Friday, January 8, 2016


I'm ruminating about parts of the Super School Challenge....specifically, "How can we help students prepare for the challenges they'll face in the 21st-century workplace?"  (Or, as they phrase it elsewhere, "What are your top three insights about the challenges facing your prospective students in the 21st Century, both globally and in your community?") Well, what are those challenges, anyway? What will that workplace be?

Let's think about trends here: workers retiring this year at age 65 became high school students just about 50 years ago, in 1965.  (I was in junior high, myself.) Quite a few of them got jobs in manufacturing, but the trend is shown here, in US Manufacturing: Understanding Its Past and Its Potential Future (Baily and Bosworth, JEP 28:1 Winter 2014)

Manufacturing hasn't changed much as a fraction of total production (and our total production, "real GDP", roughly tripled in that period) but as a fraction of employment it dropped from 25% to less than 10%, and we can expect the shrinkage to continue. The face of manufacturing is becoming the face of Baxter and his rapidly-improving successors:

Meanwhile, agriculture goes on "shrinking" in the same way: more stuff per person and much more output overall, but fewer people needed. Of course both sectors will continue to employ millions of people for years to come, and in years when the retirement rate exceeds the decline in employment there will be jobs available, but these will not be the careers of most of our graduates.

Does that mean higher unemployment? Not necessarily: it means that we produce the necessities of life with much less labor, so many more of our people will be producing goods and services, mostly services, which are not necessary for life. That can be a good thing; these can be much better jobs, more fulfilling and more fun, jobs doing things that people just happen to want to get done within a richer world. These "inessential" jobs do seem to be more sensitive to preventable fluctuations in the nominal economy -- if millions of people suddenly want to hold on to some cash, as in the uncertainties of 2008, then the velocity of money drops precipitately and unless the Federal Reserve responds proportionately (to keep "Nominal GDP", the cash sum of everybody's income which is total money times velocity, on its trend) then a lot of expected income is gone and the "inessential" jobs go first. (Yes, even for me this is an oversimplification of a part of a story, but of course it's not the focus of this rumination.)

So what will "the 21st-century workplace" develop into? Nobody knows -- on the web one can find many views and samplings of views such as Are Robots Taking Our Jobs, or Making Them? « RobotEconomics, but I would suggest three views with a lot in common.
  1. Consider the January 6, 2016 Time Magazine report on See How Big the Gig Economy Really Is | TIME
    22% of American adults, or 45 million people, have already offered some kind of good or service in this economy. ... they enjoy the freedom of working without set hours but are not afforded the safety nets that traditional 9-to-5 employees have. In return, companies like Uber and Postmates save fortunes on employee-­related expenses ... but must give up control....
    ....About one-third... aren’t just earning extra bucks; they either make more than 40% of their income in this economy, describe it as their primary source of income or say they can’t get work in a more traditional job.
  2. Second, I'd look at a respected economist's view of the future, Tyler Cowen's book Average is Over - Wikipedia
    Cowen forecasts that modern economies are delaminating into two groups: a small minority of highly educated and capable of working collaboratively with automated systems will become a wealthy aristocracy; the vast majority will earn little or nothing, surviving on low-priced goods created by the first group, living in shantytowns working with highly automated production systems....
    Cowen celebrates the arrival of functional online education, mostly because it allows a much broader audience to keep up with rapid change at a price that everyone can afford and leverages the same sort of self-teaching that drives video game players to ever-greater achievements.
    He sees the future role of educators as motivators rather than professors, closer to a gym membership, with (online) personal trainers.
    In his final chapter, "A New Social Contract?," Cowen writes, "We will move from a society based on the pretense that everyone is given an okay standard of living to a society in which people are expected to fend for themselves much more than they do now."
  3. Finally, I'd consider Pistono's Robots Will Steal Your Job, But That's OK | How to Survive the Economic Collapse and Be Happy. (Read it for free online, or buy it.) It's a similar view in essence, but perhaps more dramatic; in the final chapter, he doesn't just recommend thinking out of the box but rather being ready to leave the box altogether.

Our kids will be living in a world which is much wealthier but much less secure than ours; they'll need flexibility, they'll need to think for themselves and to form/join/leave groups, they'll need the ability to go on educating themselves at a pace much faster than we have needed. (I have a PhuD in Computer Science, but everything I do is based on technology that didn't exist in 1980 when I got it, closing in on 20 Moore's-Law doublings which is 220 = a million-fold increase in computer capacity; this will be much more true for them, even if Moore's Law itself hits an atomic-scale limit.)

I haven't begun to answer the question, which was "How can we help them...?" But rightly or wrongly, I have laid out some context. I'll continue with very tentative answers in the next post. Or do I need something in between? Not sure....

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