Future of Work

What’s the Purpose of K-12 Education in the Age of Automation?

By Alyson Klein — March 22, 2021 9 min read
Daniel Susskind
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For the past decade, schools have placed significant emphasis on getting students ready for careers. The problem is that it’s not clear what kind of jobs will be available in ten or 20 years. So what should that mean for K-12 teaching?

Daniel Susskind, a fellow in economics at Oxford University, tackled that question—and many others—in his recent book, A World Without Work: Technology, Automation, and How We Should Respond. In it, he describes a possible future where liberal arts education would take on increasing importance as people look for meaningful ways to spend their time in a world where machines take on many of the tasks humans do today.

Education Week caught up with Susskind on Zoom for his thoughts on where the world of work is headed. This transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.

What do you expect the world of work to look like when today’s 2nd graders are entering it?

Every day, we hear stories of systems and machines that are taking on tasks and activities that until recently we thought only human beings alone could ever do. Making medical diagnoses and driving cars. Drafting legal contracts and designing buildings. Writing news reports and composing music. What does this mean, not only for the vast majority of us at the moment whose job is our main, if not our only, source of income, but for also all those young people out there who are looking ahead to the future of work?
It’s important to be clear [that if readers] pick up the book expecting an account of some big technological bang after which there’s no work left for human beings to do, the robots have taken all the jobs, they’re going to be bitterly disappointed. Work is going to remain for some time to come.

The argument I’m making is a slightly different one, which is that as we move through the 21st century, because of these technological advances, more people might find themselves unable to make the sorts of economic contributions to society that they might have hoped, or indeed, expected to make in the 20th century.

So it sounds like we don’t really know what the world of work is going to look like for today’s 2nd graders, but machines will probably replace many jobs, or at least a lot of the tasks.

Technologies don’t destroy entire jobs in an instant. If you were to ask me what jobs you think are most at risk of automation, I am reluctant to give you a list because that isn’t what technology does. What it does is, in a far more bottom-up, gradual way, it displaces people from particular tasks and activities, but it can also make some tasks and activities more valuable and more important for human beings to do.

There’s a sense that what technology does is it takes on the boring stuff and leaves us human beings with the interesting stuff. But, actually, that’s not right. And just one example, if you look at many of the tasks and activities that are currently hardest to automate, many of them involve some kind of interpersonal interaction and as a result, many are found in pretty low-paid service roles. Retail assistants. Waitresses. Baristas. Receptionists. Security-guards and so on. So there’s not always as comfortable a correlation between how fulfilling we find those tasks and how readily they can be automated. And yet sometimes that’s how it’s talked about.

In your book, you note that policymakers, including former President Barack Obama, called for more people to attain post-secondary education in order to compete with machines. Do you agree that this is our best response at the moment to the idea of technological unemployment?

It’s useful to distinguish between two very different worries we might have about the future of work. One is the dramatic one that you often read about in popular commentary, which is where there just aren’t enough jobs to be done, full stop. And that I call structural technological unemployment.

There’s also another type of technological unemployment, where people don’t necessarily have the skills and the capabilities to do [available] jobs. There’s a skills mismatch. Education responds to one of the main frictions in the labor market, which is that people just might not have the right skills and capabilities to do the work that needs to be done.

Another reason that people might not want to be able to do the work that has to be done is place mismatch. People just don’t live in the same geographical place that work is being created. [That’s] particularly important for blue collar roles, rather than white collar roles. Many blue collar workers rely on being in a particular place and for that place to be succeeding economically and creating the kind of opportunities that will lead to you finding employment. It’s not obvious how more education necessarily engages with that place mismatch.

And then the sort of final mismatch is what I call the identity mismatch. People very often have a very particular conception of themselves and they might be willing to stay unemployed in order to protect the identity. And a good example of this is if you think of men of working age in the United States displaced from traditional manufacturing roles by new technologies. There are some who would say they would rather not work at all than take up so-called ‘pink collar work.’ Many of the jobs that are hardest to automate and where there’s a lot of job growth are disproportionately done by women, whether it’s social care, whether it’s nursing, whether it’s pre-school and kindergarten teaching. So, there is an issue of identity there. There is work available but for various reasons these men don’t want to do it. It’s not obvious to me how education, traditionally understood, engages with these identity mismatches between your perception of yourself and the work that’s available to be done.

There’s also just the more general problem, which is that if we look deeper into the 21st century, and we think it’s true that the problem might not be that there’s enough jobs and people can’t do them, but just there aren’t enough jobs full stop for various reasons. If we take that seriously, then again, it’s not clear to me that more education is necessarily the best response to that challenge.

But I don’t think that’s the challenge we currently face. So for now, the challenge is frictional technological unemployment and I think the main source of it is skills mismatch and that’s why education is still, to my mind, so important.

If you were advising a high-schooler on the future job market, what careers are fields are a relatively safe bet to escape automation?

Very broadly, there’s two strategies. Either you want to become the sort of person who can compete with these systems and machines, who can do the sort of things they cannot do yet. Clearly, there are large domains of human activity that remain out of reach of even the most capable machines. Interpersonal faculties. Creative faculties. Problem-solving faculties. Communication faculties. Even though machines are indeed making inroads on each of these things, by and large, if you look at the labor market, jobs that involve those sorts of faculties are among the hardest to automate.

The second strategy is that instead you become the sort of person who can build these systems and machines, who is capable of designing and operating and understanding how these systems and machines work.

We’re not taking seriously enough the challenge of either teaching people to compete or teaching people to build.

You write that schools need to stop teaching algebra in ways that apps like Socrates can do kids’ homework for them. Can you elaborate what you mean by that?

[With some apps], you can take a photo of quite complex math problems and it will scan it, use character recognition technology, and it just gives you an answer. And it just strikes me that in a world where these sorts of technologies are increasingly available, that ought to be an implication for how we teach math. We shouldn’t be teaching math in a way that people can be able to just take a photo of a question and come up with an answer and that’s it. We should be pushing math instruction in a way that takes advantage of these technologies, in much the same way that the calculator revolution did the same for the way in which we taught math a few decades ago.

It’s not, ‘let’s stop teaching math.’ It’s how can we use these technologies to teach math in a different and more useful way, given where the technologies are.

In your book, you are enthusiastic about the potential of technology to personalize learning for students. You write that teaching “to the middle” ability level is essentially, teaching to no one. But there’s still a lot of skepticism among educators about personalized learning. They feel like it overemphasizes technology. They don’t necessarily feel like their students are doing any better than they were before using personalized learning approaches. Given that skepticism, why are you a fan?

I’m a fan for two big reasons. We know that an average student who receives one-to-one instruction from a human being is going to outperform about 98 percent of ordinary students in a traditional classroom. So we know that one-to-one instruction with a human being is incredibly effective. But of course one-to-one instruction, with a human being, is not affordable or scalable. So what do we do? Well, this is the promise of these technologies, they offer us a glimpse of how we might replicate that one-to-one interaction in a way that is scalable. … That promise is what makes me excited.

The technologies we have today are the worst they are ever going to be. I’ve seen [problems] that reflect the skepticism that you’re describing. But for me, that’s not a reason to stop, it’s a reason to continue to iterate and experiment and try and settle on a model or technology that does better than what we currently have.

Near the end of the book, you argue that we may return to a liberal arts education, to make sure people can still lead meaningful lives. But right now, schools are focusing much more on STEM than the humanities. When and how should a greater emphasis on a more liberal arts education occur?

I suppose I want to avoid there being a discreet switch. I think both of these strategies are going to become increasingly important. In my view, the challenge should be focused more on ‘how can we avoid teaching young people to do all the routine activities that machines already do.’ I wouldn’t want to rule out either of those strategies, in part because there is a huge amount of uncertainty about what skills and abilities are going to be valuable and important.

If you take seriously the idea that we might be approaching a world with less work for people to do, full stop, if you think that that might be a challenge for the 21st century, then there is a kind of bigger challenge for education in thinking ‘what’s the purpose of education’? At the moment, in large part, it’s preparing people with the skills and capabilities so they can flourish in the working world. In a world in which there may be less work for people to do, how does an education system prepare people to flourish in that world instead. That, to me, is one of the big and under explored questions.

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