Part 2: Who will do the jobs that don’t yet exist? Is education doing its job?

Education, Job Market, Life Skills

In ‘A Whole New Mind’ Daniel Pink makes the persuasive argument that the future is Right Brained.  He traces the development of jobs and education through three distinct eras:

1. The Industrial Age – in which profits and careers were built on the manual labour of the workforce. Factories and industry relied on large numbers of workers doing relatively menial tasks on assembly lines and in mines.  As technology and automation have increased these jobs have disappeared: machines can now fulfil these roles more economically, reliably and accurately.

2. The Information Age – this is the age of knowledge workers which dovetailed with increased education.  Blue and white collar workers became the backbone of the economy as workers now traded on their learning and knowhow whether in management, industry or the growing public sector.  This era brought us right up to the computer age.  These jobs require classic Left-brained thinking: logic, analysis, function, systems, strategy, communications. Our education system prepared young people for this – schooling them in mathematics, science, analysis, deduction, business and it assessed them by their ability to exercise left-brained skills: knowledge, recall, memorising, writing, comparing, contrasting, equations and functions.

However, with the incredibly rapid evolution of the computer age and the exponential increase in the computational capacity of new technologies, we now find ourselves in an age where the majority of these knowledge-based jobs can now be fulfilled by technology; increasingly cheaply and with greater accuracy than humans.  Couple this with the fact that even if we do want a human to do the analysis and system coordination, we can certainly find a human who can do it more cheaply, and maybe even better by drawing from the increasingly highly educated workforce in China and India. And so, these Left-brained, knowledge and analysis based jobs are on the way out in Britain and every other Economically Developed Country.  Cars are no longer requiring drivers, data is not requiring a human analyst, shops don’t need checkout assistants, banks don’t need cashiers.

3. Which brings us to the Conceptual Age: today – in which the volume of jobs and careers in design, creative arts, innovation and entrepreneurship are increasing by the day. And being invented by the day. These are RIGHT- BRAINED jobs.  Jobs which utilise the creativity, art, lateral thinking, innovation, team and people skills of a left brained workforce. And, critically, a workforce which will have to adapt, change, re-think on a regular basis because the pace of technological change and adaptation is so rapid. The average young person leaving school today will have had 14 different jobs by the age of 38. An undergraduate beginning a technical degree in 2017 will find that the first two years of her course will be out of date by the time she finishes it.

In the Information age our education system adapted and grew to produce the knowledge workers that the job market required. But it is still producing students equipped for an age that has largely already passed; that prepares them for the world I grew up in not the one they are growing up in. And whereas the pace of change leading from the Industrial Age to the Information Age was relatively slow (allowing education to change with it) the pace of change we are witnessing now is on a completely different level.  And education far from starting to change has, under the last government, arguably taken a giant step BACKWARDS: increasing focus on traditional left-brained subjects, side-lining or removing altogether a curriculum that places emphasis on the arts, design, vocational skills and creativity; increasing the emphasis on assessment by traditional examinations that require students to regurgitate facts, memorise copious amounts of information, analyse it and record their left-brained, computational ability using a wooden or plastic writing stick within an arbitrary timeframe.  Skills that they will quite possibly never need to use again once their formal education is done with and they enter the real world to discover how very ill-prepared they are.

I’m not arguing for a wholesale removal of traditional subjects or that academic education has no place. It’s not either/or, it’s both/and. But at the moment I see exceptionally little time, thought or investment in schools to address the changing job market and prepare young people for life. Admittedly, planning a curriculum for a world that doesn’t yet exist is not a straightforward task.  But that’s why I would argue that at the very least prioritising life skills and character development is essential.  Skills such as resilience, adaptability, social skills, team work, problem solving, speaking skills, empathy, awareness, decision making, self-belief, self-respect, self-discipline, aspiration, respect for human rights and the values of compassion, generosity, equality and inclusivism.  This education cannot be peripheral; cannot be a bolt-on.  These skills are core if we want our students just to survive the future. If we want them to thrive, of course then we need to go further.