Prepare for Change by Expecting the Unimagined
Self-driving vehicles could upend the transportation sector and eliminate a million or more jobs. Algorithms that decode MRIs put a whole medical subfield at risk. And the list of professions and sectors soon to be obsolete grows steadily by the day.
New technologies are rattling the economy on all fronts. While the predictions are specific and dire, bigger changes are surely coming. Clearly, we need to adjust for the turbulence ahead.
But we may be preparing in the wrong way.
Both history and psychology tell us that our capacity to predict the future is limited, while our capacity to believe in such predictions is unlimited. We have always been surprised.
Rather than planning for the specific changes we imagine, it is better to prepare for the unimagined — for change itself.
Preparing for the unknown is not as hard as it may seem, though it implies fundamental shifts in our policies on education, employment and social insurance.
Take education. Were we to plan for specific changes, we would start revamping curriculums to include skills we thought would be rewarded in the future. For example, computer programming might become even more of a staple in high schools than it already is. Maybe that will prove to be wise and we will have a more productive workforce.
But perhaps technology evolves quickly enough that in a few decades we talk to, rather than program, computers. In that case, millions of people would have invested in a skill as outdated as precise penmanship.
Instead, rather than changing what we teach, we could change when we teach.
Currently, all the formal education most people will receive comes early in life. Specific skills may be learned on the job, but the fundamentals are acquired in school when we are young. This sequence — learn early, benefit for a lifetime — makes sense only in a world where the useful skills stay constant.
But in a rapidly changing world, the fundamentals that were useful decades ago may be obsolete now; more important, new essential skills may have arisen. Anyone helping a grandparent navigate a computer has experienced this problem.
Once we recognize that human capital, like technology, needs refreshing, we have to restructure our institutions so people acquire education later in life. We don’t merely need training programs for niche populations or circumstances, expensive and short executive-education programs or brief excursions like TED talks. Instead we need the kind of in-depth education and training people receive routinely at age 13.
文／Sendhil Mullainathan 譯／王麗娟