Systems & complexity

Humans remain central to the future of work

Originally posted on The Horizons Tracker.

We may not be far into 2019, but the appetite for reports exploring the future of work shows little sign of abating. At the start of this year the World Bank published a report that explored the changing nature of work.

The report comes in at around 130 pages, so covers a lot of ground, from the changing nature of both work and firms to the need to strengthen social protection and support social inclusion. As many of my previous articles on this topic have looked at human capital, and especially lifelong learning, it was the section on that which caught my attention however.

Recently I covered research highlighting the importance of creativity for many roles in the future of work, and the World Bank report echoes this, claiming that specific cognitive skills, such as problem solving, and sociobehavioral skills, such as creativity, are not only likely to be crucial skills to have, but are largely transferable across jobs.

The paper rightly highlights the relatively brisk pace of change in terms of the demand for skills in the labor market, and the general resistence to change among both education systems and political systems that have largely remained the same since the industrial revolution. As a result, the authors suggest that most of the adaptation that is happening is doing so outside of formal education or even in-work training.

Stages of learning

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the report is the age at which the authors believe the right skills can be developed. Most reports focus efforts on tertiary and adult education, with the odd glance given to secondary schooling, but the World Bank go all the way back to early childhood to ensure that people get the right foundation upon which to build more complex skills later in life.

They explain how, just as with adult education, early years support is unevenly distributed across society, with investment often minimal, especially for poor and disadvantaged children who would benefit most from such interventions.

“Quality early childhood development programs enable children to learn. Investments in nutrition, health, and stimulation in the first thousand days of life build stronger brains,” the authors say. “The engagement of parents and caregivers during this phase also matters for the development of children’s language skills, motor and self-regulation skills, as well as social behavior.”

The report suggests that such early age interventions are hugely effective in giving youngsters a good start in life, but they remain underprovided. In low and middle income countries, they reveal that around 250 million children lack access, in large part due to poverty. Indeed, only half of 3-6 year olds have access to pre-primary education around the world.

Higher education

The report then leaps to tertiary education, which it suggests will be hugely important due to the growing demand for higher-order general cognitive skills. They believe that the demand for these skills has resulted in a wage premium for tertiary graduates, with those lower down the skills spectrum suffering in contrast. Whilst people are expected to have more careers than in the past, and therefore learning specific skillsets will be required as we age, the authors nonetheless believe that tertiary education provides a broad enough skillset to be valuable throughout our life.

Interestingly however, the authors are much less enthusiastic about vocational training, as they believe it naturally provides a much narrower skillset to the learner, which is good for the specific job they’re training for, but offers few transferable skills if/when that job no longer exists. Yet it also provides immediate skills to meet labor market demand in the here and now, thus presenting a trade-off between the current and the future.

As such, the authors recommend that education systems strive to provide a guaranteed minimum threshold of transferable cognitive skills to provide all people with inoculation against job uncertainty.

Learning outside the workplace

Perhaps the topic of most interest to me however is learning once we leave school and enter the workplace. It’s perhaps here that the biggest challenges emerge, as investment in workplace training is pitiful.

“If you look just at training, right now the United States spends 0.2 percent of its GDP on labor-market programs,” Jason Furman said recently in an interview with McKinsey. “That’s the lowest of any of the advanced economies in the OECD.”

The World Bank fail to really touch upon the challenges involved in retraining someone as an adult to adapt to changes in the labor market, but do nonetheless highlight the opportunity costs that adults have to face when considering learning new skills. This could be economic demands of time away from work, or personal demands of family commitments. Successful interventions need to take these things into account.

They cite distance to the training facility and a lack of child care as considerable barriers to enrollment, whilst I’ve written previously about work by the UK government that cited barriers such as a feeling that learning was not for them, or that they weren’t capable of learning new skills.

These challenges suggest that whilst flexible adult learning programs can cover some of those challenges, people will still need support to help them overcome some of the psychological and cultural barriers to learning. Nonetheless, short modules that are delivered via smartphones hold out particular promise.

Of course, finance remains a constant constraint for many, especially those at the lower-end of the income scale, and it’s this constraint that contributes a large part to the demand for a universal basic income (UBI) to provide people with the kind of financial buffer required to train. Support for UBI remains mixed however, and indeed Furman believes UBI is based on the dangerous premise that there won’t be enough jobs for everyone and therefore this provides a subsistence income for all. It’s a fatalist approach that he doesn’t support, and that indeed the World Bank report agrees with.

There have been numerous predictions of technology taking our jobs, but the evidence to date has shown no such large-scale disruption. What is clear however is that those countries that invest the most in the human capital of their citizens adapt best to the changing economy we face today.

“In countries with the lowest human capital investments today, our analysis suggests that the workforce of the future will only be one-third to one-half as productive as it could be if people enjoyed full health and received a high-quality education,” the World Bank say.

There remains great uncertainty about how best countries can prepare citizens for the challenges they might face, and it’s clear that no country has really mastered things. The World Bank report provides some interesting perspectives to consider, not least on the importance of early years interventions, but they gloss over many of the challenges faced later in life, not least in the many areas of the world that have already experienced industrial disruption. Nonetheless, it’s an interesting addition to the debate, not least because it helps to dispel the myth that technology will lead to mass unemployment.

Article source: Humans Remain Central To The Future Of Work.

Header image source: Courtany on Pixabay, Public Domain.

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Adi Gaskell

I'm an old school liberal with a love of self organizing systems. I hold a masters degree in IT, specializing in artificial intelligence and enjoy exploring the edge of organizational behavior. I specialize in finding the many great things that are happening in the world, and helping organizations apply these changes to their own environments. I also blog for some of the biggest sites in the industry, including Forbes, Social Business News, Social Media Today and, whilst also covering the latest trends in the social business world on my own website. I have also delivered talks on the subject for the likes of the NUJ, the Guardian, Stevenage Bioscience and CMI, whilst also appearing on shows such as BBC Radio 5 Live and Calgary Today.

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