Automation and the future of work. Are enough citizens taking this topic seriously? There have been some really great reads on the topic ranging from the 2011 ebook, Race Against the Machine by Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson out of MIT, to the recent LinkedIn post, What Happens When Millions of Jobs Are Lost Because of Automation? by Jeff Selingo. Selingo’s piece criticizes – in my opinion rightly so – the U.S. education system for focusing on teaching skills that will effectively be automated in the future.
Why is the at-large education system failing our youth when it comes to automation? Because of its resistance to change, of course. Yes, there are wonderful exceptions. We can also acknowledge how difficult it is to change a behemoth like a school system or any large institution of learning, but are the schools wholly to blame? No, the blame doesn’t fall completely on the schools or their systems. The reality is that not enough people yet demand this kind of change.
Is the lack of demand caused by sheer ignorance? By a disregard for the evidence around us? Or could it be an intentional myopia brought on by pining for grand dreams of a time of yore that really won’t ever be again?
Whether it’s simple technology or complex artificial intelligence, we can’t deny that our world in the not-too-distant future will be a place that functions very differently than we do today. As I ponder the question of why the masses aren’t demanding the kind of change that will really prepare our college graduates for this new kind of world, I can’t help but reflect on our recent past. Things we take for granted today as can’t-live-without mostly existed for quite some time before demand caught up: robotics; the Web; graphical design software; computerized motor engines; online banking; the smart phone; and wireless broadband devices are just a few.
Each of these technologies – typically advanced by a market innovator and not necessarily the technology inventor – changed the landscape of jobs in this country. While new industries created job opportunities, many advances in technology have decimated others. Heck, how many people even realize that their money-dispensing ATMs stand for “automated teller machines” (“Teller? What’s a teller??”). If you look around with eyes wide open, it’s not too hard to see the writing on the wall: in 10 years’ time, will cheap labor really be the threat or will it just be automated labor?
Is Education Preparing Us for Automation?
Institutes of education, unfortunately, can be lumbering, old giants resistant to change. In the early 2000s, I experienced first-hand what happened when many old university deans chose to ignore the Internet as a marketing and recruitment tool, despite entreaties by their staff members. Commonly, even now, other members of college administration and faculty want to protect their world and fiefdoms as they knew it, and so oppose change that deviated from “the way it’s always been done.” Many schools only finally paid attention when competition from online-only institutions came crashing into their space.
Today I don’t think schools need to be focused on the digital battleground so much as they need to be focused on whether or not they’ll even be attracting our best and brightest at all. For instance, a very smart friend of mine has announced flat out that he won’t be sending his two brilliant children to a four-year college. He thinks it’s a waste of money for diminished learning value; that higher education offered today will not meet the market demands of the future. Instead, he’s having them take their SATs early, college-level courses in high school, enter community college while still attending high school, and then if they need advanced education to get a certain job or degree, they can just take the necessary credits from the most suitable provider offering them.
My friend’s choice is perhaps an extreme example, but looking down the road, it may not be too far-fetched. How well are schools training our youth for the gig economy, where people cobble together a living working a string of several separate freelance jobs simultaneously or from project to project? How well are schools teaching people to be adaptable rather than specialized so that when their job gets eliminated they can create other options? How well are schools teaching kids to have foresight so that they can better see the path of automation and anticipate the “expiration date” of a particular job before automation takes it over? For that matter, should high school grads aspire to a typical white collar career that demands a college education or does greater, more stable opportunity really lie in a newly-minted version of the vo-tech school, one that services our ever-more automated world?
I used to think that reinvention wasn’t for the young – they are too busy inventing to be reinventing themselves. I’ve now come to realize, however, that reinvention skills need to be taught at all ages. Reinvention isn’t accepting change, it’s choosing to change.
And in a fast-changing world if you don’t choose change, it will soon be forced upon you whether you like it or not.