We’ve all seen the movies. So often, depictions of the future of the world are dominated by the rise of some kind of technological innovation. Think of all the great science fiction films you’ve seen: Blade Runner, The Matrix, Minority Report, I, Robot, the Terminator series. All these films depict a future where humanity is in danger of being completely dominated by machines, or where the creation of artificial intelligence begins to outstrip the intelligence of humanity and threatens to endanger mankind’s hegemony. Usually, when people begin to imagine the future role of technology in our future, there is a clear anxiety about how it will neuter our power.

These anxieties around the theft of human power and agency become apparent even when discussing our very near future, particularly in the area of skills and jobs. There has been much written about the Fourth Industrial Revolution, where advances in new technologies such as 3D printing, artificial intelligence, robotics and virtual reality will wipe out entire sections of the world economies in industries like manufacturing, transportation, administration  and construction. This has sparked fears of a coming wave of workers put out of work by robots that will put intense pressure on an already strained social safety net.

We live, and perhaps always have lived, in a culture with an ongoing narrative of technological disruption of labour markets. Such a narrative can be slightly problematic, mostly because our conception of the future is mostly hampered by our conception of our present. And while it is true that many technologies threaten to replace many jobs in many sectors, how these job losses will be distributed across sectors is unknown. And what is not considered as much are the jobs that will be created because of these new technologies: jobs that will require training and skills for many people to be able to do them. You will find that once you look at the data, that narrative of relentless technological disruption enfeebling massive swaths of the population is only one side of a story that has not even been written yet.

There are many organisations out there that have tried to challenge the prevailing narrative of doom and gloom. One such organisation is Nesta, an innovation foundation that has recently released several reports about the coming 15-40 years in the economies of the UK and the US.

The conclusion that Nesta comes to is fascinating. Some areas of the UK and US economy that were predicted to contract because of automation were predicted to grow very little. Many areas of sales, customer service and administration are threatened by AI. The production of self-driving cars threatens jobs in the transportation industry. A surprising area of shrinkage, though, was also in the financial sector, where occupations such as bookkeepers and clerks are set to be automated.

The occupations most likely to benefit from automation are more professional and creative occupations. Jobs that are most likely to grow included artists, sports coaches, catering managers, secondary teachers and mechanical engineers. Contrary to other studies, Nesta slated many medium-skilled blue and white collar occupations to grow, such as positions in hospitality and leisure.

Which jobs were slated for growth and which for decline were based on which skills will be most in demand. Skills in high demand in the future will include judgement and decision making, the ability to be flexible and fluent with ideas, creativity, systems evaluation, deductive reasoning and complex problem solving. Low-skilled worker in positions that require only basic literacy and numeracy will either be replaced or have their positions incorporated into other positions that will be supplemented or augmented by new technology. As former US president Barack Obama said in a town hall in 2015, most manufacturing positions will require some kind of computer skills. The age of walking into a factory, getting a high-paid job and working for 30-40 years are over. And while many people will see this as a great loss, it is also a great opportunity for governments to prepare their citizens for the future by providing the education and training they will need. This will include introducing subjects like coding into required school curricula.

However, not everyone will or should be trained to take up professional careers in the highly competitive and shifting world of abstract subjects.

Nesta also provides an intriguing list of potential jobsthat could emerge in the future because of trends in technology, but also an ageing population, globalisation, urbanisation and more. The jobs they list are ingenious in that they are completely plausible. The rise of virtual reality will require designers for immersive experiences that necessitate a high amount of creativity and emotional intelligence. Extended lifespan in the developed world will require life and career counselling with 100 –year lives in mind. And technological advancements in materials productions will necessitate the creation of jobs in aerospace engineering and green construction.

Advancements in technology are not the only forces affecting what skills will be in demand in the future. Nesta also identifies various trends in the world economy that will shift demand to particular areas. Such trends include:

  • Environmental Sustainability: The growing consensus – with notable cracks – of the threat of climate change to everything from food production to weather patterns and species extinction will necessitate an expansion in ‘green’ jobs and away from natural resource extraction and production like coal, fossil fuels and gas.
  • Urbanisation: 70% of the world population will live in cities by 2050. Cities attract high-value, knowledge-intensive industries. Most of the world economy, jobs and skills will have to service jobs that cities tend to specialise in.
  • Increasing Inequality: Equality, unless serious action is taken, will increase, squeezing middle class jobs and lifestyles. Jobs will be created that will accommodate this new reality.
  • Political Uncertainty: The increasing global instability and political uncertainty in recent years will likely continue, making it more difficult for traditional institutions to act efficiently and credibly. Uncertainty also negatively affects sectors with high government involvement such as defence, finance, construction, engineering and healthcare.
  • Technological Change: Automation will decrease jobs in some sectors, and increase them in others. The number of jobs affected is still uncertain, with some estimates putting it as high as 49% of jobs and others putting it at 9% of jobs.
  • Globalisation:Global labour markets will become increasingly integrated. This will bring benefits, such as the rise of advanced manufacturing and knowledge-intensive and jobs, and costs, such as trade deficits and wage impacts. Growth will slow around the globe because of sluggish trade growth and the rise of protectionism.
  • Demographic Change: The largest contingent of people in the history of the world will begin to age and enter retirement. This will affect, healthcare, finance, housing, education and recreation. The Gen X and Millenial generations will also come to prominence, bringing with them diverging consumption and work behaviours.

The main and most valuable takeaway from a study such as this is that the vast majority of jobs in the UK and US (around 70%) are in roles where their future is highly uncertain. In order to deal with this uncertainty. Workers will have to be nimble and willing to jump between positions over decades. This will mean attaining ever more skills and qualifications to accommodate the churn. The role of educational institutions and the education sector as a whole is clear: to accommodate to these trends by expanding their capacity and increasing the quality and relevance of their offerings.

TQUK is keeping pace with these changes by actively expanding and diversifying our qualification base, embracing adult education and lifelong learning and supporting training providers and by providing assessment of apprenticeships.

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