The Age of Agility has arrived, yet the U.S. is not well prepared to face the challenges and seize the opportunities it brings.
To thrive in the future workforce, which is being drastically redefined by technological advances, workers will need to get comfortable with uncertainty, embrace flexibility, and reset expectations about the employer-employee relationship.
We are in the early stages of a rapidly accelerating revolution that will bring automation and artificial intelligence into sectors of the workforce that have, until now, been spared this latest wave of disruptive change.
Forward-thinking corporate executives, academics, technologists, and economists may not often agree, but on this they are virtually unanimous: the disruption we’re just beginning to experience will rival any technological upheaval in history in both scope and impact.
This report presents compelling data about this seismic shift. We’ll show how some companies are adapting. We’ll explore how each one of us will have to take ownership of a lifetime of learning, a constant process of retraining and reeducating ourselves as the world around us lurches into the uncertain future.
Millions of jobs are at short- or medium-term risk of disappearing. Many that don’t disappear will be so radically restructured as to be unrecognizable, with enormous implications for today’s workers.
The World Economic Forum describes these fundamental shifts as the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and it’s founder and executive chairman, Klaus Schwab, writes:
“As automation substitutes for labor across the entire economy, the net displacement of workers by ma- chines might exacerbate the gap between returns to capital and returns to labor. On the other hand, it is also possible that the displacement of workers by technology will, in aggregate, result in a net increase in safe and rewarding jobs.
We cannot foresee at this point which scenario is likely to emerge, and history suggests that the outcome is likely to be some combination of the two. However, I am convinced of one thing—that in the future, talent, more than capital, will represent the critical factor of production.1”
The response to this challenge must be a societal one that resets expectations about employment and embraces a new mindset for what it means to be employable, which has as much to do with adaptive interpersonal behavior as it does interacting with technology in the workplace.
At the moment, there’s nothing on the horizon to replace many of the jobs that will be lost. Optimists insist that all technological revolutions always create entirely new sectors of employment, and this one will be no different, even if we can’t yet envision what those sectors might include.
Despite the uncertainty, one thing is clear: those who will survive and thrive in this new reality will have to be highly agile, creative, critical thinkers, comfortable in diverse environments, and open to a future far more fluid than that to which we are accustomed.
Unfortunately, our current education system has long been behind the curve in preparing students for the current world of work, let alone the new Age of Agility. Without profound and rapid changes to how we educate our children, this nation faces the real possibility of falling farther behind countries with nimbler and more innovative education systems.
Deloitte, a global consulting and financial advisory firm, which works across multiple industries, illustrates the point in their Framework for Understanding the Future of Work:
To understand the scale, impact, and implications, try imagining half the jobs in the U.S workforce disappearing. An astounding 47 percent of all U.S. jobs are at risk of elimination in the next 10-20 years, according to analysis by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne of Oxford University.2
Frey and Osborne estimate that 83 percent of jobs paying less than $20 per hour would come under pressure from automation, as compared to 31 percent of jobs paying between $20 and $40 per hour and four percent of jobs paying more than $40 per hour. In other words, low- er-wage jobs are 20 times more likely to disappear than jobs at the higher end of the spectrum.
Taking a seemingly more optimistic tone, a 2016 policy brief from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development estimates only nine percent of U.S. jobs are at risk.
But read the OECD report closely and more alarm bells go off. Many jobs that don’t disappear will be fundamentally altered by automation and AI, meaning millions of Americans will require extensive retraining or additional education to stay employed.
And these aren’t just low-level, menial jobs. Millions of truck drivers could be out of work as autonomous vehicles gain dominance. Many white-collar professionals, including radiologists, paralegals, and even lawyers could be profoundly affected as well.
How individuals must adapt
Until now, people with post-secondary certificates, a community college degree, or a degree from a four-year college could take the credential and head out into the world with some confidence that they would find steady, gainful employment. That’s still the case today in many industries. But not for long.
The likelihood of certain jobs being automated is largely driven by two factors: creativity and repetition. Jobs requiring high creativity and less repetition are, so far, less likely to be done well by robots. The less creative and more repetitive a job, or tasks within a job, the more likely it is to displace a human in favor of automation. This is true from mechanized line production, to reading x-rays, or processing basic legal documents.
One idea currently in vogue is that we have entered the “gig economy.” Increasingly, people will not have careers, or work in jobs as currently defined. Instead, they’ll go from “gig” to “gig,” like itinerant musicians, using whatever talents or skills they possess to perform tasks for others on a contract or freelance basis.
Most people, however, will continue to seek regular, salaried work. It will be harder to find, require higher qualifications, and will be more prone to disappearing than it has been in the past.
Some so-called “soft skills,” like empathy and emotional intelligence, will always be in demand, because machines can’t replicate them, at least so far.
In addition to those soft skills, there are other strengths that people will need to develop if they’re to find a semi-secure place in this new order, including critical thinking skills, adaptability, and tenaciousness. Going forward, everyone will have to take ownership of a continuous cycle of learning, finding work, relearning, and finding different work.
Can schools adapt?
Students exiting the pre-K-12 education system will need to be prepared for radical societal and workplace changes if they are to have any shot at thriving personally or professionally. By and large, however, our school systems are failing to prepare them for this emerging reality.
Far from making plans to educate students to thrive in the economy and society of the near- term future, most school systems are still struggling to do an adequate job providing students with the basic skills needed for twentieth-century life and work.
According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the largest nationally representative and continuing assessment of what America’s students know and can do, fewer than 40 percent of graduating students scored at college- and career- ready levels in recent years.
An evolving school of thought promotes scrapping our existing education systems and starting over. The basic argument here is that the current system is so rife with perverse incentives, entrenched special interests, and ideological polarization that even the incremental changes achieved to date have occurred only after protracted political battles. In many other sectors of our high-tech society, change is often transformative and quick.
There is a deeply embedded resistance to agility in the current education system, which demonstrates the need for an overhaul and simultaneously makes it difficult to do so.
But it’s hard to envision how a radically new system could be implemented while our current method of schooling limps along, with millions of schoolchildren inside its walls nine months a year. In isolated pockets, however, practitioners are beginning to provide real-life models.
One preliminary step school systems could take to prepare students for the future would be to create networks of truly diverse schools. Recent evidence demonstrates that integrated, inclusive schools are ideally positioned to help young people develop the capacities they will need to thrive in increasingly diverse workplaces.
How business can adapt
As individuals scramble to adapt to these emerging new realities, and the education system fails to keep up, employers should take steps to assist them, through ongoing training and retraining programs.
But that doesn’t address a major challenge many businesses currently face: finding qualified workers. Some companies, like Subaru of Indiana Automotive, are revamping hiring practices to find diamonds in the rough, rather than using automated sorting mechanisms that eliminate many applications before human eyes see them. What it boils down to is looking beneath the surface, past basic qualifications and skills and into the essence of each individual.
Conclusion and call to action
In every state and local community, business leaders, educators, and policymakers must work together to confront and conquer the current skills gap and reconfigure the education-to-work- force pipeline. Because we can’t predict the exact skills needed to succeed in tomorrow’s jobs, our charge is equip students with the tools of agility and inspire a mindset of lifelong learning.
To do so, we must remove barriers to innovation in education—any laws, policies, and regulations that make it impossible to adjust on the fly to changing circumstances. While schools must operate within rigorous accountability frame- works, those frameworks must be focused exclusively on outcomes, not inputs, to avoid locking educators into any one model or path forward.
The pace of change in the workforce is accelerating; therefore, schools—or whatever learning system replaces them—must mirror that rapid-fire change.
America Succeeds will partner with local stakeholder groups in cities and states across the country to facilitate community conversations on what the future of work and The Age of Agility means for restructuring—as radically as deemed necessary—the way we deliver education. Through community-driven initiatives, policy, and advocacy (and with local business leaders fully engaged and supportive) we believe that much-needed systems transformation is possible.
We also believe in the power of a network, and therefore, each community conversation will contribute additional knowledge and resources to our free, online resource bank.