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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


The Future of Work

85% of the jobs today's students will be doing in 2030 haven't been invented yet. Or maybe not.

September 9, 2018

I see a lot of sentiment that education needs to retool to meet the demands of 21st century employers.

For example, the XQ “SuperSchool” Initiative claims that “The jobs of tomorrow will look totally different than those of today or the recent past. Start learning more about the skills and experiences young people need to succeed in the workplace of tomorrow.”[1]

The specific nature of the retooling is often vague, but nevertheless, change is needed. That much we know.

Because haven’t you heard? According to the Institute for the Future (IFTF) report, The Next Era of Human/Machine Partnerships, “85% of the jobs that today’s learners will be doing in 2030 haven’t been invented yet.” 

“Not invented yet” as in does not yet exist, as in, we don’t know what they are.

As the report says, “This makes the famous prediction that 65% of grade school kids from 1999 will end up in jobs that haven’t yet been created seem conservative in comparison.”

This is quite the conundrum. Education needs to change – and change quickly – to better prepare students for the jobs of the future, but a full 85% jobs of the future haven’t been “invented” yet.

It seems impossible to know if we’re properly preparing students if we don’t know what we’re preparing them for. What kind of criteria shall we use?

A proposal: We will know students are well-prepared for the jobs of the future when they read a claim like “85% of the jobs that today’s learners will be doing in 2030 haven’t been invented yet” and know it is absolute made-up horseshit.

How do I know this? Let me count the ways we can tell.

1. We can examine the text making the claim itself. “The Next Era of Human/Machine Partnerships” report cites no specific sources for this claim, attributing it to “The experts that attended the IFTF workshop is March 2007.” These “experts” are not named.

When we check the Department of Labor report cited for the “65% of jobs not yet being created for grade schoolers in 1999” claim (Futurework: Trends and Challenges for Work in the 21st Century) lo and behold, there is not a single mention of this factoid in the entire document. 

2. I can go searching for the work of others who have raised questions about this factoid. This brings me to the work of educator/researcher Benjamin Doxtdator, who went chasing after the “65% of jobs not yet invented” claim and found that the one (dubious) source that possibly provided evidence no longer exists. 

Matt Barnum, writing at Chalkbeat, simply calls the statistic “made-up,” tracing over some of the same ground as Doxtdator while also adding that the Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that “most new jobs” are in health care and service industries, including personal care aids, home health aids, and janitors and cleaners, all jobs which we’ve had for quite some time. 

3. I can think critically. Can you imagine what kind of upheaval it would take for a full 85% of the jobs that exist today will be replaced by new ones yet to be “invented” by the time kindergarteners graduate high school?

We don’t even need to look at the future. We can simply observe the past. Of the jobs we do today, have 65% of them been invented since 1999?


4. I can find current information about the possibly overhyped nature of technological disruption.

Did you know that it looks like IBM’s Watson isn’t going to cure cancer any time soon? 

Are you aware of the firm that claimed its AI text reading software, could accurately track U.S. Senate candidate spending, needed to hire low-paid individuals through Amazon Mechanical Turk in order to clean-up the nearly 6000 errors created by the software? 

Have you heard that the AI-driven Degree Compass predictive analytics advising software has gone from savior to being disrupted itself by “paper degree-planning charts” that are in the words of the Associate Provost for Student Success at Austen Peay, “more powerful for everybody,” particularly, “ first-time freshman [who] like that better than really anything”? 

For sure, some specifics change, and innovations often require adaptation, but to claim that the overwhelming majority of jobs have been or will be “invented” over such a short period of time is just silly. No, blogging was not a job when I graduated college, but writin’ is writin’ regardless of medium or genre. All the skills I bring to this job I was successfully introduced to in grade school in the 1970’s before any of us were aware the Internet existed.

This is not to say the nature of work hasn’t changed, it has. While I believe the underlying skills we need to be successful at work are largely the same as when I went to school, over time, workers have received a steadily shrinking piece of the pie for their labor.

Consider teachers, who have reached a new high in terms of the “pay penalty.”

In 1994, teachers made 1.8% less than others with similar education, experience, and other factors that affect earnings. In 2017, that gap has increased to 18.7%.

Twenty-five years ago, one of my jobs – weekly Sunday newspaper columnist for the Chicago Tribune –  would’ve paid enough for a middle class living all by itself. Today, it is a valuable part of my overall compensation, but by itself would put a family in poverty.

Perhaps we can argue that my diminished wage for freelance writing is a result of natural market forces, fair enough.

But we cannot say the same of teachers or nurses or other similar jobs, which are far more subject to neglect than any kind of “disruption.” This is well-illustrated in a June 2018 article by Rivka Galchen in the New Yorker, about how Oklahoma has steadily enriched a small handful of millionaires (and billionaires) with repeated sops to the energy industry, while school districts became so strapped that many cut back to four days a week. 

A full 16% of teachers now must have 2nd jobs not for a little extra dough, but to “make ends meet.”[2] 

President Trump likes to remind us that our country is richer than ever, and he’s not wrong, and yet, Oklahoma is down to a four day school week. Just about every state has their own version of depredation, which seems at odds with such a story of prosperity.

We can choose differently. Oklahoma’s teachers are fighting back through the electoral system, rooting out politicians – regardless of party affiliation – who fail to support public education.

We have another object example thanks to the Harvard Living Wage Campaign, which in 2001, advocated for wage and benefits parity for all workers (effectively disrupting the disruption of outsourcing work to contractors). The result is a labor marketplace on campus where food service workers and janitors earn more than $20 an hour to start, with more compensation coming with seniority, enough money to live a middle class life in the Boston area. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/08/business/economy/harvard-living-wage.html

Harvard remains really really rich.

Extending this to the U.S. as a whole, Jedediah Purdy calculates that the “the shift in GDP share from wages to profits over the last 40 years, if reversed, would raise the average worker's income $17,000.” 

Please note, this does not mean ending profits for corporations, it means keeping profits consistent over that 40 year time span while compensating the laborers who make those profits possible.[3]

It is worth asking who and what is served by the promulgation of these bogus factoids about the future of work. In many ways, I see school “disruption” as merely an extension of the narrative of school “failure.” Both of them make room for increasing influence of private interests, and undermine the notion of a public good.

Failing schools aren’t worth public investment. Schools which need disrupting can’t hope to achieve this themselves. How could something so old, so hidebound prepare students for the jobs of tomorrow?

But our biggest problem isn’t a lack of preparation for the jobs of tomorrow, it’s that the jobs of today (and tomorrow) are unlikely to provide access to security and prosperity, through no fault of schools or students.

If we can get back to root values of critical inquiry and creative thinking, students will be fine whatever happens when it comes to these new jobs being invented.

They might even be in a good position to invent those new jobs themselves, rather than being trained as cogs for the machine.

They’ll also be well-armed to call B.S., B.S. when they see it.


[1] Judging from the XQ Initiative home page visuals, the new jobs are welding and perhaps podcasting or other audio production. https://xqsuperschool.org/resources/the-future-of-work

[2] I strongly urge everyone to check out that link to see the specifics of the circumstances teachers are facing.

[3] And as we know, employers like Walmart and Amazon not only receive billions of dollars in government subsidies, some significant proportion of their workforce relies on government assistance to make ends meet. We’re clearly at the point where there’s a wealth transfer from the average taxpaying American to these large corporations. 


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