In Part 1 of our analysis, we reviewed the prevailing pronouncements from futurists that the world is about to change in unprecedented ways. In Part 2, we placed those predictions within a historical context and found that we may actually be in a period of relatively dormant stability, compared to radical transformations in the 20th century.

Here, in our concluding Part 3, we assess futurists’ recommendations that schools reinvent themselves so they can prepare students for unprecedented, accelerated changes in work and society.

Futurists are Very Certain About the Unknown

Many of the “here’s what’s coming” presentations by futurists make the dubious claim that most jobs of the future don’t yet exist in the present. Consider this representative sampling of these attention-grabbing declarations:

85% Of Jobs That Will Exist In 2030 Haven’t Been Invented Yet “If you think the pace of change in the workplace has been fast lately, hold onto your hat.” (Huffington Post)

The Future of Jobs and Skills “65% of children entering primary school today will ultimately end up working in completely new job types that don’t yet exist.” (World Economic Forum)

162 Future Jobs: Preparing for Jobs That Don’t Yet Exist “We can now think-faster, know-faster, and do-faster than ever before.” (FuturistSpeaker.com)

Preparing Students for Jobs Which Don’t Exist Yet “Eighty percent of jobs that will exist in 2025 don’t exist today; we have to prepare our students and graduates for a world that’s essentially not possible to prepare them for.” (Times Higher Education)

Consider the inherent silliness of these propositions. First, they claim the future is utterly unknowable, yet they don’t hesitate to estimate the quantity of how many “future” job types will appear. Tellingly, those percentages can vary from commentary to commentary, but they share the common theme that a majority of future jobs don’t yet exist.

Meanwhile, even though those jobs don’t yet exist, commentators typically try to dazzle the audience with specific examples of what’s coming. Our favorites appear in the Huffington Post feature cited above, which provides a supplementary slide show of approaching, not-yet-invented careers. These include Nostalgists (who “will re-design living spaces for wealthy seniors to reflect their favorite decades,” Garbage Designers (“Forget recycling; ‘upcycling’ is the wave of the future”), and household Robot Counsellors (which will “observe the family’s interactions and if conflicts happen, the robot can help provide better options.”)

From the Huffington Post’s Slide Show on “Jobs of the Future”

Before moving on to consider what these unknown careers mean for education, let’s expand our thinking on just how unknowable the future might be. Although most futurists imagine a hyper-expansion of our “gig economy” where technology becomes increasingly dominant and disruptive, is it possible our society will instead revert to a simplified, analog, agrarian system?

In his book Too Much Magic, James Howard Kunstler envisions the steps by which our oil-dependent world could quickly collapse as a result of energy shortages. In his vision, our cultural techno-magic does not progressively accelerate but instead runs out of gas–literally.

If we have indeed passed the point of “peak oil” availability, and if, as Kunstler believes, alternative energy sources are incapable of offsetting the coming oil shortages, we may quickly decline into something akin to an early-19th century way of living. In that case, the “jobs of the future” will not be unknown. They will be radically familiar: farmer, seamstress, carpenter. It’s a dismal possibility–but on the bright side we wouldn’t have to worry about killer robots.

Our point is not to guess which prognositcator is correct. Rather, we take from them their shared emphasis on the unknowability of the future, and disregard any ideas about the specifics.

Dismissing, then, any confidence we can have in various futurists’ conflicting visions, we can at least reflect on their common argument about our lack of preparation for a changing world. Though it may be silly to speak specifically of “Nostalgist” careers, commentators can still make a valid point that educators should focus on preparing students for the unexpected.

“Future-Proof” Education, aka Education

For example: IE University’s Professor Martin Boem (who provided the 80%-unknown-jobs figure in the Times article cited above) can reasonably recommend that schools teach “fundamental…competencies and skills” that will be “relevant no matter what kind of job” students pursue. Similarly, futurist Dr. Fiona McKenzie writes that soft skills such as “complex problem solving, cognitive flexibility, creativity, negotiation, emotional intelligence, coordination and collaboration…will be strong skills to have.”

We hear constantly that we must “future proof” education in this manner. But is any of this news, and has it ever been otherwise? Consider two of today’s jobs which did not exist and which could not have been anticipated in the 1980’s: 3-D printing engineer and drone pilot. How is it possible that people educated in that decade have managed to be successful in either role today? Is this in spite of our outdated education system, or is it perhaps because schools have effectively transferred the essential, underlying skills all along?

Choose any decade, and in it you can find new occupations. The newness may acutally amount to a variation in specialization (for example, a developer working in the most recent coding language), or it may reflect a significantly distinct field (as with the drone pilot). Regardless, the existence of successful professionals in any of those occupations testifies to the sufficiency of the education systems of their day. Of course, this is not to say that colleges somehow taught 3-D printing (for example) before it was a recognized occupation. Those engineers undoubtedly needed to get further training and experience elsewhere. But they seem to have had no trouble doing so after attaining traditional, mundane degrees.

Vocational training, in the futurist model, can rapidly become obsolete as technology and job functions change. That’s demonstrably true: those who were adults in the 1980’s may recall the abundance of community college courses on the now-risible concept of “Word Processing.” We can’t know which contemporary technical training will similarly become irrelevant–but a world of rapid technical obsolescence will best be navigated by those with a solid education in first principles.

It may make the technophilic futurists uncomfortable to acknowledge, but their flashy visions of tomorrow’s superfast, robotic world actually attest to the need for acquiring a broad, old-fashioned grounding in liberal arts. Perhaps that’s what these commentators are really saying as they vaguely describe a need to prepare students for agility and “cognitive flexibility.” In that sense, futurists are just restating what our grandparents knew about education. Good education has always been “future proof.”

Where will the technical training come from?

Post-WWI soldiers receive vocational training in Queensland, Australia in the 1920’s

Tomorrow’s workers will undoubtedly need to acquire currently-unrecognized technical skills. Should colleges function as the curators of this vocational detail? Many seem to place this burden on our traditional institutions, as if they should constantly offer contemporary job-focused training, and, like a 1960’s jukebox, restock and update content to respond to the latest demand. Moreover, some commentators believe that schools will need to educate students well beyond a traditional four-year period.

As noted in Part 1, education expert Jeffrey Selingo anticipates that rapid obsolescence of various trades will require a lifetime of frequent immersion in formal instruction. He writes, “Training must occur more regularly and less episodically than it does now in order to keep pace with the increasing churn of jobs.” Although he notes some colleges already address these needs with non-credit programs, Selingo suggests schools also need to transform their degree programs rapidly so students can “compete in a new economy in which learning can never end.”

But as we’ve already recognized, economies and job needs have always evolved constantly, and in modern history workers have always had to learn new skills throughout careers. Without rapid transformations or adjustments to their missions, slow-moving but steadily evolving educational institutions have managed to equip the workers of their day.

With regard to providing workers with tactical, specific training–the kind which we cannot anticipate in advance, and also which will quickly become obsolete–futurist commentators tend to forget about all of the supplemental educational resources which are and will be available. Oddly, amid all their talk of AI, singularity, and automation, futurists neglect to acknowledge the dawn of new, supplemental teaching tools. For some reason, futurists fixate on our traditional institutions and call on them to radically transform themselves for the future.

One doesn’t need a crystal ball to get a glimpse of these supplemental tools. We already enjoy access to inexpensive, accessible, and wonderfully democratic resources such as YouTube training videos, Lynda.com, and maker meetups. These instructional forums have arisen naturally and spontaneously and without long-term, advanced planning. Just as we can’t predict the specific jobs which will be needed in 20 years, we can’t guess at what teaching tools will be available to support them. However, history and our present experience encourage confidence that our learning needs will be satisfied.

A small sample of learning paths among the thousands of vocational courses offered by Lynda.com

Of course teachers and educational institutions should always innovate, experiment, and adjust their curricula. And undoubtedly there will be a lot of new things to learn, as there always have been. But educators need not fret about the unprecedented, hyper-dynamic future we keep hearing warnings about. Schools will evolve in a steady, linear pattern just as our world at large will. Along the way, students will have access to known and unknown supplemental tools which can rapidly arise to fill in any gaps.

For everything else, people will continue to learn through immersion and experience, whatever the world looks like. As Wordsworth reminds us, “The education of circumstances is superior to that of tuition.”