The Future of Jobs and Skills

This month the OECD published a survey report on teenagers’ career aspirations. The press release accompanying this report states that traditional 20th and 19th-century jobs capture the imaginations of young people as they did 20 years ago, before the era of social media and artificial intelligence. It furthermore warns that teenagers seem to be interested in jobs with negative prospects for the future and are ignoring or unaware of new jobs that are emerging as a result of digitalisation. Most of the media non-critically shared this information, thus painting a rather disappointing picture of the young generations’ future aspirations.

Such an interpretation of the survey results is problematic in two ways. First, among the top 5 cited occupations are the following: doctor, teacher, business manager, lawyer, nursing and midwifery, engineer, ICT professional, sports. The priority list among male participants is as follows: (1) engineers, (2) business managers, (3) doctors, (4) ICT professionals and (5) sportspeople whereas female participants choose: (1) doctors, (2) teachers, (3) business managers, (4) lawyers, and (5) nursing and midwives. I wonder how the general conclusion can be that young people prefer jobs of the past, when it is exactly medical, engineering and ICT professions that are in short supply. To be fair, Germany is named as a country where young peoples’ choices better reflect labor market demands.

Second, while certain jobs may be at risk of automation, these findings are mostly at the level of projections and there is disagreement as to the intensity of automation. This OECD survey report lists for instance clerk jobs in banking, insurance and the financial sector as such. It is therefore hard to conclude that the desired professions are among these jobs. One would have to look at part of the job tasks that may be at risk of automation within a certain profession or look at the more detailed list of professions that teenagers chose from, which was then summarized for the report (for instance the report states that interests in “specialist medicine” and “general medicine” are summarized under “doctor”).

One important aspect of the report is that it asks the right questions:

  • What will the jobs of the future be like;
  • What skills and competencies will be needed in order to be successful at these jobs; and
  • What can we do now to prepare for the future?

Furthermore, it points to the fact that inequality based on gender or social background is limiting to young peoples’ prospects.

Just like there are various different predictions regarding the jobs at risk of automation, there are different sources that predict the skills needed for the future. They agree that it will be necessary to develop skills with sufficient potential to be applicable to new, unknown areas. It is, however, unclear how much of these “new” skills would need to be technical skills and how much should be social and personal skills. It’s comforting to know that people skills are not expected to become obsolete and that refers not only to social professions. Quite the opposite: creativity and collaboration will be a necessary human trait in a rapidly digitalising world. The “hard” technical skills that will be required within “old” professions are trickier to pinpoint. Furthermore, there is the challenge of completely new job profiles (for instance in the area of cloud computing, data and artificial intelligence, etc). See for instance the new report by the World Economic Forum presented at Davos 2020.

In my view, the OECD survey report should not be interpreted as a “warning” against the desired professions of today in medicine, education, business and technology quoted there, but as a “signal” for the changes they are about to undergo in the face of digitalisation. Because that’s what we as individuals that are part of any generation and as societies should be preparing for. If we look at medical jobs that seem to be one of the favorites, we are hopefully aware of the tremendous scientific and technological advances this field has made since the previous centuries. While it may be true that many are still not aware of future possibilities, I for one am relieved that “Influencer” was not among the top choices. And who is to tell that, when thinking about their dream job, the participants of the study did not have the above picture in mind.

Photo by Jesper Aggergaard on Unsplash.

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