As sources of petroleum energy peak and fall (oil and natural gas) over the next few decades, we'll see much higher costs for many of the things we take for granted, particularly transportation, heating fuel and shipping of goods.
Sure, we'll be replacing current sources of petroleum-based energy with coal (hopefully minimally or as cleanly as possible), some nuclear (although the time it will take to get nuclear up and running is long), more wind, etc. the overall effect is that we will have less total energy available. Or, at the very least, it won't be anywhere near as cheap as we've had it the last few decades.
So, what kind of future will we have and what kind of jobs will be considered valuable? I'm going to take a stab at a few predictions and explain why:
Transportation: Most of us won't be able to afford increased gas prices when we are sliding quickly down the oil slope, so alternative forms of transportation will be key. Many areas will have invested in public transportation such as alternative fuel buses, light rail or other forms of rail. But, I also bet there will be an increased interest in riding bikes to get around (particularly those modified for hauling like an Xtracycle). Being a bus driver will lose some of its stigma and there will be increased demand for people with bicycle maintenance skills.
Food: The benefits of fast food (i.e. cheap, subsidized food) will be a thing of the past as the true costs of growing and transporting food is revealed. A stronger focus on locally grown food, with its cheaper transportation costs, will be in effect and people will more likely be eating seasonally because of reduced costs. Having skills and knowledge of growing food in suburban and/or urban settings will be valuable as more people will return to backyard food growing to save money. Inexpensive meat (cheap, corn and grain fed animals) will go away and people will return to eating meat less as the focus of a meal, but as a small constituent of it.
Goods and services: When cheap oil prices disappear, cheap goods (toys, clothes, electronics) from overseas will all but cease to exist. There will be a higher demand for quality products that are well made and actually have replacement parts. More people will rely on second-hand items over buying new because of increased costs and a return to trading or bartering or just plain sharing skills with neighbors will increase. Supporting local businesses will be key in keeping a strong local economy and ensuring that interruptions in supply are minimal. Knowing how to repair large and small appliances, sewing clothes, wood working and other crafts will be valuable skills to have.
Rural-style medicine: The cost of health care and pharmaceuticals will increase and access to services and their plastic-dependent goods will be harder to come by (think IV bags, tubing, etc.). There will be a higher value placed on knowing basic techniques and we'll most likely see quite a drop in elective surgery (cosmetic and otherwise). I think we'll probably see a return to more general practice family doctors and a higher emphasis will be placed on nurses and nurse practitioners for primary care.
Education: I don't see dramatic changes in the way we educate elementary and secondary students. Most likely the biggest changes will be less options for transportation, limited school choices and a decrease in special education services. If energy costs are truly an issue a compact school week may be instituted to reduce the number of days the building is heated and extracurricular type classes (art, music, library, PE) will be eliminated to focus on core subjects.
This may be more important where winters are very cold, but a shifting of school schedules to spring, summer and fall to eliminate heating costs may be considered. With a decrease in standard of living, we may see a decrease in population rates, so less students may be going through the system and schools will close in some areas if that is the case. Few people will be able to afford an advanced education and we may see a shift more towards trade schools, akin to the school system in Britain. Being an educator will still be highly valued, we'll just need less of them, or in different fields.
Travel and entertainment: The costs to travel will increase exorbitantly unless some miraculous energy source is discovered. Only the wealthy will be able to afford air travel and the rest of us will rely on rail for extended vacations. The majority will take vacations within the region where they live and staycations will be more of the norm. I think there will be less travel and tourism overall, but local economies will still benefit from local travelers.
Mainstream entertainment will change in that the days of the big budget blockbusters may become so unaffordable that we'll see a majority of small, budget films. And a lot less of them. I think the demand for entertainment will still remain high, but the outlets will more likely turn to cheaper forms like socializing or going to community events. I don't see a huge decrease in demand for organized sports however today's high paid athletes will be a thing of the past.
How do you see life in a low energy economy, where oil resources are less available and those that do exist are extremely expensive? Do you think alternative forms of energy (wind, solar, hydro, etc.) will "save" us or will they only slightly slow down our collision course with a low energy economy?