Co-authored by Michael Evans
The pursuit of happiness and the pursuit of education are no longer separate issues in America. The recently released Economic Policy Institute report shows that the earnings and employment gap – and pretty much any measure of happiness and economic success – between college and high school graduates continues to grow. The gap is the widest it’s ever been, and with well-paid manufacturing jobs disappearing from the US economy, the trend is unlikely to change. Automation is making these jobs ever scarcer (even as productivity climbs) and for all the political rhetoric around either saving or returning these industries to our shores, there’s no longer a plausible large-scale path to manufacturing job creation. The jobs of the future, if they exist, are unknown.
Traditionally, our response to an uncertain employment future has been education. The US government has long recognized the connection between education, employment, and the American right to pursue happiness. Though inconsistently offered and applied, many federal programs supply durable and ongoing support for education and job training institutions, providing a steady-state kind of support system in an uncertain jobs environment. This commitment should continue, not only to individual students through loans and grants, but also to not-for-profit institutions with proven success in educating and training lifelong students. The best short-term response to changing work is to increase support for the community colleges and state schools that can respond quickly and successfully to new demands.
But short-term solutions aren’t enough. It’s not just about jobs for tomorrow – literally, tomorrow – but the long term tomorrow, our kids. We can’t guarantee the pursuit of happiness tomorrow just by teaching to today’s jobs. The dirty secret is that learning takes time, and for many qualities may not be accomplished as quickly as the job market is changing. The recent explosion of AI-based technologies and platforms suggests that if a task can be codified, standardized, and interpreted consistently, then it may very well be ripe for AI-outsourcing. Years ago we knew this as “expert-system building” and when originally introduced it was something of a bust. But new advances in machine learning seem to be reducing that trend. So, it’s not just the line worker, the picker in the warehouse, the Hardee’s burger flipper, or the FedEx driver whose jobs are at stake. AI is already pushing on white collar territory: data analytics accomplished by the push of a button rather than a team of programmers ("computer centers" are already dead...), newspaper articles written by bots, sales and advertising streamlined by SalesForce, contracts drafted automatically by Thompson Reuters, portfolios managed by investment algorithms. Sure, there will almost surely always be people in the loop, but the point is there will be fewer of them. This is not the stuff of a science fiction future. It’s the stuff of a factual tomorrow.
So, given the right to learn, what to learn? This crisis at the intersection of work and education presents a terrifying prospect for all of society. How do we deal with changes happening here and now, but also prepare for the unknown later? Even when jobs were more certain, we often educated students for jobs that didn’t actually exist. Remember the waves of retiring professors that promised certain employment for PhD students? As our President-elect might say: “Wrong!” Sure, shortages in an industry are sometimes obvious, as with nursing or teaching. But it’s not obvious which specialties actually will be in demand, which will be eliminated by new technology or regulation, or which will become casual rather than permanent jobs. Ask a nurse about certifications some time, and prepare to be astounded by who can and can’t do various nursing jobs across our nation.
When it comes to long term goals, teaching to particular jobs is not enough. We need to be teaching fundamentals of learning and communicating - i.e., the skills to be a lifelong learner. This is hardly a new idea. The liberal arts curriculum was in part meant to be a hedge on the uncertainties of the job market. Originally intended to train citizens to assume their civic responsibilities (including military!), -- another piece of the vibrant society puzzle – , the point of liberal arts is to train people to be able to learn and communicate in whatever situation they find themselves. And it works. Those “soft skills” are robust to economic change and, as a study by LinkedIn of their user base shows, increasingly and highly represented in tech companies. Liberal-arts-educated does not mean tech-stupid or tech-afraid. In the best of cases it means broadly educated and open to ideas. Those are the skills that enable the connecting of ideas to new situations. To be sure, higher education still struggles to convince employers and potential students that such degrees are meaningful in the marketplace. But the increasing prevalence of thoughtful contexts for experiential learning, either in-class, on-site, or in partnerships, shows that higher education is responsive to these concerns. The best of liberal arts institutions are as agile as the minds they are producing.
We need to have more talk about where work is going and how to prepare for it. That’s a much larger and more complicated conversation. But we need to start having it now, and we should judge our leaders by how well they lead that conversation. We have a constitutional right to the “pursuit of happiness” and all the data suggest that this is clearly linked to the right to learn.