workers in the U.S. has climbed ever higher — and with it, the outlook for a bundle of jobs that could dominate future economies.

Why it matters: The fate of this seemingly future-proof work, much of it centered on interactions with increasingly intelligent machines, has looked rosy since 2016, but it's not clear how it would weather an economic downturn.

Driving the news: The latest numbers come from a quarterly report produced by IT consulting company Cognizant, provided first to Axios.

  • For a year, Cognizant has been tracking U.S. hiring for 50 jobs that it deems forward-looking, with statistics going back to 2016 pulled from the Bureau of Labor Statistics via Burning Glass, a jobs database.
  • The index includes jobs in sectors such as AI and automation, transportation, health care and work culture.

What's happening: Earlier this year, the "jobs of the future" index flattened along with larger hiring trends, suggesting that this work isn't entirely insulated from the rest of the economy.

  • Now, the index has picked back up — but so, too, has hiring across all industries. After a split in early 2017, as seen in the chart above, the "jobs of the future" index has largely tracked hiring in general.
  • This suggests there might not be some special magic in these jobs — or, perhaps, that the makeup of the leading edge of work has already changed since Cognizant first assembled the bundle a year ago.
  • Rob Brown, VP of Cognizant's Center for the Future of Work, argues there's no particular reason for the parallel movement.

Most future-oriented jobs are increasingly in demand, like health information managers and robotics engineers. But, surprisingly, tech consultants are among a few jobs that dove in Cognizant's most recent analysis.

  • Ben Pring, director of the Center for the Future of Work, says that could be because big companies, recognizing the long-term value of tech experts, are hustling to hire them rather than relying on consultants from outside firms like Accenture or, yes, Cognizant.
  • Plus, AI models that once required a PhD to set up are becoming easier to use without specialized training, potentially diminishing the value of pricey consultants.

Cognizant picked mostly white-collar jobs for the index, but several jobs outside that category are also good candidates for the list, too, either because they're byproducts of the tech industry or because they are difficult to automate with today's technology.

  • One example: workers who label data that trains AI. That's a boring, repetitive job, but one that's in huge demand because labeled data is critical for AI systems. It is, however, in danger of being automated itself down the line.
  • Manual labor that varies from day to day — like plumbing or construction, for example — is extremely hard for robots (for some of the reasons outlined in item 2 above). People will continue doing that work for some time.

The big question: What happens when the economy eventually tanks?

  • If jobs of the future keep tracking wider hiring trends, they might evaporate, too.
  • But Pring argues it's more likely employers will intensify their focus on hiring for jobs of the future.
  • That could come at the cost of hiring for other, potentially more accessible jobs.