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Bright Futures

Last week was National Careers Week and it is also a time of year when many pupils are looking ahead and thinking about their futures – GCSE and A level options have recently been submitted by Fourth Form and Upper Fifth pupils, and university offers are imminent for our oldest pupils.  Decisions that pupils are making now will have an impact on the next phase of their education and, ultimately, the path that they might take into the world of work.

I am always fascinated when talking to our pupils about their hopes and aspirations for the future and, as a school leader, I’m conscious of the sometimes negative narrative that the current generation of school children are hearing about their futures. Whether concerns centre on the impact of the pandemic, the predicted instability of jobs in shifting economic circumstances, or the decimation of certain roles by technological developments, listening to some commentators you’d think the prospects look bleak.

The future is, obviously, unknown and the unknown can be daunting, but it is also full of possibility. When I was at school (or even through the first part of my working life) I couldn’t have predicted that it would be possible for an entire school community to connect remotely from their homes in order to teach, learn, perform, keep fit and chat to friends without ever setting foot on the school site. I wish we hadn’t had to experience a global pandemic but I’m thrilled that, when the need arose, the combination of human creativity and adaptability alongside enabling technology made it possible to achieve something that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago.

So what do our pupils of today need to be ready for when looking to their futures? History tells us that predicting the future is a tricky task! In the 1930s, the economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that, within a hundred years (i.e. fairly soon from the perspective of 2021), the working week would be as low as 15hrs and that people would have significantly more leisure time once their material needs were met. Some say Keynes was evidently wrong because the average working week hasn’t changed significantly in decades. Others argue that his prediction was more complex - that we should take into account the volume of unpaid/domestic work that people did in the ‘30s in addition to ‘employed’ labour, and also that there are many people who work full-time today for reasons beyond ‘material need’. What is clear is that predictions are fraught with risk and understanding the potential implications of changes in society, economies and technology are complex, but there are consistent themes to most discussions about what lies ahead for the world of work.

At the centre of ideas about the future workplace is the impact of technology. The rapid phase of development that smart tech is now facilitating is being referred to as the Fourth Industrial Revolution – a period during which we are experiencing innovation faster than ever before as traditional manufacturing and industrial practices are automated. From Artificial Intelligence (AI) to nanotechnology and quantum computing, the pace of change is unprecedented. While automation of traditionally ‘human’ tasks is one outcome of these developments, the bigger picture is more nuanced. In some cases, technology removes the need for a person to do a task but, in many other circumstances, technology enhances, improves or extends the work that a person does. While some jobs might become obsolete, new roles take their place and the progress brought about by technology has the potential to create new industries, drive new demand and ultimately build new economic opportunity.

Across the globe, some trends will be universal but countries at different stages of their development will face different challenges. In developed western economies, there is likely to be increased demand for roles that cannot be easily or cost-effectively automated including creatives (artists, performers, designers), professionals (lawyers, engineers, business/finance specialists), care providers (doctors, nurses, therapists, social workers), teachers (and others working in education), technology professionals, and construction workers (builders, architects, engineers etc.) .

As technology drives innovation further and faster, new industries and new roles will emerge and the need for specific skills will develop. For example, engineers are required in a vast array of fields from machine learning, medical technology and warehouse automation, to data science and cyber security; with changing climates and an expanding global population, agronomists are at the forefront of ‘agri-tech’ exploring how we should farm in the future; UX designers are increasingly tasked with shaping the branding, functionality and usability of digital platforms. In addition to jobs where specific technological knowledge and skills are required, I’ve talked before about the way that roles which traditionally tapped into the most ‘human’ of traits such as caring, communication and creativity are likely to be of increasing importance in the future. Technology will be utilised by all of these people in their work, but machines cannot replicate what are frequently referred to as ‘soft-skills’ and it is in these skills and qualities that the wider value of the human workforce lies.

The nature of career paths and organisational structures are also likely to change in the future. Companies that need to be agile might rely less on hierarchies and formal leadership, creating workforces that draw in freelance expertise for specific projects leading to more contract and self-employed workers . Although there are some justifiable concerns about the insecurity of the ‘gig-economy’, many people now see the possibility of more flexible, portfolio careers as more desirable than the ‘job for life’ that our grandparents might have anticipated when they left school. As we’ve seen in the last year, technology is already making a more decentralised workforce a reality, where people can live and work from anywhere, and this will influence how employers manage teams and how colleagues collaborate.

Putting it simply, as has happened throughout history, jobs will change and people will adapt, develop and gain new skills to embrace those changes. We can’t equip our children with every morsel of knowledge or every technical skill they need for their future careers because we don’t know what that will be – and there’s every chance it will include many, many things that have yet to be invented. Along with the academic foundation that subject-based study delivers, what we can impart is a genuine desire to be lifelong, independent learners who stay curious, engaged and open to new ideas. We can demonstrate the value of emotional intelligence, creativity, critical thinking and problem solving. We can make sure our pupils develop resilience and adaptability, the ability to work collaboratively, and to think for themselves. These are the characteristics that will allow them to be successful whatever path they choose. Over the last year, I have seen our pupils demonstrate that they have these skills by the bucketful and I have absolute faith in their ability to grasp the future with both hands.

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” Alvin Toffler, American writer and Futurist.

Rowena Cole is The Head of St John's School.  Follow her @rowenacole01 and stay in touch with all the news at St John's by following us @StJohnsSurrey