New Workers, New Skills

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What are the most important skills—the work skills and the life skills—that students should acquire from their educational experience, and what is the best way to teach those skills?

New Workers, New Skills

In my EDUCAUSE Review article "Thinking about the Future of Work to Make Better Decisions about Learning Today," I discussed how, by looking at historical patterns and identifying signals of change around us today, we can better prepare for the transformations occurring in both work and learning. Think about the patterns and signals that you see around you. What is the larger story they are suggesting? What does this mean to your institution, to what you do, and to how you do it? What does learning look like in the world of abundant information, resources, networked reputations, and increasingly on-demand work? What do you think students need to know and learn in order to thrive in this world? How would you help them acquire such skills?

New Worker Categories

As the world of work undergoes transformation, new worker categories are emerging—people who, by choice or by necessity, are thinking about making a living in new ways and who are putting work into a very different context. At the Institute for the Future (IFTF), our team of ethnographers has been exploring these new worker categories while conducting in-depth interviews and observations in various locations around the United States. These workers span different levels of skills and different levels of engagement with work, from those who simply rent their assets (e.g., homes, cars) to generate income streams to those who work in new ways full-time. Such workers include micro-workers, dream builders, amplified entrepreneurs, and makers and hackers.


Micro-workers are those for whom work is not a 9-to-5, predictable job with a formal organization but, instead, is a string of tasks. These are the power users of various micro-work platforms, from Upwork to Mechanical Turk to Uber. The number of platforms enabling such work is growing rapidly and touches every kind of service or production process. These platforms are also opening opportunities for new types of services and ways of creating that were not possible before. What is different for micro-workers? Their work lives are not predictable or routinized. They need to have skills in self-management, financial savvy, and planning, and they need to be able to analyze which jobs are worth doing at any particular time and how to best allocate their time, as well as manage financial resources. Unlike in formal organizations, where basic infrastructural needs are taken care of by an organization (e.g., payroll, IT, HR, benefits), micro-workers have to operate as one personal organization, navigating a vast array of needs and regulatory requirements by themselves (in addition to doing the work). Instead of being told what hours to work, they choose when they are available for various tasks. So they may decide that the best time for them to drive for Uber is at 4:00 in the morning because that's when they are free. They strive to develop a good reputation on various platforms so that they will be in the top 5 percent of people doing a particular task, which allows them to make more money.

Dream Builders

Dream builders have totally separated what they do for money from what they do because they are passionate about it. They may be working in a company or they may be micro-workers, but in their non-work time, they're at a tech shop or an art studio or a maker space pursuing their dreams, often for no money. Dream builders' identities and social networks are not wedded to formal organizations but are instead vested in co-working and maker spaces, hobbyist networks, social coding, or art communities. Driven by awe and inspiration and intrinsic motivations, these people are saving the best of who they are and what they are capable of for these other endeavors.

Amplified Entrepreneurs

Amplified entrepreneurs are people who, as individuals or small groups using online resources and services, produce what previously required a large organization to do. They reject career ladders and instead organize work and resources to get things done. They outsource and automate whatever they can, focusing their time and attention on orchestrating the larger project or venture. They reject busy-work and unbundle entire organizational roles into micro-tasks and outsource these to micro-workers, virtual assistants, and other platforms that organize freelancers. Amplified entrepreneurs are focused not on the work itself but on where their passions take them, and so they are driven by curiosity, ambition, and adventure.

Makers and Hackers

Makers and hackers are people who are interested less in the outcome (e.g., the final product) and more in reinventing and remaking existing systems. These innovators question the fundamental divisions between work and play, income and satisfaction, obligation and passion. They bring the ethos of hacking systems to the physical world. They invent new organizational forms to inhabit, sometimes literally. And they assign high value on "place" beyond its architectural features and turn place into platforms for community. Cultural hackers are placemakers who design and inhabit environments where personal and professional lives blend, where serendipity is optimized, and where innovation is simply a way of life. Their work is anchored in networks and communities and not in institutions and workplaces. They don't have jobs; they have vocations. They convert houses into coworking and coliving spaces; they take over warehouses and organize pop-up concerts or food kitchens. They find themselves in a privileged position (sometimes because they have financial resources and sometimes because they choose to forgo material comforts) to live their dreams, enjoy entrepreneurial reputations, and offer their hacks to others who want to pioneer a new way to work and live.

Signals of the Future

These are just some of the new worker categories. Today they might seem like outliers and extremes, but they are signals of the future. Given the direction of technologies, the easy availability of platforms for connectivity and coordination, the rise in alternative employment (freelancers, part-timers, subcontractors, etc.), and the spread of automation, these types of workers are showing possibilities and likely directions for many others.

Skills for the New World of Work and Learning

In 2010, the IFTF published a report called Future Work Skills 2020, in which we analyzed the key drivers reshaping the landscape of work and identified the critical work skills that would be needed in the next ten years. We purposefully did not engage in forecasting specific jobs likely to exist in the future. Many studies have tried to predict specific job categories and labor requirements. Consistently over the years, however, it has been shown that such predictions are difficult to make; many of the past predictions have been proven wrong. Rather than focusing on future jobs, the IFTF report looked at future work skills—the proficiencies and abilities required across different jobs and work settings.

As we were conducting research for and writing the report, we increasingly realized that the ten skills we had identified in 2010 were equally important as work and life skills. With the continual changes in technology and the emergence of new types of workers, we recently decided to review the set of skills with support from ACT Foundation. We found that the following short list of skills not only continues to be relevant but also is even more important as meta-skills in the changing worlds of work:

  • Sense-making: the ability to determine the deeper meaning or significance of what is being expressed
  • Social intelligence: the ability to connect to others in a deep and direct way and to sense and stimulate reactions and desired interactions
  • Novel and adaptive thinking: a proficiency in coming up with solutions and responses beyond those that are rote or rule-based
  • Cross-cultural competency: the ability to operate in different cultural settings, not just geographical but also those that require an adaptability to changing circumstances and an ability to sense and respond to new contexts
  • Computational thinking: the ability to translate vast amounts of data into abstract concepts and to understand data-based reasoning
  • Media literacy: the ability to critically assess and develop content that uses new media forms and to leverage these media forms for persuasive communication
  • Transdisciplinarity: a literacy in, and the ability to understand, concepts across multiple disciplines
  • Design mindset: the ability to represent and develop tasks and work processes for desired outcomes
  • Cognitive load management: the ability to discern and filter data for importance and to understand how to maximize cognitive functioning using a variety of tools and techniques
  • Virtual collaboration: the ability to work productively, drive engagement, and demonstrate presence as a member of a virtual team

While we believe that these ten skills continue to be important, two additional skills have emerged from our ethnographic interviews for these new worker categories: networking IQ and hustle.

Networking IQ

In 2005, we identified and tracked a group of people who had higher networking IQs, which we defined as those with online connectivity, access to mobile technologies, active online lifestyles, extensive participation in online groups, and higher levels of referral behavior (i.e., using referrals for achieving their own personal goals as well as for connecting others with resources). This group (at the time, we looked at them as new types of consumers) exhibited a tendency to take on more do-it-yourself projects, to use analytical and comparison skills in their purchasing behaviors (including assessment of various healthcare options), and to work in teams and use group tools for teamwork. We wanted to track this group because its members were early indicators of how people will be using growing connectivity and online resources in the future. And indeed today we consider networking IQ to be an essential skill for success not just in work but in life. With an abundance of resources and information about anything and everything, the ability to connect to the right resources, critically analyze their validity, assess who may be the best expert, and put the right resources together is a necessity. Those people with the best networks—and the ability to use their networks well—are more likely to succeed.


Hustle is the word we heard most often from people working in today's on-demand economy. Unlike entrepreneurship—which often conjures up heroic images of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates (i.e., people who are able to get venture funding and grow their startups from nothing into billion-dollar companies)—hustle is much more about spotting and taking advantage of various opportunities that come along in order to "make ends meet." Some of those who master hustle may indeed build successful businesses, but many more will need to hustle just to support their livelihoods. For example, Theaster Gates, an artist and a social innovator who has bought abandoned buildings and converted them into community art spaces, attributes his success to his hustling skills. He often tells reporters: "I'm not really an artist. I'm probably first a hustler."1


As the nature of work changes, with a growing percentage of people not employed by formal organizations but instead engaged in "alternative work arrangements"(i.e., as freelancers, on-demand, and temporary workers), educators increasingly need to think about what skills students will need in order to thrive in the new world. Many such skills are not strictly academic in nature but can be thought of as life skills—hustle, networking, cross-cultural literacy, etc. Nonacademic skills have always been essential to success, but they are even more critical today and in the future. This is simply because young people can't rely on traditional signals—academic credentials, grades, and success on tests—to help them find work and guide their work lives. Increasingly, they will have to figure out their work lives on their own, relying on networks of people and resources. Educational institutions can help prepare students for the new terrain of work by rethinking curriculum and providing experiences and learning opportunities that enable students to develop such skills. How can we develop students' networking IQ? What experiences and courses would help students improve their cross-cultural literacy? How can institutions teach not just coding but computational thinking that will take students beyond learning programming languages to being able to interact in the world of big data? This is the time for us to deeply rethink curriculum: What are the most important skills—the work skills and the life skills—that students should acquire from their educational experience, and what is the best way to teach those skills?


  1. John Colapinto, "The Real-Estate Artist: High-Concept Renewal on the South Side," New Yorker, January 20, 2014.

Marina Gorbis (@mgorbis) is a futurist and social scientist who serves as executive director to the Institute for the Future (IFTF), a Silicon Valley nonprofit research and consulting organization. She is the author of The Nature of the Future: Dispatches from the Socialstructed World (2013).

© 2016 Marina Gorbis. The text of this article is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.