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David McWilliams: Fourth industrial age has begun and will end the ‘full-time, pensionable job’

Fourth industrial revolution plunges jobs and education into a new world of potential

As I’ve been working from home for the past 20 years, never truly having a “real job”, trying things, some of which work, some of which fail, the pandemic has not dramatically changed the way I live. That slightly precarious, gig-by-gig, skin-in-the-game existence, which many people fear, is normal for me. I can’t imagine living any other way.

In the future, this slightly blurred lifestyle, where the line between work and play is ambiguous, looks likely to become a reality for more people. Some call it “the gig economy”; others might prefer to call it “living a sovereign life”, where you can have more control over your own affairs.

Whichever way you describe it, this slightly unanchored, nomadic existence, that up until recently has been the way of life for a minority, looks set to become the new normal.

It was this way for hundreds of years for the world’s artisan class, living off their wits, working on their craft, tinkering around in a giant game of trial and error.


We are now at the beginning of the fourth industrial revolution with changes in the way we work, some ushered in by Covid-19, with remote working making the office less essential and technology allowing us to work whenever we want, wherever we want.

The first industrial revolution was the move from hand and muscle power to steam and coal in the late 18th century. The second was the emergence of vast networks of railroads and electricity in the late 19th century, linking vast tracts of agriculture to the industrial heartlands. The third was the emergence of computing power and the rise of the service industry, and the office in the second half of the 20th century.

Now we are in the fourth industrial revolution, the connected revolution of mobile devices, artificial intelligence, internet connection, where everything is digitised and lots of decisions that used to be taken by the bosses are now being decentralised to mobile workers. The opportunities to transform the way we live are extraordinary, but so too are the costs for those who don’t adapt.

The full-time job, nine to five, pensionable and permanent, will soon be over for many of us. This demands a more agile and creative approach to work, where people will become their own brand, just as artisans were in the past. Companies will become less centralised, and employees will become more autonomous.

Countries like Ireland are too expensive for workers to clock in and out mechanically doing the same work. Artificial intelligence and robotics will take over all the most repetitive work, meaning that workers will need to bring something else to the table to stand out.

This shift will provide enormous opportunities for many millions as lots of jobs which were managed by gatekeepers, who kept things within a small circle of privilege, become less powerful. Professions that were protected by guilds, licences and various credentials will become more open to freelancers and specialists. Technology has the effect of bringing the buyer and the seller closer together, stripping out the middleman, the broker, the commercial matchmaker.

All this means that the education system will have to change to prepare people for this new world.

The job of the education system is almost impossible to pin down because the responsibilities are so many, varied and are rarely uniform. Each child is different and every child hears something distinctive when the teacher speaks.

One description of the education system might be to prepare children to become responsible citizens. It is broad enough to cover all aspects of development, but also moves us away from the grind-school, final-exam fetishisation, which has come to dominate so much of our thinking about education in Ireland.

The fourth industrial revolution requires another way of thinking and moving away from the office-bound reality of the third industrial revolution we are leaving behind. The children of the fourth industrial revolution are profoundly different to the children of the last generation: they are online at five years old; they are on social media from eight; they are being sexualised far earlier; and they receive unfiltered information all the time. The education system, including primary school teachers, needs to guide them through this minefield from an early age.

Quite apart from moulding the type of citizens of the future, the education system will continue to be disrupted by technological change. Here are five new trends that will shape the education system of the future.

Online schooling

The pandemic revealed that mass online learning is possible. It’s not for everyone, but it’s not going away. Online learning offers an incredibly flexible and cheap education. This is particularly valuable for those in developing countries who can take courses and get degrees from reputable colleges and universities at a fraction of the cost, without the complications of visas and uprooting one’s life. The global e-learning market is estimated to be worth about $250 billion, with huge potential in the coming decade.


Nano-learning (or bite-sized lessons) is an attempt to combat the decline in students’ attention spans. Indeed, a study conducted by Microsoft a few years ago pointed to an incredible four-second decline in individuals’ attention spans over the 15 years from 2000 to 2015. This is shocking. Technology is the culprit and the saviour here. Consider the widespread availability of 15-20 minute podcasts and TED Talks offering an engaging introduction to a topic from an expert in the field. Schools will need to adapt to this.

Virtual and augmented reality technology 

As both virtual and augmented reality technology has advanced and become more affordable, it has opened up a new world of possibilities in the realm of education. Students with VR headsets can experience anything from the Guggenheim, Versailles or Nasa’s Space Centre without moving. Think about how this might affect language learning.

AI-driven learning

Artificial Intelligence can be introduced to the classroom, gathering and processing data to tailor teaching to individual students. AI-driven teaching programmes allow children to progress at their own pace, highlighting an individual’s strengths and weaknesses.

Genius Hour or Passion Project

Why not set aside time for a student to work on a passion project of their choosing, with the intention of developing their capacity for independent thinking, creativity and research? Students are encouraged to choose a prompt they are interested in and research the topic, setting their own goals and pace of learning.

This type of off-piste learning is critical to prepare children for an adulthood in a world of technology, where their ability to think on their feet will be far more important than their ability to regurgitate information, which will be done by machines.

Our world is rapidly changing and, later this week, as all attention focuses on the Leaving Cert results, it may be worth considering that technology is coming for the education system as it is coming for all of us. There’s nothing to fear if we plan and prepare early.