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education technology

Training students for jobs that don’t exist yet. Or not.

The top 10 in demand jobs in 2010 did not exist in 2004. We are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t exist yet, using technologies that haven’t been invented, in order to solve problems we don’t even know are problems yet.

It takes some work to find out that the claim is not true.

Doxtdator, A. (2017). A field guide to ‘jobs that don’t exist yet’. Long View on Education.

If you’ve spent any time in education there’s a good chance you’ve seen the Shift Happens video below (this is the original version that came out in 2009 or thereabouts…there are updated versions for 2018 and 2019). It’s very inspiring (the music helps) and for the longest time I’d recommend it to anyone who’d listen. If you haven’t seen the video then watch it now before we move on.

The kind of complex thinking we deserve about education won’t come in factoids or bullet-point lists of skills of the future.

Doxtdator, A. (2017). A fieldguide to ‘jobs that don’t exist yet’. Long View on Education.

I’ve watched this video a lot, mainly in the first few years after starting as an academic because the narrative was perfectly aligned with the way I was thinking and the work I was doing. But as I’ve spent more time in education and research, I’ve become increasingly skeptical of the “sound bite” type solutions to pedagogical problems that are nuanced and complex. Having said that I’d say that, until earlier this year, I would still have been sympathetic to the main arguments in the video:

  • The rate of social and technical change is accelerating;
  • Because of the Internet and other emerging technologies;
  • Higher education is not adapting quickly enough;
  • But we need to future-proof our students;
  • So we’d better start changing soon.

In this More or less BBC podcast, Tim Harford asks what the staistical likelihood is that 65% of future jobs haven’t been invented yet and it seems fairly obvious straight away that it’s not a reasonable prediction. We might argue that the specific numbers are less important than the spirit of the claim, which is that the world is changing more quickly then ever before (probably true), and that this matters at a fundamental level (maybe true), and that how we respond in higher education has grave consequences for our students we train (little or no evidence that this is true). Consider the following quote from a presentation give in 1957:

We are too much inclined to think of careers and opportunities as if the oncoming generations were growing up to fill the jobs that are now held by their seniors. This is not true. Our young people will fill many jobs that do not now exist. They will invent products that will need new skills. Old-fashioned mercantilism and the nineteenth-century theory in which one man’s gain was another man’s loss, are being replaced by a dynamism in which the new ideas of a lot of people become the gains for many, many more.

Josephs, D. (1957). Oral presentation at the Conference on the American High School.

Notice 1) this statement is from a keynote given about 60 years ago, and 2) how closely the narrative mirrors the concerns raised about how contemporary education doesn’t prepare students for jobs that don’t yet exist. While it may be fair to say that the narrative might still be true, just on a longer timescale, it’s almost certainly not a result of the Internet, mobile phones or any other technology that’s emerged in the past few decades.

This is why I was delighted to come across the article I opened with. It’s a reminder that it’s essential that we take critical positions on the things we care most about.

By Michael Rowe

I'm a lecturer in the Department of Physiotherapy at the University of the Western Cape in Cape Town, South Africa. I'm interested in technology, education and healthcare and look for places where these things meet.