The future of work is coming-whether we're prepared for it or not


Analysts predict that over the next two decades, we will witness some of the most significant disruptions to the workforce and work that we have experienced in centuries.  Demographic and socioeconomic trends such as rapid urbanization and globalization, combined with even faster advances in technology from mobile internet to increased automation and machine learning, are causing dramatic shifts in the way work gets done in our factories, hospitals, schools and offices. The world of work is changing, and how global leaders respond will influence how well we weather the storm.

The future is not doomed

The recently released World Development Report 2019 (WDR) from the World Bank presents a thorough examination of the challenges brought on by this transformation, but falls short of providing needed guidance and direction for action.

I commend the WDR authors for not falling prey to the pessimistic trap that we are all doomed to the dominance of machines and artificial intelligence. The report acknowledges up front that although historically “innovation and technology progress have caused disruption; these forces have created more prosperity than they have destroyed.” This position is well aligned with the findings of a series of McKinsey reports on the topic. While about half the activities people are paid to do globally could theoretically be automated using currently demonstrated technologies, less than 5 percent of occupations consist of activities that can be fully automated. However, in about 60 percent of occupations, at least one-third of activities could be automated, implying substantial workplace transformations and changes for all workers.

Technical feasibility is not the only factor that will influence the pace and extent of automation adoption. Others include the cost of developing and deploying automation solutions for specific uses in the workplace, labor-market dynamics (including quality and quantity of labor and associated wages), the effects of automation beyond labor substitution, and regulatory and social acceptance. We don’t know what the future holds, but we can prepare for these changes and adapt to them. The sooner the better.

Unfortunately, many of our leaders are reluctant to acknowledge these challenges. During the 2016 United States presidential campaign, one candidate informed the citizens of West Virginia that coal was dying and suggested we must look for ways to retrain workers and generate new industries and jobs. The other candidate promised to keep the status quo and to promote coal and its associated jobs. We know the result of that opinion poll. People are scared and don’t want to hear about these expected changes; leaders are taking note.

The Skilling Challenge

There are many options at our fingertips for helping the global workforce weather these coming changes. As an educator, I am a strong advocate of lifelong learning, which includes early childhood, tertiary education, and adult learning outside the workplace. The WDR notes that jobs in the future will require hard skills—such as technological know-how, problem-solving, and critical thinking—as well as soft skills—such as perseverance, collaboration, and empathy. The report also stresses that countries should invest in the advancement of these skills, as well as health and education, in order to react quickly to innovation and prepare their citizens to compete in the changing global economy. This is the approach RTI’s international development team embraces in our work to improve education and skills in developing countries.

The author visiting a Kenyan vocational center

The report’s section on lifelong learning falls short in two important areas. First, it seems to place a low priority on “youth” – the 1.1 billion people between the ages of 15-24 who are trying to establish a viable livelihood now. Second, it provides little guidance on what specific actions should be taken by educational leaders to promote lifelong learning.

The WDR rightly declares that one of the most effective ways to acquire the skills demanded by the changing nature of work is to start early. Research shows that investing early in the education of 3-5-year-olds lays strong foundations for the development of cognitive and socio-behavioral skills. The WDR then jumps to the importance of tertiary education, leaping over youth and the pressing demand for reform of technical and secondary education. If the goal is to help the global workforce adapt, we cannot ignore 1.1 billion youth.

Furthermore, ignoring this cohort of youth jeopardizes global stability. As Dan Runde of the Center for International and Strategic Studies (CSIS) points out in a recent article in The Hill, “our national security is interdependent on the success and prosperity of developing countries. Without access to meaningful work, there will be more forced migration and terrorism that stems from developing countries.” The very social fabric of countries around the world will be vulnerable if we ignore youth. 

Despite the flurry of white papers from McKinsey, InterAmerican Development Bank, Brookings, and now the World Bank calling for new skills initiatives, educators are not receiving the specific guidance necessary to move schools and training centers forward. For educators and trainers, this discussion isn't about 15 years from now. It's about the present. Educators know that jobs of tomorrow will look totally different than those of today or the recent past. But what evidence-based policies and practices should be embraced now? 

While comprehensive guidance from global leaders is needed, immediate attention should be given to three key areas. First, curricula reform must ensure all youth have access to foundational skills in literacy, numeracy, and science needed to succeed into the future. UNICEF reports there are 115 million illiterate youth, 59 percent of whom are women. These youth cannot be left behind. 

Second, teacher professional development must be re-engineered to support innovative teaching and learning including methodologies such as contextual learning, project-based activities that are tied to authentic work problems, and the development of broad-based hard skills that are aligned with industry’s dynamic demands.

Finally, top down support for bottom up reform is needed to give districts and individual schools the space for testing and scaling new approaches. In many countries, curricular decisions are made at the national level, leaving little flexibility for change. 

A Call to Action

Profound changes are coming to the world of work and the World Bank should be commended for tackling this important topic that many of our leaders are reluctant to discuss. Our challenge now is to craft evidence-based policies and practices that will allow us to navigate this storm and emerge from it stronger than before, and to galvanize support for them from our leaders and fellow citizens. 

In this time of change, I am reminded of Marie Curie’s words, “Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.”