So often ‘the jobs of the future’ are presented as some kind of vague justification for a focus on skills. I think the world of tech has had a pretty significant influence on education. I mean, tech-savants all went to school, we can assume some of the most successful were gifted, and possibly weren’t served by their own school experience. Ed consultants, who have largely left the world of teaching, undoubtedly find it easier to sell the Six Cs (think Creative, Critical, Con-job) than offer practical suggestions to actually improve learning outcomes. Pundits complain that soft skills - biologically secondary by the way - are not being taught in schools and that students are under-prepared for the endless ‘group work’ that occurs in workplaces.
I think I have a slightly different take on the future world of work. I retrained to be a teacher after a career in the advertising industry. My school education didn’t prepare me for anything much at all (I’m fine, by the way). When teachers pronounce with an air of surprise that students will have up to five different careers in their lifetimes, I wonder where these edu-lifers have been for the past twenty years. Probably in schools, making educators possibly the least qualified to speculate on the uncertain future of work.
I’ve been working for about 30 years. For argument’s sake, I’m going to list what I would consider my ‘careers’ and then list all of the things I’ve done for money. It seems I’ve been living in the future all along!
Government bus driver - my grandfather was gutted when I quit my union job to go to RMIT
Talent agent and photographic producer, Melbourne, Sydney, London
Learning support officer then teacher - I secured my first full time role at 40
Orchestral French horn player
Australian Army Reserve musician
Disability support worker
My partner works in ‘the future.’ It would diminish his contribution to say that he is a developer. He is a high-value generalist who has the kind of skill and knowledge set that the tech industry describes as T-shaped - broad and shallow along the top but with deep specialised knowledge in a narrow area. He works in an industry with severe talent shortages and as a result, salaries are necessarily high. He often moans that schools aren’t producing the graduates of today in areas of need, let alone the graduates of tomorrow. What the vocal tech celebs think they need is graduates who are creative and critical, but many of these highly specialised individuals suffer from the curse of knowledge. What they actually need is experts who can apply their broad and deep knowledge to as many Cs as you like.
We have a fundamental problem in education. Too many outsiders and social media tropes have influence over what and how we teach. Everyone has an opinion. The Libs see education as a pipeline to work, but send confusing value-signals, at one moment promoting a traditional liberal education and at others, rejecting any form of critical thinking or subjectivity, labelling all independent thought as postmodern. Tech sees schools as missed opportunities that should be innovation hubs. And then there’s Pinterest for teachers, which captures all the Sir Ken and Rita Pierson motherhood statements that really don’t lend much practical help, often perpetuating the hero or saviour narratives that de-professionalise teaching. And on top of all this, we are repeatedly told that we are not preparing students for the future.
There’s a consultancy called Board of Innovation that works with the actual future. They publish a great resource that speculates on the ways that our lives might change in the future. I actually love speculative fiction and futurism. Every few years, I download the latest copy - the most notable change this year was that Facebook will soon be empty! It has to be said that workplace changes are very light-on according to their latest chart. The most interesting changes are actually in education. They speculate that the revered skills will be uploaded to the brain, and that university degrees will be worthless, something that I have already predicted. I highly recommend downloading a copy, just for kicks.
The future only exists in education and consultancy, and I really hope it is put in the bin, although I can’t see that happening. Call me a traditionalist (I know you will), but my dream is actually to see all students graduate with a rich foundation of knowledge with which to solve problems, and skills in communication and synthesis. The present is hard enough.
Knowledge is where the shortfall is in the workplace, and more specifically the practice of acquiring knowledge. So many professionals are very well versed in the "theatre" of modern work; highly confident, personable, politically savvy, extremely likeable, but lacking the ability to put in the hard graft to deeply engage with the domains they are tasked to operate within.
I have seen people like this give up early when things get tough. They despair that they are not "making an impact" in their work, because they haven't mastered their assigned (or chosen) subject-matter within a couple of months (or weeks)! Well, most of us aren't that brilliant, it takes time, and then more time.
I have pretty much had one career of significance – building web-based applications – and would have spent tens of thousands of hours across multiple domains to reach a level of competency that is considered adaptable to almost any domain. That allows me to transfer my skillset around pretty easily, but it took over 20 years and I'm still learning and there are still areas of technology that I know effectively nothing about.
Part of the problem here is that almost nobody looks at "modern" (or "future") work as being an evolution of what work has always been like. There is an unnecessary elevation of technology, and specifically "IT" as being the driver of this change, when it is still the underlying business or organisational objectives driving 90% of everything. The fundamental problems haven't changed, the motivations have barely changed, the actual people are even the same (especially the leaders of organisations) – many still around from pre-internet days.
If we want to prepare students for *their* futures in the workforce – and by that I mean the moment that they actually start working in a job – then the best we can do is teach them how to efficiently acquire and hold knowledge. That will never not be highly valued. Skill requirements will change over time, but skill is applied knowledge so that comes back to strengthening learning capabilities. These are markers of adaptability, which (in general) I will hire for over specificity any day.