Skills for a digital future

by John Reiners

I’m as concerned as any parent of teenagers about the skills that young people will need to prepare for the jobs of the future. So I try to keep up with the latest thinking on the subject and was happy to share my thoughts recently, on the British Computer Society’s blog, with seven predictions on the changing employment market and three on key IT skills that will be in demand.

In such a concise summary, I was unable to convey the breadth of opinion and liveliness of debate on the subject. How technology shifts impact employment is well-trodden ground for economic research, and my colleagues here tend to be optimistic—quoting economic history to demonstrate that new jobs always emerge to replace those made obsolete (the railway worker replacing the blacksmith). I’m also reading a lot now about how future jobs will use computing power to augment rather than replace human capabilities. So as steam power vastly increased the productivity of physical work, and computing and enterprise software standardized and automated routine office and service sector tasks, the next wave of cognitive technology will enhance knowledge work. In Davenport and Kirby’s recently published book Only Humans Need Apply, this is welcomed as an opportunity for many, liberating us to concentrate on the more strategic, valuable, and interesting work.

Yet there are convincing arguments why this time may be different. The digital revolution is different from past technological shifts in several ways. As a general-purpose technology it’s disrupting pretty much every industry, and because of the interconnectedness of the global economy it’s spreading further and more quickly than earlier technologies. Martin Ford’s the Rise of the Robotsdescribes how many types of job are simultaneously being threatened—from manual labor to white-collar work. Firms in the digital economy can exploit network effects to operate at global scale with much smaller workforces. The Susskinds’ The Future of the Professions predicts that in addition to the lower-skilled, routine tasks performed by professional firms that are already being outsourced or automated, the very concept of the professions, which has evolved since the medieval guilds, is now threatened by technology.

Though often presented as competing visions of optimists vs. pessimists, I think all these predictions could come true. In the long run, the majority of us will end up working in very different ways and the economy will be more productive. But I agree with my colleague Ed Cone’s post earlier this month, that it’s likely to be a bumpy ride, with many jobs displaced in the short/medium term. The pace of change is fast and unevenly distributed, making it extremely challenging for individuals and educators to keep up, let alone anticipate the future. I’m struggling to convince my teenagers to be coders or data scientists. Not everyone can be. But I encourage them at least to build the independent, critical, analytical, and communication skills that will always be in demand at a period of rapid change. Also, to keep up to date on where the digital revolution is taking us. There are bound to be plenty of surprises ahead.

John Reiners is Oxford Economics Managing Editor Thought Leadership, EMEA. He manages research programs on a wide range of topics, including digital economy and international trade. He also follows emerging trends, like artificial intelligence and employment. He can be contacted at jreiners@oxfordeconomics.com