Okay, the future is upon us, how do we prepare to be successful?

In discussing the topic of Information Technology (IT) innovations and its impact on our society with friends and family, one question that is often asked is “Okay, so what should I tell my children / grandchildren to prepare for their futures?” I wish I had a great answer for them, but at this point, I can only offer the following observations:

  1. The existing higher education business model is under a great deal of stress. The cost for a quality education using the traditional model appears to be unsustainable in the future with more people needing education and less resources to educate them. We will need to identify ways to “do more with less”. I think that many traditional schools will be around for a long time, because there will be those students (families) that can afford the on campus / face-to-face experience. There is a lot of good that happens on campus in a traditional educational environment, but it is not the only way to get an education. There are other parties thinking the same thing. The Minerva project and MOOC’s are just the tip of the iceberg. A dean from MIT has taken leave from her post to create a new type of university (MIT Dean Takes Leave…). I do not think we know today what the educational system of 20 years will look like, but I do think that some serious minds and some serious money are starting to shape that future.
  2. Digital Age Literacy is important. I am working on research about how IT innovations are stretching the requisite skills that new employees need to add value on day one. In a globally competitive market, few organizations can wait three years for a new employee to acquire enough knowledge, skills, and abilities to be worth the cost of their employment. Companies are looking for people who are a return on the investment on day one. So, what is Digital Age literacy? I found this great web site that has a tremendous amount of resources explaining and exploring Literacies For The Digital Age. Check it out at “Kathy Schrock’s Guide to Everything“.
  3. The pace of change is accelerating. One of the problems of being in the middle of a revolution is that hard to realize that you are in one. Today is not that much different than yesterday, and you expect tomorrow will be mostly the same. It is only with the perspective of time can we look back and say “Ah ha!” That was the time interval when everything changed. Some people, myself included, believe we are on the cusp of significant social change brought on by rapid changes in IT, artificial intelligence, robotics, genomics, and energy (creation, storage, and transmission). Soon, we will not have a resource problem; we will have a resource allocation problem. Unfortunately, resource allocation is not just a logistical issue that can be solved with better technology and better algorithms. Resource allocation goes to the root of our economic, political, and religious systems. The existing paradigms and their supporters will not go down without a fight, and it is this issue that cause so much trouble until we have it figured out at the global level. Good luck with that!

So, what to tell my friends and family when they ask how to prepare? My short answer is:

  • Stay current on technology – This means more than knowing how to use consumer electronics, become an information age content creator. Learn how to create Internet content, program, install apps, secure your information systems, and keep abreast of new fields like data analytics, and text mining.
  • In the Information Age, the ability to communicate is key – Learn how to read, write, speak, and listen effectively. These are skills that can be improved with dedicated effort.
  • Learn to think critically – Critical Thinking is worthy of a blog post all by itself. Research, analysis, validation, etc. are all important parts of learning to think critically about the massive amount of information being thrown at you every day. Some information you get will be true, some information will be false. Some information will be useful, some will not. Learning how to think critically about the information you obtain will help you make better decisions, make you a more valuable team member, and help you become a better employee, and global citizen.

There is much more to discuss, but Robert Heinlein has a quote that summarizes my thoughts about the near future:

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

Economists will tell you that specialization has made the abundance of today possible, and they are right. However, I believe that the challenges of tomorrow will require citizens that are adaptable and capable of flexing into many careers and opportunities. They will, in my humble opinion, require a strong foundation in critical thinking, analysis, research, communication, and math and specific training in specialized skills that will be understood to be transitory, requiring lifelong learning and skill upgrades throughout their working career.

The additional impact of robots, AI, and other automation..

We are beginning to see more and more stories about how technology is replacing workers. That has happened for a long time, ever since we developed “mechanical muscles”. But, in the past, technology relieved humans from drudgery and created new opportunities. However, I believe, that we may be reaching a turning point where technology does not necessarily create new employment opportunities.

For example, let us say Jim-Bob just barely graduated from high school and got a job at the local warehouse. For the first six months, all he does is sweep, move boxes by hand, and any other menial tasks needed to be done. But after six months, the supervisor notes that Jim-Bob is honest, works hard, and shows up on time and they invest in him by sending him to fork lift school, OSHA training, etc. Next thing you know, Jim-Bob is driving one of the forklifts on the late shift and is starting to make good money for a young single guy. He can now afford an apartment and new car, nice clothes, etc. and starts dating. He meets Carly-Sue at the local meat and three and they get serious, buy a ring, and make it official. Their wedding was nice, a pleasant honeymoon, and two years later Jim Jr. is born, followed closely by Missy. The apartment is getting crowded, so they find a house in a good school district, and settle in for the long haul. Along the way, Jim-Bob and Carly-Sue buy appliances, cars, boats, clothes, TVs, computers, school supplies, food, eat out, go on vacations, on and on. Jim Jr. is accepted to good college and Missy gets a scholarship to the Ivy League. Life is good. Jim-Bob is now a grandpa, retires from the warehouse where he is now the assistant manager, and Carly-Sue sells her bakery so that she and Jim-Bob can enjoy retirement and travel the world, take in a cruise or two.

Enter an automated forklift at the warehouse… it works 24/7/365 for $2.20 an hour. It does not join unions, does not take a smoke break, does not have to leave early to take Jim Jr. to baseball or Missy to soccer. It just works. In this new world, what does that mean to the next generation of workers?

No job for Jim-Bob, no money to start a life with Carly-Sue, and no distribution of wealth to all of the business owners, that supported their life style. No money to buy a new house, so no house was built for them, so all of the construction people were put out of work (masons, carpenters, electricians, sheet rockers, painters, HVAC techs, roofers, on and on). No wedding, no venue, no wedding planner, no cake, no reception, no honeymoon. No kids, no kid toys, no school supplies, no need for teachers, etc. I could go on, but you get the point. It is not just the job at the warehouse, but all of the jobs that the job at the warehouse supported along the way for the 30+ years of Jim-Bob and Carly-Sue’s working life. Whether those supporting jobs are replaced by automation is almost a non-issue, they will not exist because Jim-Bob and Carly-Sue do not have money to pay for the products and services the supporting industries provided.

Please do not misunderstand; I am not anti-technology. It is inevitable, and it is happening faster than most of us are ready to understand the impact. I do believe that we need to start discussing this issue in education TODAY so that we can prepare the next generation for the life in this new age of automation. We are already seeing the leading edge of these changes in remote areas, but within five years, it will be a commonplace occurrence, and may take twenty more years work fully through developed world economies, but by 2030, I predict that most of us would not understand the world that we have created.

The following articles attest to some of the changes taking place already or in the near future.

Driverless trucks

Driverless automobiles

Warehouse robots

How should we prepare our children for tomorrow?