Illustration by Wenting Li
Antoinette Ellis’s five-year-old daughter, Zariah, already knows what she wants to be when she grows up. Her main gig will be scientist, but she plans on earning extra income as an opera singer and a part-time DJ. This future may not sound particularly realistic, but Ellis is nonetheless doing all she can to foster her daughter’s interests. Zariah watches videos of opera singers, she’s taking music lessons and she’s often conducting little experiments, as she did this past summer, when she planted strawberries and vegetables in her grandfather’s backyard.
Whether Zariah ultimately becomes a multi-talented scientist-entertainer remains to be seen, but Ellis is confident she’ll succeed at whatever she chooses to do. That’s because, on top of encouraging her to garden and sing, Ellis is also teaching her to be curious and to solve problems, which are just some of the skills she’ll need in the future. She’ll enter the workforce around 2035, alongside an increasing amount of vastly more intelligent technology—and maybe even robots.
Over the next couple of decades, the job market is likely to undergo some dramatic changes. With technological innovation happening at a rapid pace, much of the work we do today could be automated out of existence. At the same time, new jobs will pop up—but no one knows for sure what those jobs may be. According to an October 2018 HSBC study, nearly 40 percent of Canadian parents are concerned about how technological change will impact their children’s employment prospects. Fortunately, there are ways to ensure your kids are prepared for a more tech-filled future, even though we don’t know what lies ahead.
It will be many years before we know exactly how robotics and artificial intelligence (AI)—a technology that allows computers to process information at an extremely rapid rate and perform certain tasks based on the data it takes in—affect our kids’ futures. Some people think there could be mass layoffs, while others believe the tech will generate new jobs. A 2017 McKinsey & Company report estimates that AI and robotics could eliminate about 30 percent of the world’s workforce by 2030. The World Economic Forum predicts that technology could displace 75 million jobs by 2022, but it will also create 133 million new ones.
It’s worth remembering that occupations have been coming and going for centuries. We no longer have milkmen, switchboard operators or knocker-uppers (people who used to wake others up in the morning by knocking on their bedroom windows with a big stick). About 85 percent of the gigs that were around in 1900 were obsolete by 2000, with technology driving many of these jobs out of existence.
However, there are now meaningful, well-paying jobs in areas that didn’t exist a couple of decades ago, from digital marketing manager to mobile app developer to data warehouse architect (a person who oversees the copious amounts of information companies now collect). And new professions will keep being created; according to a Dell Technologies report, a whopping 85 percent of the jobs that will exist in 2030 haven’t yet been invented.
Lots of today’s careers will be available for kids to pursue when they’re grown up—they’ll just have slightly morphed, thanks to the incorporation of sophisticated technology, says Rafael Gomez, director of the University of Toronto’s Centre for Industrial Relations and Human Resources. For instance, we’ll always need doctors. But instead of those physicians spending days, weeks or months trying to figure out what’s wrong with someone, a supercomputer, fed reams of patient data, will spit out a diagnosis in seconds. Doctors won’t have to figure out the best medicines to prescribe, either—AI will cross-check a patient’s medical records with pharmaceutical data to come up with an individual treatment plan. With a machine taking care of tests and results—and perhaps even intricate surgeries humans can’t do on their own now—doctors will be able to dedicate more time improving their patients’ overall health and well-being.
It will be a similar story for other professions. For example, instead of a lawyer spending hours reading case law, a computer could quickly list the cases they might want to reference in front of a judge. In education, AI could grade multiple tests or papers at once, while teachers could give students better learning experiences by, for example, “transporting” them back 100 years through virtual reality headsets to see what life in a different era was really like. “Teachers used to be repositories of knowledge, but now everyone has access to all that information,” says Gomez. “That means the most important qualities teachers will need will be an ability to encourage and motivate.” An educator’s job will also transform into training others how to use the information that’s available, and they’ll need to create learning environments that teach kids empathy and social skills.
What about hands-on occupations, like construction worker, electrician and plumber? They aren’t going anywhere, but they’ll be increasingly high-tech, as workers use technology to create better and stronger buildings and respond faster to problems.
“Softer” skills, such as resilience, curiosity, communication and empathy, will be in high demand in the future, says Katrin Becker, a business psychologist with Hatch Analytics, a company based in London, that uses behavioural science to improve workplaces. Creativity and collaboration are also increasingly important. For example, while “scientist” may still be an in-demand profession when Ellis’s daughter, Zariah, enters the workforce, instead of learning how to study microbes under a microscope—something a machine could likely do—she’ll need to work with others to dream up big ideas that the technology she’s using might support.
Kids of the future will also need to be more resourceful and determined than ever. Thomas Frey, a futurist and founder of the DaVinci Institute, a Colorado-based consulting fim, says work will almost certainly be more freelance- and entrepreneurial-based, with people having two or three jobs instead of just one. That’s partly because companies would rather hire someone for a few months than full time, but it’s also because people want more control over their work life. Frey thinks our kids will prefer to choose more meaningful employment—and to show up to the office only when they want to.
This means, however, that kids will need to know how to run their own businesses and how to assess risk and reward. Networking will become even more important, especially if more people work from home—another workplace trend that’s gaining steam—or begin building more businesses. “These skills are going to be so critical,” says Frey. “But they’re also really hard to teach.”
How does a parent ensure their kids become resilient, creative and collaborative? That education should start at home and it should start early, says Sarah Rosensweet, a Toronto-based parenting coach. For instance, when your two-year-old is melting down because they want a cookie for dinner, show them empathy by saying you understand how they feel and know how much they love treats. Then encourage resiliency by saying you know they can handle it and that it’s OK to be frustrated and to let those feelings pass.
It’s also important to change the way we talk to our kids about work, says Becker. Instead of asking what they want to be when they grow up, find out what problems they want to solve. “People will work in jobs that give them meaning,” she says. “We should be asking, ‘Is there anything you think you can add to the world? Is there anything that really excites you?’”
But more than ever, parents need to be thinking about how their kids are being taught and whether schools are preparing children for the the future. Elementary and high school haven’t changed much since the Industrial Revolution, when the future most kids were faced with was working on an assembly line. Our children still listen for the end-of-class bell—similar to the end-of-the-workday horn—and many still sit in rows of desks, like they do in widget-making factories. “Schools are built for the jobs of the 18th and 19th centuries,” says Gomez. “It’s mind-boggling that that hasn’t changed.”
It’s not as if math, science and history aren’t still important subjects to learn. But schools that want to truly future-proof their students should emphasize group work, interpersonal communication and creative thinking, says Gomez. “You need the analytical skills you might get in math, but you also need human skills that make our society better,” he says. “You can’t just memorize a specific way of doing things, because that specific way will be out of date by tomorrow. Instead, kids should be learning the skills needed to problem solve, which are experimentation, learning to fail and learning from failures.”
Ellis, for one, is doing her part to change the way schools operate. Through her job at Toronto’s Tata Consultancy Services, a global information technology company, she runs a program that teaches kids about STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). Since 2014, she and her team have been going into Toronto public schools to talk to kids about coding, robotics, AI and design thinking. And because much of the work is done in groups and doesn’t have specific outcomes like, say, a basic math test would, the children are also learning to listen, experiment and think.
While some industries will see job losses over the next couple of decades, there’s no evidence that parents shouldn’t feel good about their children’s employment prospects. Who knows? Your kid could end up being a drone manager, a chief productivity officer, an autonomous transportation specialist or an end-of-life coach.
If anything, our children may have more fulfilling jobs than we do. With machines doing more and more of the tedious work, humans will increasingly be able to use their creativity and thinking skills, tackle bigger and more meaningful issues, know how to run their own companies and make their way in the world on their own terms. That’s, at least, the scenario Ellis is imagining for her own kids. “I’m confident about the future,” she says. “As long as parents know it’s OK for our kids to fail and to change their minds, then they’ll continue to adapt to whatever lies ahead.”