I have four kids, ages 5 to 14, and I and know they’re very unlikely to follow the same educational path I did. I’m certain they’ll be preparing themselves for a very different job market. As my youngest is in kindergarten and my oldest just started high school, here are my thoughts for them.
Technology’s impacts are varied and yet to be determined. We like technology when it makes our daily lives easier and often more fun. But on the flip side, we worry. It’s natural to look toward the future and wonder what change will bring. Earlier this year, for example, Gallup found that nearly eight in 10 Americans believe artificial intelligence (AI) will destroy more jobs than it creates over the next decade. I believe the impact of AI will be much less significant than most predictions, but at the same time want to help people look ahead, eyes wide open.
Drawing on my time as co-chair of the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Global Future Council on Education, Gender and Work, I’ve tried to distill some of the Council’s most important research into advice for my children as they gradually age their way into the workforce.
Here’s what I’m telling them and why:
ROBOTS (PROBABLY) AREN’T TAKING OVER
When I attended Davos in 2017, the metaphor most commonly used for AI was the Terminator: a scary all-powerful robot capable of doing your job, who then starts a robot revolution.
But the following year, as I’ve written before, the Iron Man metaphor replaced Terminator. The change reflected the shifting attitudes about tech: from completely replacing humans to complementing, or augmenting, their abilities and pushing innovation.
Personally, I think Iron Man is a better metaphor than Terminator for two reasons.
First, past technological revolutions, from the automobile to the ATM, have ended up creating more jobs than they destroyed. And second, contrary to popular imagination, technology still has a long way to go before it reaches the kind of capabilities that alarmists like Elon Musk have warned about.
Instead, I think Yann LeCun, who heads AI research at Facebook, has it right. “In particular areas, machines have superhuman performance,” LeCun says. “But in terms of general intelligence we’re not even close to a rat.”
Self-driving cars, for example, are still far from meeting minimal safety standards, and AI is still just fairly simple neural nets, not mythical omniscient machines. More importantly, while it’s great to be aware of the increasing powers of technology, the truth is that the prospect of automation creating serious joblessness is only one of what are really multiple plausible scenarios.
YOU’LL BE IN SCHOOL THE REST OF YOUR LIVES
Why? Because skills are changing faster than traditional education is keeping up. There are a few reasons for this. After all, per Moore’s law, technological progress grows exponentially, creating smarter and smarter machines, which require newer and newer skills. Plus, in an era of fast-paced technological and scientific breakthroughs, the more we discover, the more we have to learn new skills.
And while some leading universities now offer courses on the gig economy or new technologies like the blockchain, it’s far from being the norm. The vast majority of high schools and colleges aren’t adapting quickly enough to the change, leaving their students increasingly unprepared for the jobs market.
“Some studies suggest,” according to the WEF, “that 65 percent of children entering primary school today will have jobs that do not yet exist and for which their education will fail to prepare them.” And the WEF report “Realizing Human Potential in the Fourth Industrial Revolution” predicts that approximately 35% of the skills demanded for jobs across industries will change by 2020.
In practical terms, constant technological change requires that my children’s generation needs to begin thinking of education as a lifelong pursuit. That means they might have to attend community college in order to get a certification, or get a Masters from a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) or a nanodegree from an online learning platform like Udemy–or all three at different points throughout their careers to remain relevant as the job market transforms.
YOU CAN BE YOUR OWN BOSS
A little over half of the working-age population worldwide are traditional employees. But that’s changing, because working for yourself has never been easier, thanks to technology that enables greater collaboration.
As work becomes more digitized, it’s also becoming less tied to geography. UX designers, or copywriters, or Android developers don’t need to be in an expensive downtown office building to find meaningful work and earn top dollar. They can do their jobs anywhere.
And as work becomes less tied to geography, digital platforms, like Etsy and Upwork–which connect people to work together regardless of location–increasingly offer people a chance to be their own bosses.
FOCUS ON SOCIAL SKILLS
As automation advances, the most prized skills are those that can’t be performed by a robot.
Sure, hard skills like programming, data analysis, engineering, and math are important; however, the WEF’s “Future of Jobs” report finds that technical know-how won’t be enough in the future.
“Overall, social skills—such as persuasion, emotional intelligence and teaching others—will be in higher demand across industries than narrow technical skills,” says the WEF. “In essence, technical skills will need to be supplemented with strong social and collaboration skills.”
THE FUTURE IS UP TO YOU
Despite a lot of the fear-mongering about the future, no one really knows how technology will progress.
A WEF study from earlier this year, “Eight Futures of Work: Scenarios and their Implications,” highlighted that uncertainty, pointing to other factors that will also change the way we live and work–like our education systems and immigration policies, which are both within our control.
After all, we make the machines. We create schools and write curricula, and it’s up to us how talent and work move across borders.
The future isn’t written in stone. It’s not inevitable. It’s yours to shape–and that gives me reason to be hopeful.