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Education and the jobs of the Future

In discussing the future of education, we are to a great extent discussing the future of employment. There is ample research which suggests that both the past and current education system have not sufficiently prepared students and workers for the job market. OECD points out that 6 out of 10 adults lack basic ICT skills, despite a 25% increase over the last two decades of high-skilled jobs. Jobs were mainly created in services, at the expense of manufacturing. Without mentioning a time path, OECD’s expectation for the future is that 14% of jobs will be completely automated while 32% will change significantly. The Worldbank is also exploring the subject and dedicated its annual report to “the changing nature of work”. While sharing the view that the labour market is rapidly changing, it feels that technology is simply changing the skills that employers seek, meaning that “workers need to be better at complex problem-solving, teamwork and adaptability”.

Compared to research by Spanish scholar Santiago Niño Becerra, these predications are not particularly worrying and technology is regarded as offering many new opportunities. Niño Becerra, however, expects that when the current fourth industrial revolution overlaps with a new economic crisis, a very substantial part of the population will lose their job forever. A large segment of the population having become superfluous from a labour perspective, the group of persons belonging to the middle class will get smaller, which has in fact been an ongoing process since the 1980s. Since technology has started to replace more and more jobs, the welfare system in western countries has become increasingly unsustainable. This will result in an increase of inequality and a new generation which will live under worse conditions than their parents, according to Niño Becerra. His calculations indicate that for every 7 jobs that disappear due to technology, only one is created by technological innovation.

Carl Frey, who has studied the historical effects of automation on the labour market in his book The Technology Trap: Capital, Labour and Power in the Age of Automation, shows that previous industrial revolutions have either resulted in labour-enabling or labour-replacing technologies and also that adjustment periods can be long – even an entire lifetime for some workers. In other words, later generations often benefitted from innovations that were introduced at the expense of workers who experienced the arrival of new technology first hand. Thus, even if a new technology will benefit society at large, there will be losers in the process, and history shows us that there will be fierce and often violent resistance from workers.

Our current era will need to find an answer to the question why the tendency is now towards labour-replacing technologies while there had been a proliferation of labour-enabling ones in the past. Frey’s conclusion, therefore, is that “today’s automation anxiety is entirely justified” and “the real challenge lies in the sphere of policy, not technology”.

Edited by: Dr. Olivier Vonk

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