What are the vital future skills for success in tomorrow’s world? Which skills should we be learning to advance our own careers? What should we be teaching our children to give them the best chance in life?
I have been asked these questions since I became a futurist. And I have answered them many times, in talks, Q+A’s and in blog posts. Here, I have tried to bring all those answers together into a more definitive response.
How do we know what future skills we will need?
What are the criteria for the ‘right’ skills for the future? The starting point for my answer to this question comes from work I did at the start of my futurist career. I sat on a panel for the Institute of Chartered Accountants (ICAEW) on the future of education. As a panel, we considered the question of the future of education from a number of perspectives. Mostly, given the convening organisation though, these were centred around the economic value of education. What benefits do particular skills bring to the individual, the business, and the state, in terms of working and earning potential? We asked questions like: What are the gaps between today’s education provision and the needs of employers? How do we see the nature of jobs and work changing in the future?
Our conclusions covered three main areas: divorcing skills from knowledge, preparing for change, and emphasising creativity.
Knowledge is the context in which skills are acquired
I have long been critical of the idea of a knowledge economy. In a world where almost any fact can be recalled in a few key strokes, knowledge is a commodity. What matters is the skills to find the knowledge you need, qualify, and apply it.
Of course it’s not quite that simple: our skills of search and qualification are naturally informed by a base level of knowledge. You cannot totally divorce the skills of discovery and validation from knowledge. Knowledge gives you a solid platform from which to work. It is a benchmark against which to test the facts that you discover.
Beyond this sufficiency though, it is hard to make the case for acquiring knowledge as an end in its own right. At least in economic terms. Known facts no longer offer anyone a clear differentiator in the job market. Rather, the acquisition of knowledge is the context in which we develop critical skills. Acquiring more knowledge through the development of these skills is a very welcome benefit. But it is the skills that hold the real value.
Preparing for change
I spend a lot of time talking about the future of work. People ask: what jobs will we do in the future? There is no single career to which I can comfortably point people today. All will go through periods of disruption in the future. The only way to offer people some measure of career stability is to help them prepare for such an environment, building skills that help them adapt.
Whatever skills we focus on teaching, adaptation has to be at the core. And the most important part of adaptation is learning. First of all, recognising a gap in your own knowledge or abilities. Secondly, finding a source of information or training to fill that gap. And thirdly, the skills to hone that new ability. To apply yourself in using it and improving it.
The only other defence against disruption is to go on the offensive. Be the one doing the disrupting. And that means innovation, and creativity.
Creativity is too often perceived as something innate. People get the sense early in life that there is such a thing as a creative person. The ones who can draw and paint, or play music. This is, of course, nonsense. We are all creative. All disciplines require creativity, to a greater or lesser extent.
The arts though are a great domain in which to teach the skills of creativity. Creativity is about experimentation. It is about iteration. How do you become creative? You have the confidence to try something, see it fail, and learn from the mistakes. We can use the arts as a honing ground for creative skills. Which is why its so disappointing – even worrying – that they have been de-prioritised in the UK curriculum.
Future skills beyond work
So far the prescription for skills has been purely about economic value. But education is obviously about much more than that. I believe there is a lot of coherence between the future skills we need for economic success and the skills that give us a wider opportunity for self-fulfilment. The critical common factor is self-reliance. The skills I will describe below are ones that allow us to expand our own abilities, feel the reward of making something new, and communicating our value to others. Whether your objective is financial, self-development, or about growing your role in society, these are all valuable attributes.
The Three Cs
So what are the future skills that we should be learning, honing, or teaching to our children? I believe there are three, and I call them the Three Cs.
Curation: This is about the skills of discovery and qualification. Knowing what you don’t know, finding that information, and ensuring its veracity. It’s about learning to learn, critical to adaptation in a career that will likely see a lot of change.
Creation: Synthesising something new is the most valuable contribution to an economy, notable since our own is increasingly focused on service. Sadly, we seem less and less focused on teaching creativity, which can be developed in a huge range of contexts. Science is often a creative subject, but the arts are a fantastic way to develop our creative muscles (and a huge industry in their own right).
Communication: Our skills are worth little in the economy unless we can share what we have learned and created with our colleagues, customers and stakeholders. A broad spectrum of communications skills, writing and speaking, designing and presenting — even coding, an increasingly common form of communication — are vital for future careers.
Not only do I think these skills, combined with a solid work ethic and a good disposition, define a valuable employee today, I think they are also some of the most defensible human traits in the face of rising automation.
Let’s break each down in more detail.
Curate: Discover and qualify information
Curation is my shorthand term for the dual skills of discovery and qualification.
Discovery starts with self-discovery, recognising those things that you don’t know, or don’t know how to do, that might hold you back. This could be missing data sources in solving a problem. It could be missing skills for the next stage of your career. Or it could just be the perfect illustration for the blog post you are writing.
Discovery is a partly about technical skills, like forming effective web search queries. And it’s partly about a hunger for growth and development. The ability to learn and a love of learning.
But it is also about having good filters. We need to know that the sources that we draw from are of good quality. Particularly in this age of fake news, and with the growing threat of deep fakes. What we need is a well-trained sense of scepticism.
Scepticism is the best defence from digital security threats. It is scepticism which allows an individual to begin to challenge claims and differentiate between sources. If you can develop a sceptical ‘sixth sense’ in people then you can speed this process, allowing snap judgements about the quality of a source.
The value of media-literacy
Take the example of the four-foot-long rat supposedly discovered in Hackney in 2016: a good sceptic would immediately question that. And this scepticism is something we can – and should – teach. In my first proper job after university I used to run a lot of media training programmes, teaching people how to deal with the press. We taught hundreds of people across Europe the basic principles of understanding what was newsworthy and how to communicate it through press releases and interviews.
A phrase that will be familiar to anyone who has been on this sort of session is ‘man bites dog’. What it means is that the press are interested in things that are out of the ordinary. A dog bites a man? Well so what: that’s what dogs do. But if a man bites a dog? Well that’s unusual, and hence, newsworthy.
For the very reason that a four-foot-long rat is newsworthy, it should also set off the mental alarm bells of the sceptic — to say nothing of the journalists who happily published the story.
This same rule applies to many of the ruses used to con people in digital scams. It just takes a few moments thought to realise when it. Widows of African leaders wanting to move money out of their countries through you? Friends being mugged in foreign countries and using Facebook to ask everyone to wire them money? Both clearly men biting dogs.
Some of these things are innately ridiculous. Others do require a bit more knowledge or context to be revealed as such. Like the Microsoft technical support scam. But you don’t have to teach people much about business, computers or the internet — no more than should be the basics of any education* — for these too to start to smell a little fishy.
Teach people media literacy, and give them a broad education in the way the modern world operates, and I think we can develop in most a very healthy innate scepticism.
Create: Synthesise something new
Creativity is one of the most critical future skills for two reasons. Firstly, the nature of the environment in which we operate is changing. Secondly, because it is how we add the most value to our careers and to our employers.
While I don’t believe the pace of changing across the board, as I lay out in High Frequency Change, I do believe that every sector faces growing disruption. The defence against this disruption to your own career and your own business, is to drive change rather than wait for it to come. That requires constant innovation, and innovation requires creativity. Not necessarily the lightbulb moment spark of inspiration, but iteration, revision and recombination. The ability to try things and learn from the failure, over and over again. The ability to smash two old things together to make something new.
This innovation is what creates economic value. It is how we take processes and make them better. It is how we create new products and services. Doing it makes us incredibly valuable to our employers, and gives us the chance to create our own enterprises in whatever form.
Communicate: Clarity and Efficiency, Precision and Beauty
Communication is about your ability to hear others, and share your own message. Listening is always the first part of communication, though it is also part of the Curation skill set above. Without it we cannot learn and we cannot shape and tailor our actions.
Listening is critical in business because so much value will be placed on human to human interaction in the future. As more of our interactions are handled between machines, so those that remain entirely analogue will become of ever greater importance. Whether you have a role in care, service, HR, or leadership, listening is critical.
And once you have listened you need to share your message. Doing this well requires precision and clarity. The ability to capture the listener and compel action. In a world flooded with noise, the ability to create a clean signal is highly valuable.
First of all, great communication is about efficiency: the ability to communicate a clear and unambiguous message in the minimum number of characters.
Twitter has made this a daily test for millions of people, and it is not easy.
Twitter’s enforced 140 character limit made it challenging to communicate a clear point in a compelling fashion. Users developed their own syntax to address that challenge – a syntax that has somewhat lost its value the expanded character limit.
By keeping messages short, Twitter has allowed people to scan a huge amount of information and opinion in a very short space of time. This is highly valuable in this noisy world, and the reason that so many people use Twitter as readers more than writers.
Precision is often lacking in workplace communication. This seems a particularly acute problem here in the UK. I wonder if this is one of the causes of our low productivity.
Our manners often prevent us from being direct about what we want, meaning briefs from manager to staff, and from client to supplier, are often much woollier than they should be. Our culture means that staff member and supplier are often unwilling to challenge the woolly brief, so instead throw themselves into the work with gusto, becoming ‘busy fools’ and wasting everyone’s time and money.
In a ‘gig economy’ where the ability to brief a job in clearly and comprehend (and challenge) this brief are vital, the lack of these skills will be increasingly apparent.
Clarity too is an issue. There is a meme that floats around Facebook occasionally, about some research purportedly from Cambridge University (it isn’t) showing that we can still understand words if the middle letters are jumbled. It’s nonsense (as this page points out), but there’s an interesting idea often made as part of the post: spelling and grammar don’t really matter as long as the message is carried across.
My issue with this idea comes back to the signal to noise ratio. The low friction effect of digital technology means that we are being swamped with more and more channels of communication. More and more people and companies have access to those channels of communication. This means more noise.
Filtering the signals we want from that noise is hard enough without the extra computational and mental overhead of dealing with unclear communication. We may be able to understand some jumbled and misspelled words, and extract the meaning from poorly punctuated sentences. But that doesn’t mean it is easy: our brains have to work harder to do so, and so will our computers.
We should always aim for clarity in communication, for everyone’s sake.
What none of these exhortations speak to though is beauty in communication. There is an inherent beauty in a perfectly constructed statement: one that is clear and concise. But it is only enhanced when it contains great rhythm, description or humour.
If we achieve clarity, efficiency and precision in our communications at work, tomorrow’s world will certainly be a more efficient, more productive place. And I believe the combined effects of social networks like Twitter, and exposure to imported aspects of the gig economy like Fiverr, will start to reinforce these values.
But we also need to consider the value of beauty in our communications. Its power to engage and compel, excite and entertain. Signals stand out most from the noise when they are imbued with this uniquely human quality in language.
Turning future skills into crafts
While all of us should be learning these three core future skills, it is only through their application in the relevant contexts to our work that they become shaped to the particular needs of our work. These skills, honed in a particular context, I would call a craft. For example, public speaking shares a lot of the core requirements with other applications of communications skills. You need a strong narrative thread, often wrapped around a coherent argument. But it’s only through repeated practice that a good essayist can become a good public speaker.
One of the things we can do to advance our careers, or even get a head start before they begin, is find other places to apply these skills in relevant contexts. If the job you want requires public speaking, or writing, or one-to-one communication, get a head start by applying those skills elsewhere. Do it in volunteering, or charity work, or for your sports team.
How to learn future skills? Get a hobby
This leads neatly to the question how how we acquire new skills in the first place. One way I think we can practice all three of the Cs, is by getting a new hobby.
Hobbies are fantastic contexts for self-driven learning, a critical component of the ‘curate’ skillset. You need to identify the gaps in your knowledge and abilities, source and absorb materials to help you overcome those gaps.
Hobbies are also often creative. I don’t mean that we all need to take up painting or writing. Sports are creative. Coding is creative. Games are creative. The critical creative skills are more about practice, repetition and refinement than they are about lightning-strike great ideas.
And hobbies almost inevitably involve communication, whether you are chatting on shared interest forums, strategising with team mates, or negotiating at a swap meet.
Personally, I took up rollerskating a few years ago. It was a humbling experience, being surrounded by kids — my own included, having introduced me to the sport — who knew more than I did. It has taken an enormous amount of practice, and a few injuries (including a broken rib, a sprained wrist, and a very squishy elbow) to get to the stage where I feel pretty competent at a few tricks.
I’ve learned by watching others, watching YouTube videos, and practicing, over and over again — creative iteration. It has been a great exercise for these critical future skills, as well as for my general fitness. But perhaps just as important is that humbling. One of the most valuable things to be reminded of, is just how little we know outside of our own domains.
If you want to improve your future career prospects, go and get yourself a new hobby. And get humbled.