Good lord, look at the date – January 7th, 2020… It hardly seems real, does it? It is not only the start of another year but another whole decade has begun. We are once again entering the roaring twenties. Where are Fitzgerald and Hemingway? Oh yes, they’re sipping craft beers and discussing microaggressions in the corner.

It is a strange time in history and despite how overwhelming or downright depressing it can be, it’s seldom boring. The world is changing at an unprecedented rate and only a fool would say he thinks he knows what it will be like in a few years. People today now have a life that is totally different from that of their parents and their grandparents. It is utterly unrecognizable from the life they would have lived back in 1920.

That got me thinking about the state of my own industry – teaching English as a second language. I have been doing this since 2007, which is not a terribly long time. Yet in that time, ESL, like anything else, has changed quite a lot. It is only reasonable to expect that it will change yet more in the coming few years.

Perhaps now is a good time to take a look at the state of the industry in this first year of the new decade and see where we are and where we are heading.

ESL in 2020 – What’s new?

The ESL industry as we know it really kicked off in the 1990s. Of course, learning English has been around as long as the English language itself (duh) but the job that we are discussing here really became a thing some thirty years ago as people flocked to Japan, which was the booming destination. Japan’s economy was high-flying at the time and no one knew that the crash was looming. Wanting to engage with the outside world, Japanese people sought English lessons that would allow them to do business with other countries and travel abroad with their newfound wealth.

Nowadays, getting a job in Japan isn’t easy. You need qualifications, experience, tenacity, connections, and a willingness to work long hours for crap money. It’s not exactly an appealing option. In the 2000s (how do you even pronounce that decade?), people switched to South Korea and in the 2010s it was China that became the go-to destination for would-be teachers.

Currently, South Korea still gets a large number of teachers, but that number is falling. Between 2012 and 2016, the number of foreign ESL teachers at public schools in the country dropped by 42%. (source). On the other hand, China’s appetite for English continues to grow at an astounding rate. By 2015, there were as many English speakers in China as in the United States, and every year the number grows (source). Like most other Asian markets, the Chinese don’t want locally-grown teachers; they want foreigners. And that has made it a lucrative market.

But you probably knew that already, right? The demand for English teachers has been rising for decades now and the fact that you can go to Asia to find a sweet job is hardly new.

What’s changed is that these jobs are all becoming more difficult to get, or at least the good ones are. In both China and South Korea, visas are becoming more difficult to come by, and employers are getting more choosy. This is because there are so many people now willing to pick up and move to the other side of the world. Economic and cultural situations in the West (think Trump, Brexit, etc) are pushing thousands of disillusioned young people into international job markets. With all that to choose from, who can blame the employers for being more careful in who they pick?

Online Teaching

While the regular ESL market grows, adapts, and matures like a fine cheese, a new element has come to the fore. That is online teaching. There have been people doing this for years but as technology and internet speeds increase globally, it has exploded since 2018.

Think about: Teaching ESL to Chinese children used to meaning going to China. It meant being away from your family, living in a very different environment, having no access to the regular internet, and being subject to some truly terrifying laws. Now, you can roll out of bed, sit at your laptop, and yammer away via an app. Easy!

Of course, the fact that just about anyone can do this and make good money has two negative impacts:

  1. There are way more people doing it.
  2. There is a lot less money to be made.

Sure, it’s still an ok gig to get, but you’re not going to make a fortune doing this. The benefits are obvious, but it’s not terribly lucrative. If you were willing to brace the pains of actually living in China, you could get far, far more money for showing up in a school and speaking to the kids.

But hey, isn’t it quite cool that you can just teach from the comfort of your own home? In fact, if you were confident enough that you could get a decent internet connection, you don’t need to be at home at all. Why not embrace the digital nomad lifestyle?

Succeeding in ESL in 2020

So, to summarize what I said above: ESL is changing. More people are getting into the industry and salaries are dropping in some places. But is it all doom and gloom? No. Not at all. If you are a newbie, it is easier than ever before. If you are an experienced teacher, your experience will still carry you above the newbies. It’s all going to be fine…

The best things to do to ensure your success in ESL in 2020 are:

  1. Get qualified. That means take some courses, get certificates, and learn, learn, learn…
  2. Look for opportunities in new places. Don’t just head to China or Korea like everyone else. Do what Steve Jobs said: Think Different. (Although, as an English teacher, you might remind your students that it should be “differently”.)

Yesterday, two of my friends got offered jobs in Bangkok for $4,000 per month each. They have few working hours and lots of benefits too. It’s a fantastic deal. They got these by doing shitty jobs in strange places for a few years and studying for various certificates. Their hard work paid off big time in the end.

As for me, I worked in kindergartens, high schools, cram schools, and universities for 11 years as I built my skills up, and eventually I started my own company. I also wrote a few books and made lots of contacts. Now I can travel the world while helping people to learn English via the internet. For me, it’s a pretty fantastic life.

Of course, you don’t need to spend a decade building up to a good job, and to be honest most of the jobs I had over that time were also pretty good. In China, I had 4 months’ paid holiday per year. Yeah… Hard to complain about that.