Business ideas for 2021: The feeling economy

As artificial intelligence assumes an ever greater share of cognitive tasks in the workplace, uniquely human traits have never been more valuable

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Artificial intelligence (AI) is becoming increasingly adept at analytical and logical tasks, in many cases actually outperforming its human equivalents.

But where does this leave those human equivalents?

In the feeling economy, empathy, emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills – those attributes that a machine can’t (yet) emulate – are the most highly prized qualities a person can have.

Of course, people have been afraid of robots taking their jobs since the Luddites started smashing up textile machinery in the 19th century. And yet, in almost every case, rather than permanent displacement, technological developments have spared people from menial, tedious, and sometimes even dangerous tasks – freeing them up to be redeployed into something more stimulating.

And that, hopefully, is the potential of the feeling economy: a great unleashing of dormant ingenuity.

That’s not to say there aren’t legitimate concerns about AI replacing jobs. But now’s the time to reskill, upskill, and capitalise on your humanity.

Want to read about more top business ideas? Check out the full list of the best business ideas for 2021

Why is the feeling economy a good business idea?

It’s important to state that the feeling economy isn’t a business idea as such. It’s more of an all-encompassing term for any job, business, or concept that relies on uniquely human characteristics.

Because this isn’t happening in the future. It’s happening now. According to research from The Data City, in the UK, the AI sector has grown by 145% during the last decade, with machine learning and natural language processing (NLP) – both of which are aimed at helping machines develop a more human-like intelligence – accounting for the largest subsectors. In total, it is worth £15.6bn and employs 35,000 people, and by 2030, it’s estimated that AI will have boosted the UK economy by £232bn.

Clearly this isn’t an opportunity we want to miss. And AI has already started to quietly assume many functions in our day-to-day lives. Just think of that voice-activated personal assistant you carry around in your pocket, the systems that protect your money from cyber attacks, or the algorithms that determine what search results you see when you Google something.

In a paper published last year in the California Management Review, analysis of data on millions of workers in the US department of labor from 2006 to 2016 identified a “significant shift” towards tasks that required greater emotional intelligence as other tasks were automated. This effect was particularly pronounced in the financial sector. The research found that, within financial advisory services, ‘feeling tasks’ were considered 20.5% more valuable in 2016 than 2006, while ‘thinking tasks’ declined by 6.3% over the same period.

Some of the key findings in the Future of Jobs Report 2020 also illustrate the displacement that automation is likely to cause to the jobs market over the next few years. It found that 43% of businesses have plans to reduce their workforce due to technology integration, while 34% plan to expand their workforce due to technology integration.

What’s clear is that the findings by no means paint a picture of a slow slide towards ever more automation and human redundancy. On the contrary, employers expect that while ‘increasingly redundant roles’ will decline by 6.4% by 2025, ‘emerging professions’ will grow by 5.7%. In other words, technology will create nearly as many jobs as it makes redundant.

But perhaps the most significant finding in the Future of Jobs Report is this: by 2025, the amount of time spent on tasks by humans and machines in the workplace will be equal. However, as shown in the graph below, machines will come to do the majority of information and data processing, data retrieval, administrative tasks, and some traditional manual labour, while humans will retain their advantage in managing, advising, decision-making, reasoning, communicating, and interacting.

In turn, the report speculates that in-demand skills will change dramatically over the next few years, with critical thinking, analysis, problem solving, active learning, resilience, stress tolerance, and flexibility expected to be the most sought after qualities.

So, we’ve made the case that emotional intelligence is becoming increasingly important in the jobs market. But why does this make the feeling economy fertile ground for new businesses?

The feeling economy: Business opportunities

Any business that can take advantage of the human capacity for empathy, emotional intelligence, and interpersonal skills can succeed in the feeling economy.

There are a number of ways to interpret this. After all, ‘human’ skills have been the driving force behind every business throughout history.

What we’re going to exclusively focus on are concepts that use technology to allow humans to be more human. It won’t be an exhaustive list – there are too many possible ideas that could fit into this broad category. And they may sometimes rely on AI to connect and facilitate, but, ultimately, humanity is at their core.

Personal (virtual) assistants

These days, small business owners have access to all sorts of software to help them save time and headaches on day-to-day admin, many of which use some sort of AI to perform automated tasks. This is all very well, but there are still many, many things that an AI can’t do. That’s where a virtual personal assistant (PA) comes in. But don’t get confused by the word virtual. What we’re talking about is a real person, available on a pay-per-hour basis, to help you do pretty much anything.

Pink Spaghetti is one such example: a virtual PA service created specifically for SMEs. It markets itself as offering its customers a 25th hour in the day, and can help with everything from managing your email and social media to finding you a better price for your utilities. It can even buy your Christmas presents – anything to help you save time.

Volunteer connection and assignment platforms

In a similar vein, platforms in the care and charity sectors are helping to connect people for more altruistic purposes.

Volunteero is a platform that makes volunteering “easy, flexible, and fun”. Users can easily find organisations that mean something to them, sign up to become a registered volunteer, and then start finding and completing missions in their communities, while organisations get access to keen and able volunteers.

Mental health support

Non-medical mental healthcare is another sector that doesn’t look likely to be troubled by automation any time soon. We’re nowhere near a machine that could satisfactorily replace a shoulder to cry on or an empathetic ear, never mind offering anything back in the form of kind words or genuinely useful and supportive advice.

Based in South Kensington, The Soke is a private mental health and wellness centre that offers treatment for everything from depression and anxiety to stress and OCD, as well as services for leadership development, anger & communication, and high-performance coaching. These services are available for individuals and businesses, with bespoke packages on offer to suit particular corporate cultures.

Or there’s My Online Therapy, an entirely digital solution that featured in the Startups 100 2020. It’s an online service that’s using technology to democratise mental health care by allowing more people to access this uniquely human service. Following a free online assessment, users are shown the profiles of psychologists that best meet their needs. They can then connect with them by video or live chat to receive online coaching or support.

The feeling economy: Insider opinion

Maryam Meddin, founder and CEO of The Soke, comments: 

“If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s the fact that we humans really don’t do well without each other. A year ago, when I was speaking to prospective investors about the idea of setting up an actual bricks and mortar mental health business (now The Soke), there was a slide in my pitch deck that argued the case for clients wanting to occupy the same physical space as the person they were talking to. The counter-argument I faced was that the convenience offered by technology would far outweigh the benefits of human interaction.

“The reality is that whilst we may increasingly rely on smart machines to deliver accuracy and speed, we remain dependent on each other for the qualities that distinguish a life of efficiency from one of emotional fulfilment. It is still human beings who deliver empathy, sympathy, understanding and inspiration – what’s more, humans can use their social understanding to create, deliver, develop and adjust their responses in a manner suited to unfolding circumstances and the individual in front of them.

“The pandemic has been extraordinarily impactful in reminding us of the components that make up our wellbeing. That presentation I did last year: if I had to do it again today, I’m not sure that the inclusion of a ‘need for human contact’ slide would be necessary.”

Written by:
Henry Williams headshot
Henry has been writing for since 2015, covering everything from business finance and web builders to tax and red tape. He’s also acted as project lead on many of our industry-renowned annual indexes, including Startups 100 and Business Ideas, and created a number of the site’s popular how to guides.
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