This week will see the coming together of the makers and shakers of the global edtech scene at Europe’s largest thought-leadership event focused on the disruption now happening to the education and training ecosystems.
The issues being tackled go to the core of how we should adapt to a 21st century which will look very different to the century that proceeded it. Without changing the way we learn and acquire relevant skills for this new era we put at risk the livelihoods of large swathes of global society.
This may seem dramatic but it is worth having a look at what has been happening in the economic engine room over the last 40 years.
In the early 1970’s something strange started to happen. Workers had been used to the idea that as their productivity increased so did their wages. The correlation had been strong for decades, but then it suddenly snapped. It is not that productivity stopped, in actual fact it kept growing consistently. What changed was that workers’ pay stagnated.
Over the last 40 years productivity increased in the US by over 70%, while hourly compensation increased by 9%. Previously the two had moved in lockstep since the 2nd World War.
- Productivity: Up 96.7%
- Hourly Compensation: Up 91.3%
- Productivity: Up 74.4%
- Hourly Compensation: Up 9.2%
Workers have been failing to benefit from the incremental gains in productivity. There are likely to be a number factors at play, such as changes in labour laws, the reduced power of collective bargaining but most importantly there has been a big change in IT automation over this period. It is not a coincidence that the 70s marked the arrival of the PC and the computer network.
It was in 1972 that HP launched the first mass-market personal computer and then in 1973, Bob Metcalfe and David Bloggs invented Ethernet, which allowed computers to connect over short distances.
The evidence points to the fact that technology in the last 30 years has allowed the increased economic return from productivity gains to go in larger share to the owners of the technology rather than the users. The graph very clearly points to this.
As we look to the future, the role of the human worker will be increasingly under pressure. A recent Oxford University study suggested that 47% of US jobs are at risk over the next 20 years from automation and artificial intelligence. Even if the figures were 50% out, the impact would still be “tsunami-like”. And this is not just an issue for developed economies, you just have to look at offshore manufacturing: currently low-cost economies can save 65% on labour costs, robots save 90%.
What does this all mean? Well, in essence non-cognitive routine jobs will tend to zero. So goodbye to telesales and sales assistants. But artificial intelligence will also strike white-collar workers involved in routine activities, including: accountants, financial managers, analysts, controllers, clerical workers and so on. There is a big change in the workplace on its way and we need to prepare ourselves.
The good news is, that on the flip side, there has been a rise in non-routine cognitive professions. In the 40 years since 1975, the US has seen a 20% increase in this segment and the growth has been pretty linear over the period. So hopefully jobs are becoming more interesting. We can also harness two great human skills of creativity and empathy that machines will always struggle with.
However, we need to understand these inescapable undercurrents, both positive and negative, as we seek to shape the way we learn and acquire skills. Making sure we choose the right skills and tools to accelerate and improve the way we learn. We can either choose to become masters of the machine or become disenfranchised from the workplace.
If we get it right there is an attractive future ahead of us, if we get it wrong then there is a real threat of an unattractive dystopia of rising unemployment and inequality that will inevitably lead to increasing social unrest.
So how can we make sure we head down the right path? Well in the first instance make sure you join the debate, which brings me back to EdTechXEurope, which is happening this week.
Here we will see the melting pot for the future of education and training being discussed, argued, showcased, rejected, reshaped, and importantly shared with the wider world. The aim is to make sure that humankind is fit for purpose. We have always had the capability of re-inventing ourselves for our environment but the challenge we face is that we need to do it now and we need to do it quickly.
The digital world and its technology has put great resources at our disposal and we need to apply them, now.
Charles McIntyre is co-founder EdTechXGlobal