'Preparing pupils for jobs of the future is nothing new – we've always done so by providing a liberal, general education'

Despite the profound lack of evidence, the 'futurists' double-down and insist that teachers should prepare students to be 'drone-traffic optimisers'. We must resist such nonsense and keep doing what schools do best

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We are preparing young people for jobs that don’t exist yet. This "fact" is rehashed with alarming alacrity, as if it were self-evident, and as if it proved the need to rethink how we educate our young people.

Futurists like to imagine cool new jobs linked to emerging technologies: fancy being a drone-traffic optimiser, data contextualist, molecular gastronomist or body-modification ethicist? Other posited career openings suggest a dystopian future: which sort of world is going to need backlash minimisers and fear-containment managers? Obviously, there will be new jobs, but this is not new. Two-hundred years ago, no one thought of preparing people to work on the railways; 20 years ago, who knew there’d be a career (legal or otherwise) in optimising the performance of cyclists?

The eye-catching assertion is as hegemonic as it is hard to substantiate. It was popularised 10 years ago in the Shift Happens video: “We are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist, using technologies that haven’t been invented, in order to solve problems we don’t even know are problems yet.” The updated (2018) version claims that the top 10 in-demand jobs in 2010 did not exist in 2004. The dates and the numbers change, but the assertion persists. It is embedded in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Case for 21st Century Learning and the World Economic Forum’s The Future of Jobs.

The BBC’s More or Less programme tried unsuccessfully to track the underlying research, but encountered only dead ends. Andrew Old highlighted the lack of evidence; Michael Berman described it as the "undead factoid".  Rather than die, futurists have doubled down: it had been said that 65 per cent of future jobs had not yet been invented; then we learned that 85 per cent of jobs that will exist in 2030 haven’t been invented yet.

Occupational structures don’t stand still. The late 20th century economy was hollowed out with the decimation of clerical and manufacturing jobs. It is a truism that some occupations are not even a twinkle in the careers adviser’s eye. The big question is not whether the futurists’ assertion is true, but how education should respond.

The implication is that schools have failed to keep pace with and prepare students for the world of work. A Huffington Post blog concluded that “yesterday’s classroom won’t prepare our kids for tomorrow’s job market. It’s time to rethink education, teaching the lessons they’ll need for careers we can only imagine.” The Shift Happens video suborned an Einstein quote as a club with which to beat the school system: “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

Predictably, protagonists have revisited an old battleground, arguing the toss between futureproof 21st century skills and foundational, facilitating knowledge. The argument is really about whether compulsory education should even be about preparing individuals for specific types of job. John Dewey was fighting a rearguard action on this ground a century ago. Before vocational training comes liberal or general education, in which skills and knowledge are complementary, and the intellectual and social development of the individual is the goal, regardless of which niche of the economy each is destined to fill.

Providing a liberal, general education has always been our role, and it won’t change in the world of the drone operator and the fear-containment manager.

Kevin Stannard is director of innovation and learning at the Girls' Day School Trust. He tweets @KevinStannard1

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