How do you prepare kids for jobs that don't yet exist?
Deep-sea property developers, off-planet chefs, and missile engineers, blasting freight from one side of a country to another — if history had come to pass as some futurists had predicted, those are the kinds of jobs you might aspire to today.
In 1978, Future Life magazine predicted that within four years, a lunar base would need a regular supply of space workers, engineers who could build in low gravity and moon miners to dig up rare earths.
In 1967, the US News & World Report dreamed of freight-by-missile by the year 1990, while in a 1964 article filled with near-accurate guesses, science fiction writer Isaac Asimov predicted swathes of society would shift to cities underwater, leaving the earth’s surface for agriculture.
So if our history of predicting future jobs is so poor, how do we prepare kids for the real roles that don't yet exist?
It is a big question at a time in which automation, the rise of robots, and the consolidation of traditional roles means there are fewer jobs to go around. Australia is facing a “perfect storm” for the workforce, according to the Australian Government, with an ageing population, exponential growth in technology and a closing window for many traditional jobs that will soon be obsolete.
Science agency CSIRO has been tasked with looking at options for the future workforce and says there are ‘megatrends’ that are driving the transformation of the economy, including the rise of gig workers and entrepreneurs, more porous international boundaries, an older if largely healthier population, and a higher bar for professional tasks that need advanced scientific, mathematical and technical skills. Those trends mean fewer low-skilled jobs, increased global competition, demand for health and human services, and the need to develop a workforce adept in problem solving and navigating changing circumstances.
“Australia’s future workforce is likely to encounter much ambiguity and openness,” the CSIRO says in its report, Tomorrow’s Digitally Enabled Workforce.
“Our future educational system will need to do more to encourage innovative, entrepreneurial and flexible mindsets.”
This means preparing today’s children for a world in which they learn throughout life, not just in a brief adolescent burst before starting a job.
CSIRO also wants to make them more innovative and entrepreneurial, and equipped with the right technical and human skills to be able to outpace the robots that want their jobs.
“Aside from core STEM knowledge and skills, our aging population means that the healthcare and aged care sectors will be the largest employers,” CSIRO says.
“Most workers will need some hybrid of technical, business, creative and interpersonal skills.”
The challenge is already being felt by existing workers.
Some two-thirds of early career Australians believe their job will not exist, or will fundamentally change, in the next 15 years, according to a recent Chartered Accountants Australia analysis of the future of work, Future [Inc].
Nearly half of these workers already feel their degree is out of date or not very relevant to their work, the report says, and most believe they will need to retrain, reskill or change careers before long.
But CA is optimistic. Previous technology shifts created more new jobs than they deleted, it says, and opportunities abound in harnessing artificial intelligence, connected homes, block chain technologies, wearables, robotics and virtual reality.
And if that fails to be the case?
That’s where economic radicals, such as Rutgers University Professor of History James Livingston, argue we should do away with the idea of work and jobs altogether.
Livingston riles against the belief that “a job gives meaning, purpose and structure to our everyday lives … gets us out of bed, pays the bills, makes us feel responsible, and keeps us away from daytime TV.”
With mass automation on the horizon “these beliefs are no longer plausible,” he says.
“In fact, they’ve become ridiculous, because there’s not enough work to go around, and what there is of it won’t pay the bills.”
Instead, Livingston joins other advocates of a universal basic income – a payment made to all adults to meet basic needs regardless of whether or not they work – arguing that being freed of the need to do meaningless or low-value work opens a world of possibilities.
“What purposes could we choose if the job – economic necessity – didn’t consume most of our waking hours and creative energies?” he asks.
We could be more innovative, he and other UBI advocates believe, spend more time with families and friends, and put our not inconsiderable minds to tackling global problems.
Who knows, we might even find the time to build those underwater cities.