A Brave New World (of Education)

Whether it’s Elon Musk’s dire prediction that “robots will be able to do everything better than us,” or the slightly duller McKinsey Global Institute report, you’ve probably heard about the coming age of automation and artificial intelligence (AI) and the hundreds of millions of jobs that could be made obsolete as a result. So, what are we going to do about it?

One of the more popular solutions put forth by doomsayers (like Musk) is a universal basic income to compensate workers that are made obsolete. This sounds nice in theory, but unless we see an absolute worst-case automation scenario (i.e., virtually no jobs available), it could do more harm than good by destroying incentives to work.

What hasn’t been discussed as much is the idea of revamping the education system. While the relative magnitudes are uncertain, we’re fairly sure that automation and AI will displace a lot of jobs, but also create a lot of new ones — the challenge will be ensuring that displaced workers are capable of performing these new jobs, many of which will be in roles that complement machines. And what seems evident today is that our current education systems, in the US and elsewhere, are not equipped to handle this challenge.

What seems to be a likely future scenario is 1) a lot of jobs being constantly destroyed, 2) a lot of jobs being constantly created, and 3) most other jobs experiencing rapid change in responsibilities and required skills. In such a scenario, Harry Holzer of the Brookings Institution says that our education systems should focus on general skills training rather than specific occupational-based training. We don’t need workers with industry-specific skills. Instead, we need workers who can think critically, communicate, and most importantly, adapt to the ever-changing nature of work.

We can now imagine the first part of our brave new world, in which our formal education system, instead of prepping students for specific industries and occupations, focuses heavily on 21st century skills. This brings us to the second part, and the idea of lifelong learning.

Our current idea of education and work follows a general pattern: you attend school to learn, exiting at a certain level (some after a 2-year degree, some after a 4-year degree, some after graduate school) to enter the workforce, where you then channel the skills and abilities you gained at school into your work. You’ll likely keep learning a bit as you’re promoted to new jobs, etc., but essentially your life is separated into the initial stage of “learning” and the much longer second stage of “working.”

However, Holzer says in the future that “given the much wider range of workers who will be potentially displaceable …we need to develop a broader range of high-quality retraining options.” This is where lifelong learning comes in — we need institutions that allow workers to continuously learn new skills throughout their career. This applies both to displaced workers that lack the skills needed by newly created jobs, as well as workers who keep their jobs but see the nature of their work change in ways that require new skills and knowledge.

In other words, due to the rapid creation and destruction of jobs, labor markets are going to need to become a lot more flexible. Some potential steps we can take to achieve greater flexibility are 1) gearing our education systems heavily towards 21st century skills, so that workers become more adaptable and more capable of switching occupations, and 2) developing institutions that promote lifelong learning for workers.

As we can see from online course providers like Coursera and Udacity, this second step will likely require extensive private-sector involvement in addition to public policy measures.