Are we educating a generation of children for yesterday’s jobs?

Technological change has posed a threat to unskilled labour since the Industrial Revolution

Britain’s prime minister David Cameron sits with pupils in a computer class at St Mary’s and St John’s CE School in north London. Chris Johns’ says the UK labour market has proved to be more flexible than previously thought but fears children are being educated with a view to taking the wrong jobs. Photograph: Getty Images.

Britain’s prime minister David Cameron sits with pupils in a computer class at St Mary’s and St John’s CE School in north London. Chris Johns’ says the UK labour market has proved to be more flexible than previously thought but fears children are being educated with a view to taking the wrong jobs. Photograph: Getty Images.

Thu, Jul 11, 2013, 12:16

One of the many mysteries left in the wake of the Great Financial Crisis is the way employment has held up in the UK. If, five years ago, you had told an economist what was about to happen to the economy he would have forecast a rise in unemployment, much, much bigger than what actually transpired.

There are, unsurprisingly, various theories about why more people than expected kept their jobs. Some suggest that “zombie companies” have been kept alive by the Bank of England’s quantitative easing (QE). Under normal conditions, these businesses would, it is argued, have gone to the wall.

More plausible is the idea that wages have responded to the recession by more than was forecast; real wages and earnings have fallen. Lower wages led to more jobs being saved; the UK labour market has proved to be more flexible than previously thought. QE has played a role by ensuring that UK inflation has stayed relatively high - this, as much as anything else, has reduced real wages, boosting employment.

But, in the longer term there are headwinds facing the labour market that are likely to be common to all countries. Dark structural clouds are gathering that have profound implications for all workers, everywhere.

An established trend for many decades, even centuries, is the way in which machines eventually take over work previously done by human hands. This trend is accelerating.

Technological change has posed a threat to unskilled labour since the Industrial Revolution, if not before. A new feature of this process is the way in which jobs much further up the value chain are threatened by machines. If there is anything about a task that is in any way routine, there is, it seems, an app that can do it better than a humble human. And not just routine tasks. Artificial intelligence may have been slow to move from the pages of science fiction into the real world but the ways in which machines are becoming smarter are multiplying.

This is not about high-end jobs moving to be performed by highly qualified people in India and China. This affects China and India as well. To exaggerate what unlimited capital for labour substitution might mean, imagine a world where one large machine produces every conceivable physical good, and an army of robots supplies us with every personal service that we could possibly need.

This rather extreme version of what is happening illustrates both the upside and downside: productivity growth expands exponentially, making society unbelievably richer than we can imagine today. But who gets to consume the output of the machines? Who owns the output? Presumably, the owners of the machines. There are no workers, so no wages for anyone who is not an owner, not a capitalist. In this brave new world, the machines even make the machines - the advent of 3D printing is the start of this.

In this artificial thought experiment, you really want to be a capitalist. Or have voted in a new type of society that is, well, much more communist than capitalist. Maybe. At the very least, debates over inequality are only going to get louder.

Between now and then, what types of jobs are likely to be available (albeit temporarily)? Just as most of the jobs being done today were unimaginable only a few decades ago, we cannot possibly expect to be able to forecast what work our children and grandchildren will do in years to come. But the jobs will, to a considerable extent, be very different to today’s. They will require not just the basic literacy and numerical skills that are the focus of our education system. Creativity, curiosity and adaptability will be crucial. Knowledge of facts, while important, will prove insufficient. That knowledge is now free and ubiquitous. Even teaching is threatened by technology: education is moving on-line at an astonishing speed.

The future belongs to those who know what to do with knowledge, not those who just endeavour to acquire it. I worry that we are educating a generation of children for yesterday’s jobs.

Reform of the education system is inevitable. That seems obvious, perhaps verging on cliche. A radical suggestion: tell teenagers the truth. Tell them the future is very uncertain, that many think the curriculum is past its sell-by date. Schools can wait for centrally dictated reform or push on with their own experiments. Another obvious suggestion: teach children how to learn, in a life-long context, not just to pass exams. Tell them that they will have many jobs, multiple careers. As part of what we call careers guidance, provide much more education about how to start a business.

I fear that our current education system was built with an eye on jobs in government, banks and the professions. Does that sound like a structure suitable for what is coming next?

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