Special Report
College & Workforce Readiness

The Future of Work Is Uncertain, Schools Should Worry Now

Automation and artificial intelligence are disrupting the labor market. What do K-12 educators and policymakers need to know?
By Benjamin Herold — September 26, 2017 10 min read
An elite coder with vision, people skills, and high-powered mentors, New York City 9th grader Emma Yang is as close to future-proof as a 13-year old can get. But with technology radically reshaping the labor market, schools face a monumental challenge preparing all students to thrive in a murky future.
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Today’s 6th graders will hit their prime working years in 2030.

By that time, the “robot apocalypse” could be fully upon us. Automation and artificial intelligence could have eliminated half the jobs in the United States economy.

Or, plenty of jobs could still exist, but today’s students could be locked in a fierce competition for a few richly rewarded positions requiring advanced technical and interpersonal skills. Robots and algorithms would take care of what used to be solid working- and middle-class jobs. And the kids who didn’t get that cutting-edge computer science course or life-changing middle school project? They’d be relegated to a series of dead-end positions, serving the elites who did.

Alternatively, maybe Bill Gates and Elon Musk and the other big names ringing the alarm are wrong. A decade from now, perhaps companies will still complain they can’t find employees who can read an instruction manual and pass a drug test. Maybe workers will still be able to hold on to the American Dream, so long as they can adjust to incremental technological shifts in the workplace.

Which vision will prove correct?

When it comes to predicting the future of work, top economists and technologists are all over the map.

Inside schools, the result is tremendous uncertainty.

“For thousands of educators, this discussion isn’t about 15 years from now. It’s about the present,” said former West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise, who now heads a national nonprofit seeking to transform U.S. high schools. “But schools aren’t sure how to change what they’re doing, or even what questions to ask.”

That’s why Education Week is launching a new line of special coverage on what the changing nature of work means for the K-12 sector. What skills will today’s students need? Will the jobs available now still be around in 2030? Should every kid learn to code? What about apprenticeships, career-and-technical education, and “lifelong learning?”

Just as importantly, how can schools prepare children to participate in the political, civic, and moral debates stirred up by technology-driven changes?

The time for these conversations is now.

Because for all their disagreements, nearly all the experts say the nation’s educators can take one prediction to the bank.

“Change is going to come,” said Lee Rainie, who heads the study of technology for the Pew Research Center. “Standing pat is not an option.”

If you could prototype a 13-year-old who is likely to thrive in the 2030 labor market, she’d probably look a lot like Emma Yang of New York City.

The private school 9th grader has already designed an app to help diagnose concussions. She’s used neural networks to train computer programs to identify lung tumors. Her latest project, an app called Timeless, uses algorithms to help Alzheimer’s patients recognize the family members in their photos.

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An elite coder with vision, people skills, and high-powered mentors, this New York City 9th grader is as close to future-proof as a 13-year old can get.

The Extraordinary Education of an Elite, 13-Year-Old Problem-Solver

Yang is insatiably curious. She asks big questions. And she has killer people skills.

“You don’t have to be a doctor or a politician to effect change in the world,” Yang told the crowd at her first TEDx Talk, delivered in July in Washington. “Solve the problems you see around you.”

Elite-level technical abilities, the probing mind of a scientist, and a deft human touch: That’s the experts’ best guess about the combination of traits that will guarantee rewarding employment in tomorrow’s economy.

Facebook, for example, recently offered advice to students who want to work in artificial intelligence. Take all the math you possibly can, the company suggested—while also finding time to study computer science, economics, engineering, neuroscience, and philosophy; cultivate mentors; think about vexing challenges in new ways; and publish your own open-source code.

It’s heavy, heady stuff.

But such advice also raises red flags, especially for those observers who are most alarmed by the ways technology is upending the labor market.

One fear is that the bar for making today’s students future-proof is becoming unrealistically high. And even if America’s schools could churn out a steady stream of Emma Yangs, some experts worry it might not matter.

Robots and AI-powered digital agents already rival humans at translating languages, playing strategy games, and flipping hamburgers. They’ve started driving cars and diagnosing cancer. Increasingly, they’re able to learn by observing humans, rather than being programmed by us.

That all means big problems, says futurist Martin Ford.

The labor market is a pyramid, Ford wrote in his 2015 book Rise of the Robots. Automation has already begun devouring the pyramid’s base, replacing assembly-line workers, warehouse stockers, and cashiers.

Paralegals, radiologists, line cooks, truck drivers, insurance underwriters, travel agents, lab technicians, tax preparers, and office assistants could all be next.

And with artificial-intelligence systems starting to write their own code, it’s entirely possible that many of the six-figure computer-science jobs currently available could eventually be lost to technology, too.


In such a scenario, how many jobs would be left at the top of the labor-market pyramid?

Turn your gaze back to Facebook, Ford suggests. The company may be worth $500 billion, but it employs just 20,000 people. Only 75 work in artificial intelligence.

Now you can see why lots of reasonable people are drawing dire conclusions.

In 2014, for example, the Pew Research Center surveyed 1,896 experts. Nearly half said they “envision a future in which robots and digital agents have displaced significant numbers of both blue- and white-collar workers.” Many are worried that the trend “will lead to vast increases in income inequality, masses of people who are effectively unemployable, and breakdowns in the social order.”

What would such a future mean for today’s schools?

“Whatever you do,” Ford warns, “it isn’t going to be enough.”

Like many people in public education, Laura Arnold has mostly tried to avoid such gloomy forecasts.

It’s not that workforce preparation is missing altogether from the K-12 conversation. For decades, the sector has talked about “vocational education,” “linked learning,” “21st century skills,” and more.

And it’s not that Arnold herself is busy fighting other battles. As an associate commissioner in the Kentucky education department, she’s helped turn her state into a national leader in career-and-technical education.

But the horizons for such efforts in public education tend to be short-term. Reliable data on local workforce trends only extend out five years, Arnold said. Companies are focused on what they need right now. Schools struggle to meet even those immediate demands.

Taking time to consider the long-term implications of artificial intelligence can seem overwhelming.

“We need to be at the table for these discussions,” Arnold said. “But it’s so much bigger than K-12 education.”

That’s where Education Week aims to help. We talked to more than two-dozen experts in the fields of artificial intelligence, computer science, economics, education, and history. We also reviewed dozens of reports and studies.

Here’s what we think you need to know.

Many economists are not nearly as worried as futurists like Martin Ford.

Yes, technology is going to eliminate some jobs, said MIT’s Paul Osterman, who used to run workforce-training programs for Massachusetts. But doomsday predictions about the future of work overlook the forces of history, human ingenuity, and demography, he said.


A century ago, for example, the United States transitioned from an agricultural to an industrial economy. More than 90 percent of farm jobs were lost. But new technologies also created new jobs, new wealth, and new consumer demands. That all led to new work opportunities that all those displaced farmers couldn’t have previously imagined.

Still, most experts foresee substantial upheaval.

Even skeptics recognize that industrial robots and artificial-intelligence-powered digital agents have already made significant inroads into fields as diverse as manufacturing, health care, logistics, and customer service.

And it’s clear that winners and losers are already emerging. Wages for highly educated people have gone up, because information technologies complement the creative, problem-solving, and managerial work they tend to do. But at the same time, technology has helped push many less-educated workers into the service sector, where they receive lower pay and less job security.

Under President Barack Obama, the White House concluded that automation will likely continue to erode the fortunes of workers who don’t have a high school diploma and who earn less than $20 per hour. The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, meanwhile, warned that technology will begin eating away at jobs currently filled by some highly educated workers.

Then there’s this: As the future-of-work conversation evolves, many analysts are focusing on the specific tasks, rather than the entire occupations, that technology will likely take over from humans. An analysis this year by the McKinsey Global Institute, for example, estimates that existing technologies could be used to automate roughly half of all the activities that workers are currently paid to do.

In the crosshairs: anything that involves routine physical motions, operating machinery in predictable environments, or collecting and processing data.


If that’s how things play out, today’s students are going to need a new set of skills, regardless of what field they enter.

Every young person entering the 2030 labor market might need a solid grounding in statistics and data science, the thinking goes. Farmers, for example, would need to make sense of torrents of data generated by sensors and drones on soil and weather conditions.

To maintain their edge, workers would also need to focus on cultivating the human qualities that robots still lack, such as creativity, empathy, and abstract thinking.

And because most jobs could constantly evolve, today’s students could eventually face a make-or-break question: Can you adapt?

“I don’t think there’s any way we can accurately say what skills and competencies students will need 15 years from now,” said Michael Chui, a partner at the McKinsey Global Institute. “That’s why it’s incumbent that we prepare young people for a world of constant uncertainty.”

With so much up in the air, what will determine how disruptive the future of work turns out to be?

For all the attention to technology, the answer may have more to do with our laws, policies, and values.

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Webinar: The Future of Work and What It Means for K-12 Schools

Join us for this webinar, part of Education Week’s yearlong initiative to provide special coverage of workforce-preparation trends and their implications for K-12 schools, to take a deeper look at what kind of job market the 6th graders of today will face when they hit their prime working years in 2030 and what it means for educators now.
Register now.

And it’s here that K-12 schools might play their most significant role, many experts believe.

Imagine, for example, that millions more people do lose their jobs to automation. Will tomorrow’s lawmakers be able to overcome today’s partisan divides to craft an effective social safety net?

Or imagine that being a home health aide is one of the few in-demand jobs that most Americans can still do better than a robot. Will tomorrow’s workforce insist on greater status and pay for such professions?

And consider how deeply robots, algorithms, and digital agents are being woven into important aspects of our lives, from loan applications to dating to criminal sentencing.

Will tomorrow’s citizens be thoughtful and vigilant in deciding how much control they’re willing to give to technology? Will they be able to recognize and challenge automated decision-making systems that replicate existing racial, gender, and other biases?

Public education has always been about creating good citizens, not just good workers. In the age of artificial intelligence, that could be more important than ever.

“Preparing students for the future means helping them think critically about the new ways decisions are made,” said Osonde Osoba, a RAND Corp. engineer and researcher.

Are schools up for such a many-sided challenge?

In 2030, will today’s 6th graders be afraid of change, or will they embrace it?

If robots lead to a future flush with leisure time, will today’s students be able to find purpose in making art, doing citizen science, or helping a neighbor?

“It doesn’t have to be a job,” said Arizona State University professor James Paul Gee. “But each person needs the skills to make some kind of contribution to a changing world with a lot of problems that need solving.”

This is the reality facing the K-12 sector. No one really knows what happens next. Many jobs will likely be destroyed. New types of work, requiring new types of skills, will hopefully be created. The problems and opportunities and paradoxes associated with automation and artificial intelligence won’t be limited to the workplace.

For the nation’s educators, the most daunting thing about this uncertain future may also be the most exciting.

They get to help make it.

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A version of this article appeared in the September 27, 2017 edition of Education Week as Facing an Uncertain Future


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