Let’s have a wager about what work will look like in 20 years. How about in 50 years? Teenagers leaving education this summer are set to have working lives that take them to retirement in 2070. That’s another half-century. If we look backwards to assess the extent of change they should expect it’s dizzying. The last 20 years have seen computers go from office luxuries to the things that keep us pinned anxiously to our desks. If you had a typing speed of 60 words a minute two decades ago people would think you were a secretary or one of the bionically dextrous computer hackers they’d seen in Hollywood films.
Few of us could have predicted 20 years ago that every worker in 2018 would have a supercomputer in our pockets able to make us answer quick emails while we’re watching Silent Witness. What torture awaits us in the office of 2070? A device that makes us watch PowerPoint presentations in our sleep?
What do we do to prepare today’s students for the changes to come in their lifetimes? Well if the mobile phone was the major change of the last two decades, it’s likely that thinking computers will be next. Readying young adults for a world where computers can perform many routine tasks themselves means we need to skill them more differently than ever before.
The British educational campaigner Sir Ken Robinson has led the way here. Robinson – who has a new book to help parents navigate education published this month – has long made the claim that schools are killing our children’s innate capacity to think creatively. And I fully agree with him. In his TED talk that hit the milestone of 50 million views this week he explained that at the age of five, 98 per cent of school children show "genius" levels of "divergent thinking". Divergent thinking isn’t the sole component of creativity but it plays a significant part in it, because it captures our ability to think of lots of imaginative solutions to problems. Such is the focus on rigour and learning by rote that by the age of 10 only a third of the children are at genius grade. By 15 only 10 per cent remain at the "genius" level. Something in our education is squeezing creativity out of us.
As we look forward to the next 50 years it’s becoming increasingly clear that some of the routine parts of work will be assumed by computers. Of course, if history is our guide then this can leave us all free to take advantage and to perform more creative functions ourselves – but we need to be ready for these challenges. To get children ready to be creative then the first step is to inspire them, to give them the belief that they can invent the solutions to our workplace problems.
As a Birmingham-raised state school student, I count myself incredibly lucky to have gone to university and reached a level of success that I never felt possible. My only careers advice at school was from a distracted teacher who told me people with my background couldn’t become lawyers – and so put paid to one dream. But the challenge of future generations achieving similar things is going to be harder. In an internet-connected world, children are be competing not just with fellow British students but also with online talent from across the world. We need to inspire children to challenge themselves to succeed at the academic skills that are going to remain vital and the inventive thinking that will help keep us ahead of artificial intelligence.
The Speakers for Schools charity is designed to bring inspiring talks to state secondary schools to try to ignite some flames of motivation, reaching children who lack the networks and nepotistic advantage that help the more advantaged in society. Having spoken previously at three schools in South Yorkshire, I made the trip this week to Chorlton in Manchester as a part of their #Skills2030 campaign. The programme is always looking for more leading figures to bring their own working experience to audiences of eager minds.
It’s hard for any of us to imagine the workplaces of 2070, but it’s down to all of us to try to motivate those who will be succeeding in them.
Bruce Daisley is vice president of EMEA for Twitter. He tweets @brucedaisley