[SCMP Column] Future job crisis

February 24, 2018

As flagged last Monday, I want to explore further the “future jobs crisis”. Yes true, dramatic technology changes are in the process of destroying many jobs, and redefining the nature of many more. But suggestions that this means there will be fewer jobs, or that we are moving into a “post work” world supported by some kind of universal basic income are misplaced, naïve and utopian.

Rather, our challenge is that the pace of technology change is making it tough to anticipate what skills our future workforce will need, and that many of our education institutions are not fit for purpose in preparing people for the jobs of the future.

My hunch is that the future will be filled with more jobs, rather than less; that skills mismatches will be a core problem; and that old-fashioned attitudes to ageing and retirement are blocking our older adults from ensuring we meet the challenges.

Profound demographic changes mean that the world is filling with older people – with Japan and Hong Kong at the fore, with almost a quarter of our populations now moving into retirement. But attitudes towards old age and rules on retirement mean these older people are perceived as a liability, and are being barred from providing part of the solution to the “future jobs” challenge. Anxiety about a shortage of jobs for our young – and in some circumstances a naked “ageist prejudice” – means governments and employers are reluctant to enable the fast-growing number of “healthy old” to stay in work.

My sense is that few in government, business, or the education sector are ready or willing to wrestle with – or even recognize – these challenges, or the solutions to them.

First, on the perplexing challenge of envisaging what skills we will all need in 2030, there is reasonable agreement that all of us are going to need to be more tech-savvy. Knowledge of coding must be fundamental to children’s early learning, alongside knowledge of the alphabet and grammar, and basic numeracy.

But this does not mean that most careers will be in writing code, or that digital skills will lead to the brightest or most fulfilling careers. As robots and AI eliminate millions of routine, repetitive, mindless tasks, so millions of new future jobs will emerge that are devoted to exploiting this productivity-enhancing revolution. Success in capturing such opportunities will not rest crudely on coding skills but on broader digital literacy, on developing strong socio-behavioural skills, and on higher-order cognitive skills like learning how to learn.

For the education sector, this means doing more than just teaching basic thinking skills, and developing rote memory. It means recognizing that learning must be a fully continuous process through our lives, not something we basically complete as we graduate from university and then occasionally top up. It means a shift away from campus-based learning to web-based learning.

These points were forcefully driven home by Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott in their book “The 100-Year Life”, which warned that the demographic revolution points away from the traditionally-imagined 40-year working life to a world in which most people’s careers stretch over at least 60-years. Preparation for such 60-year careers – which will be much more fragmented and diverse than the careers of our parents and grandparents – cannot rest on an education that finishes with university graduation aged 22. Neither educators nor employers have yet meaningfully internalized this.

Change is likely to be most powerfully felt by women in our societies, whose career aspirations are so often hobbled by the need to raise and care for a family. By the time they “empty nest”, normally in the mid-40s, their hopes of rebuilding a meaningful career are invariably frustrated by the absence of appropriate mid-life education opportunities to acquire new and updated skills, and by employers’ reluctance to offer meaningful careers to middle-aged women who they believe will retire little more than a decade later.

But in a future in which an increasing proportion of the healthy aged population are willing and able to work on into their 70s and 80s, these women will now be looking forward to, and wanting to plan, new careers that will span 30 or more years. Employers can no longer justify writing them off as a poor long-term investment, nor can our education sector fail to restructure education systems to provide significant mid-life learning opportunities that enable them to transition effectively back into the working world.

I can hear an “ageist” riposte from some readers that claims our “silver” population has little to offer the world of “future jobs”. As Joseph Coughlin, founder of MIT’s AgeLab noted in his new book “The Longevity Economy”: “There is an overwhelming tendency to view old age and the ageing of populations as a slowly unfolding crisis… Thanks to the institution of retirement, older adults are kept out of economic production roles, which means they’re not only prevented from making money, but also from conceiving or designing products.”

He recalls Thomas Midgley Jr, chairman of the American Chemical Association and brilliant inventor of the refrigerant freon, and chloroflorocarbons, who famously said in 1944: “Youth is original and creative, while age is simply experience.” And even more famously, Mark Zuckerberg’s 2007 comment: “Young people are just smarter.”

Not only does Coughlin argue convincingly that both Midgley and Zuckerberg are profoundly wrong. He argues that older people are likely to play an indispensable role in resolving our “future jobs” crisis. They will be substantially the most important consumers of future products (in the US, the over-50s control 83 per cent of all household wealth, and in 2015 spent US$5.6tr, compared with the under-50s who spent US$4.9tr). If liberated from out-dated ideas on retirement, they will be a significant creative force in conceiving future products, and helping us make them.

In sum, the seismic technology changes around us are likely to create more jobs rather than less; the transition to future jobs is frightening for many, with many countries facing difficult mismatches; our education systems are doing a poor job in giving future workers the skills they need; outmoded ideas about retirement and older workers are frustrating efforts to tackle future challenges; and our governments barely acknowledge the problem. We have hardly begun to address our “future jobs” challenge.
David Dodwell researches and writes about global, regional and Hong Kong challenges from a Hong Kong point of view. Opinions expressed are entirely his own.

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