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How to prepare kids for jobs that don’t exist yet

Words: Robert Langkjær-Bain

Illustrations: Odilo Girod

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As technology transforms the world of work, young people are relying on the education system to equip them for an uncertain future. Here’s how such a radical shift might be pulled off.


  • Technology and AI are replacing many jobs – and transforming others.
  • Universities are responding by focusing on ‘human’ skills that can’t easily be automated.
  • Emotional intelligence will be a key skill for young people in the future workplace.
  • Lifelong learning is set to go from the exception to the norm.
  • Perhaps the most important skill of all will be the ability to learn how to learn.

What did you want to grow up to be when you were a kid? Doctor? Astronaut? Footballer?

Back then, ambitions were high, but the list of options most of us could imagine was pretty short. As we get older, we discover that the world of work is more various, more complex, and often, sadly, less glamorous, than we thought. As well as the adventurers, sports stars and emergency workers, the world needs compliance officers, quantity surveyors and people with job titles that not even their own families fully understand.

“As well as threatening jobs, automation could also create millions more, and transform millions of others”

Soon, all of these jobs may feel antiquated. The age of automation is upon us, and its reach is gradually extending from routine physical tasks to more advanced ones. If you think this just applies to factory workers, take a look at this recent article in The Guardian. It was written entirely by AI.

But don’t panic. As well as threatening jobs, this trend could also create millions more, and transform millions of others. What the world of work will end up looking like as a result remains an open question, and one that people and policymakers still have a chance to influence.

What we can be sure of is that the jobs market of the future will be fast-changing and uncertain. The job titles will likely seem as alien to us as lamplighter or town crier would to today’s kids, and who knows what they’ll spend their hours actually doing. How do we prepare kids for a future we can’t even see?

Boundaries blur

Universities are hard at work tackling this very question. Carnegie Mellon University’s president Farnam Jahanian says he wants to prepare students for a future “where thinking and working across boundaries will be vital”. “We have been making disciplinary boundaries much more porous and have launched programmes at the edges and intersections of traditional fields, such as behavioural economics, computational biology, and the nexus of design, arts, and technology,” he wrote in a recent article for the World Economic Forum.

“Higher education is focusing increasingly on the skills and traits that make a good human”

The future that Jahanian describes echoes the much-hailed school system in Finland, which tries to take education out of its “silos” by focusing on topics and problems rather than subjects.

Higher education will also have to focus increasingly on the skills and character traits that make a good human, and that can’t (yet) be automated – things like empathy, interpersonal skills and creativity.

Joseph Aoun, president of Boston’s Northeastern University, believes the sector needs a “dramatic realignment”. In his 2017 book, Robot-Proof, Aoun proposes a new field to equip the workers of the future to prosper in a world transformed by robotics. He calls it “humanics”.

Humanics, as conceived by Aoun, is based on the three pillars of data literacy, tech literacy and human literacy, as well as a set of mental skills including entrepreneurship, cultural agility and critical thinking. It aims to “nurture our species’ unique traits of creativity and flexibility”.

The future will require kids to be flexible and creative.

“A robot-proof model of higher education is not concerned solely with topping up students’ minds with high-octane facts,” writes Aoun. “Rather, it refits their mental engines, calibrating them with a creative mindset and the mental elasticity to invent, discover, or otherwise produce something society deems valuable.”

The challenges and opportunities of the future will often be “one and the same”, Aoun says, and “education is what sets them apart”.

Emotional intelligence

Young people’s preparations for future careers can begin long before university. Career Connect is a charity that works with young people between the ages of nine and 19 in the northwest of England. Team manager Chloe Elliott believes today’s schoolkids will most likely work in jobs that we wouldn’t recognise today, and are likely to hold a wider variety of jobs throughout their career.

“It’s not just their academic achievements that are going to get them where they need to go”

Chloe Elliott

As well as making kids aware of what kind of jobs are out there right now, the charity works more broadly on skills and emotional intelligence. “It’s not just their academic achievements that are going to get them where they need to go,” says Elliott.

“There are skills that young people can start to practise as they go through the school journey. They can develop resilience skills, setting goals, being able to focus, learning that you won’t always have instant gratification, being open to new experiences, being objective, being able to control emotions, to deal with setbacks, to solve problems, to work with other people. There’s a whole range of exercises and activities for that.”

Career Connect also tries to open kids’ minds to the ever-changing variety of the jobs market. Young people’s understanding of the changes going on in the jobs market can end up lagging behind the reality, because they learn from their parents. Some of the young people that Career Connect helps, may not have working parents as role models.

Lifelong learning

But perhaps the biggest challenge facing the education sector is not transforming its content, but transforming its entire structure and business model.

The current pattern of several years of study at the start of your career and then not much more, probably can’t last. If we’re expecting the job market to change fast, then we’ll need education to be equally nimble and fast-moving.

Universities need to see lifelong learning as the norm not the exception, with bitesize, focused training, and more online classes.

It’s a big challenge for universities. The traditional business model of residential in-person courses and expensive assessment operations – already disrupted by the Covid-19 outbreak – is likely to face more long-term challenges.

Technology is making new learning options available. MOOCs (massive open online courses) have become hugely popular as a free way to learn online, with the likes of EdX offering courses accredited by well-known universities. There’s a skew towards topics like business and coding, but also history and all sorts of other subjects. Even top universities such as Harvard offer cheaper, modular courses online. If you like, you can do a whole degree through Harvard Extension School, but most users just pick and choose what they need at that point in their career.

“The good news about lifelong learning is, it’s never too late”

We can also expect more interaction between education institutions, employers and industry bodies in the form of partnerships, work placements and mentorships. Already, for instance, engineering giant GE allows workers working on building jet engines to complete a Bachelor of Science in Advanced Manufacturing Systems.

So if the future of education is a more fluid, flexible system where subjects blur into each other and learning is conducted ad hoc, how will employers know who to hire? In a recent survey of educators and technology professionals conducted by Pew Research Center, one respondent commented that traditional educational credentials will in future be viewed alongside a candidate’s ability at “learning how to learn”.

And if you’re not sure whether you’d make the grade in that regard, the good news about lifelong learning is, it’s never too late. You can take a free online course in how to learn right now, if you like, without even leaving your desk.

Welcome to the future.

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