Not so long ago, parents knew that giving their son or daughter a good education was quite simply the best way to set them on the path to a successful career. Today, things are no longer as certain. The workplace is evolving at such a rapid pace that many skills currently in high demand weren’t even in existence five years ago.
The implementation of new technologies over the past two decades has seen massive upheavals in industries as diverse as medicine, finance, manufacturing, advertising, music, film, agriculture and automotive technology.
While there’s no question these developments are helping us make tremendous advances in areas such as artificial intelligence, autonomous transportation, 3D printing, robotics, nanotechnology, genetics and quantum computing, new technologies are spawning novel industries and creating fresh job roles that require unprecedented sets of skills.
The transformations have been so pronounced that Klaus Schwab, Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum (WEF), has been moved to define the current era as a Fourth Industrial Revolution.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution
For Schwab, the contemporary period is contextualised by the epochs that preceded it. The First Industrial Revolution, in the late eighteenth century, saw the development of the steam engine and liberated humankind from a reliance upon animals for transportation. The second, beginning around a hundred years later, was characterised by increased mechanisation - powered in particular by electricity and the internal combustion engine - which helped enable mass production. The third saw the automation of manufacturing and engineering, made possible by advances in information and communication technology.
What’s different about the current era, is partly to do with the sheer pace of change; it is, Schwab argues, “evolving at an exponential rather than a linear pace”.
“The speed of current breakthroughs has no historical precedent… it is disrupting almost every industry in every country. And the breadth and depth of these changes herald the transformation of entire systems of production, management, and governance.”
- Klaus Schwab, Executive Chairman, WEF
A vast range of new technologies are fusing the material, digital and biological worlds and blurring the boundaries between disciplines. This is not only having a huge impact on economies and industries worldwide but challenging ideas about what it means to be human.
What does all this mean for the employees of tomorrow? “The changes are so profound,” Schwab writes, “that, from the perspective of human history, there has never been a time of greater promise or potential peril.”
A white paper produced by UBS for Davos 2016 predicts further “polarisation of the labour force as low-skill jobs continue to be automated and this trend increasingly spreads to middle class jobs.” A 2016 article in the British Guardian newspaper suggested as many as 47% of jobs in the US will be at risk from automation.
As Schwab has noted, the three biggest companies in Detroit in 1990 had revenues of USD 250bn and employed 1.2 million employees; in 2014, the three biggest companies in Silicon Valley were generating roughly the same revenues (USD 247bn) with almost 10 times fewer employees (137,000).
Preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist
There seems to be an increasing disconnect between the content-driven education model largely developed in the nineteenth century and today’s skills-based world of work.
This reflects what, for Schwab, is one of the biggest causes for concern. He fears decision makers will be “caught in traditional, linear (and non-disruptive) thinking or too absorbed by immediate concerns to think strategically about the forces of disruption and innovation shaping our future.”
It’s estimated that more than a billion young people will join the global workforce in the next 10 years. One of the greatest challenges we face is helping them make the most of their potential in ways that are appealing to employers. But how can we prepare students for jobs that don't yet exist?
Given the rapidly changing nature of work, it is practically impossible to predict the exact hard skills employers will require in the future. But there can be no doubt that a greater focus on 21st century skills - transferable soft skills that can be utilised across a wide range of industries - will bolster graduates’ opportunities. At the same time, introducing students at an early age to industry-standard protocols and practice can help to bridge the transition between work and study following graduation.
The sooner we start to be realistic about the changes the world is facing, the sooner we can move to address the challenges. Clearly, those who will be best suited to face the obstacles presented by an uncertain future will be those who are most ready to move with the times.