What the fourth industrial revolution could mean for education and jobs

By Andreas Schleicher
Director, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

It’s so much easier to educate students for our past, than for their future. Schools are inherently conservative social systems, and as parents, we become anxious when our children learn things that we don’t understand – especially when they no longer study things that were so important for us. Teachers are more comfortable teaching how they were taught, rather than how they were taught to teach. And politicians can lose an election over education, but rarely win support over it, because it takes much more than an election cycle to translate good intentions into better results.

But the world is changing fast. The charity Education and Employers recently asked some 20,000 primary school children to draw their own future, and the opportunities children see for tomorrow are amazing. At the OECD, their report has inspired us to look at the future of education and jobs more systematically. We will present our findings and a selection of the drawings with them tomorrow in Davos, where world leaders are gathering to discuss the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Some people will question how we can talk about the future when we can’t even figure out what will happen tomorrow. But there is quite a bit we know about the global megatrends that shape education, and much has been written about the Fourth Industrial Revolution, including the recent Future of Jobs report by the World Economic Forum. And if we look at the future as the result of a series of advances shaped by these megatrends, then we have a better chance of being prepared for the challenges that lie ahead, rather than being ambushed by them.

Education also provides the key to shape these megatrends. Our economies are shifting toward regional hubs of production that are linked by global chains of information and goods, but concentrated where comparative advantage can be built and renewed. The distribution of knowledge and wealth is therefore critical, and it is intrinsically tied to the distribution of educational opportunities. The right skills can empower people and communities to take charge of their future. And employers and governments have a key role in helping young people understand the world of work and the jobs of the future.

Let’s take a look at some of these trends shaping education.

Within the next ten years, the majority of the world’s population will consist of the middle class, a trend that is largely driven by China and India, which will make up 90% of the entrants to the middle class. This will not only increase pressure to provide better education for more people; it will also place higher expectations on education from more demanding customers.

Not everyone has benefited equally, however; income and wealth have become more concentrated. In OECD countries, the richest 10% percent earn almost ten times the income of the poorest 10%, and this inequality ends up on the doorsteps of schools. Today, social heterogeneity in classrooms already poses one of the biggest challenges to teachers. Economic inequality can lead to inequality of opportunity, which can translate into disparities in well-being, and drive political and social unrest.

We are also seeing a lot more people on the move. Asia has replaced Europe as the most popular region of destination, attracting about 2 million migrants each year. This migration brings more diversity to classrooms, and it raises important questions. How can schools better serve students from various social and cultural backgrounds? And what does this mean for teaching citizenship and identity? What responsibility do schools have in teaching the values of society? How do we deal with brain gain and brain drain?

There are other pressures, as well. Think about economic security for individuals, such as financial security or work-related security. On average, household debt has been rising while savings have been declining. Depending on the affordability of debt and the accessibility of savings, sudden changes in expenses or income can result in severe shocks if debt is already high. And when the effects of such shocks are widespread, large parts of the economy can be at risk. People can care for their economic security with the right knowledge and skills, but nearly a quarter of 15-year-old students lacked the baseline level of financial literacy on the last global Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) test.

These days, digitalisation connects people, cities, countries and continents in ways that vastly increase our individual and collective potential. There are now more broadband subscriptions than people. But digitalisation has also made the world more complex, more volatile and more uncertain. Digitalisation can be incredibly democratising – we can connect and collaborate with anyone – but it can also concentrate incredible powers. Digitalisation can be incredibly particularising – the smallest voice can be heard everywhere – but it can also be incredibly homogenising, squashing individuality and cultural uniqueness. Algorithms behind social media are sorting us into groups of like-minded individuals, creating virtual bubbles that amplify our views and leave us insulated from divergent perspectives; they homogenise opinions while polarising our societies. Digitalisation can be incredibly empowering; the most powerful companies today start with a big idea, rather than a big industry, and they have the product before they have the money. But it can also be incredibly disempowering when we end up following the dictates of computer algorithms.

In most countries, the majority of 15-year-olds said in our PISA survey that they feel bad if they are not connected to the Internet. And in some countries, the time 15-year-olds spend online on a regular school day has effectively doubled in just three years. The Internet has become an integral part of our lives. Many common activities that once required physical contact or social interaction – such as talking to family and friends, or banking and shopping – are now carried out online. But the digital sphere is not a virtual second life; it’s increasingly part of our physical reality. Whether it is a job, a room for the night, or the love of your life, online activity often translates into offline outcomes. Education must take advantage of the tools and strengths of new technologies while simultaneously addressing concerns around potential misuse, such as cyberbullying, loss of privacy or illegal trade in goods.

The dilemma for education is that the kinds of things that are easy to teach and test have also become easy to digitise, automate and outsource. For those with the right knowledge and skills, digitalisation and globalisation have been liberating and exciting; but for those who are insufficiently prepared, they can mean vulnerable and insecure work, and a life without prospects. Think about the increasing role of technology in providing a marketplace for those demanding and supplying freelance work. Online platforms such as Upwork and Freelancer have 49 million combined users, as well as a global reach that is only somewhat mitigated by barriers of language, currency and jurisdiction. Every year, these kinds of platforms facilitate billions of dollars’ worth of work. The connected economy has changed the way we work, and indeed, the way we live. What are the consequences for on-the-job learning and training if increasing numbers of workers have no permanent fixed employer to sponsor such education?

Education must be prepared to change with technology. Students will need skills for future job and labour markets, and they will need the ability to navigate the increasing uncertainty and potential precariousness of the gig economy.

What will the growth in artificial intelligence do to this in the years to come? Today we need to think much harder about how human skills complement the artificial intelligence of computers, so that we end up with first-class humans rather than second-class robots. Education has won the race with technology throughout history, but there is no guarantee it will do so in the future. The future is about pairing the artificial intelligence of computers with the cognitive, social, and emotional skills and values of human beings. It will be our imagination, our awareness and our sense of responsibility that will enable us to harness digitalisation to shape the world for the better.

Tomorrow’s schools will need to help students think for themselves and join others, with empathy, in work and citizenship. They will need to help students develop a strong sense of right and wrong, a sensitivity to the claims that others make, and a grasp of the limits on individual and collective action. At work, at home and in the community, people will need a deep understanding of how others live across different cultures and traditions, and how others think, whether as scientists or artists. Regardless of the tasks that machines take over from humans at work, the demands on our knowledge and skills to contribute meaningfully to social and civic life will keep rising.

It is also worth looking at some broader trends. It has never been easier to express one’s opinions and reach out to fellow citizens as it is in today’s digital world. Yet key processes for democratic decision-making in our societies, such as voting, are declining. And even if the digital world has expanded opportunities for people to use their voice, this is no guarantee that they can access reliable and balanced information, or have the willingness to listen to and compromise with others. How can citizens sort fact from fiction in a digital society? What kind of civic virtues do modern democracies require? At the same time, new forms of collaboration are emerging. Cities are increasingly collaborating to promote knowledge exchange, and to ensure that national and international decision-making includes urban perspectives. The growth of city networks is impressive.

And we are living longer, of course, which means that we will work longer, too.  Although the average retirement age in OECD countries has remained relatively stable since 1970, longer life expectancy has increased the amount of time in retirement, from an average of 13 years (for women and men) in 1970 to 20 years in 2015. When we expect schooling to prepare young people for life, that means something very different if average life expectancy is 80 to 90 years, rather than 60 to 70 years. Combine longer lives with a rapidly changing workplace and you arrive at perhaps the biggest challenge. Whereas we once learned to do work, learning has now become the work. Longer working lives and changing skill demands increase the need for continuous learning throughout life. Should some form of lifelong learning be compulsory? Should lifelong learning be a right? It’s certainly not working now. Those who need adult education and training most – the low-skilled – currently receive it least.

But let me return to the dreams of children. Huge numbers of them want to go into culture, media and sports, but economies currently provide limited space in these areas. Few want to become corporate managers, but the economy needs lots of great people in this field. The last thing we should do is level down the dream of our children to fit our current needs. But we should do a better job of telling kids more about the world around them, and about the trends that are shaping it.

For me, the most troubling aspect of the children’s drawings was the myopic perspective that children from disadvantaged background had about the world of work – a perspective that was narrowly constrained to what their parents or relatives do. We can certainly do better. Technology now allows us to give all children – regardless of social background, where they live or the jobs their parents do – the same chance to meet people (online and offline) who do all kinds of jobs, and to help them understand the vast array of opportunities open to them. Employers and educators need to work far more closely together to help broaden young people’s horizons and raise their aspirations.

Our report, “Envisioning the Future of Education and Jobs: Trends, Data and Drawings”, will be released at the World Economic Forum on 23 January at 12:30 CET. Watch the event live on Twitter and Facebook

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