Back to the future: ‘Old’ skills to sort digital world


With Italy set for national elections on March 4, Europe is again on edge, keeping a wary eye on the potential rise of populism and misinformation that could still threaten the continental union.

After elections in major European countries that returned centrist governments to power last year, Italy remains the missing piece. Now the third-largest economy in the EU after Britain’s withdrawal in 2016, its stability could be threatened by parties raging from the purely anti-establishment to far-right and anti-euro advocates.
Italian electric cars
According to news outlets from Italy and abroad, some websites have intentionally spread fake news to influence young voters.

But how to ensure an informed election remains an enormous challenge. Misinformation and social media could empower poorly qualified or unfit elected officials. Cutting through the contentious buzz remains a challenge.

Many see Donald Trump’s rise to U.S. president as a cautionary tale. Thought leaders across Europe want voters who can understand and sort information that is longer and more complex than a Twitter tweet. Knowing that unemployment and disaffection go hand-in-hand, they value an informed youth also well-prepared for the modern job market.

At a meeting in Rome last year, Europe’s leaders reaffirmed their commitment to a “union where young people receive the best education and training to find jobs across the continent”. Educators and political leaders alike see the overarching need for critical thinking and literacy, skills they see as crucial to professional development and life itself in the modern world.

Helping imbue youth with a range of ideas and exposure to other cultures has long been a goal of enlightened societies. Student exchange programs and even international pen-pal programs helped in the past. Today the options are more robust.

The Erasmus initiative in particular stands out, says Professor Francesco Profumo, former Italian Minister of Education. Started in 1987 as a six-year EU pilot project for university student exchange, it proved such a success that by 2013 it had matriculated 3 million students. A further 4 million are expected to enroll by 2020.

“It is proven that students who took part in the Erasmus program had less difficulty finding and keeping a job, even during the worst years of the great recession from 2008 to 2011,” he says. “The Erasmus model has also been adopted also by some high schools. In this case the results are very positive as well.”

But students who never get that far are at greatest risk. Early leavers from training and the low-educated youth face particularly severe problems in the labor market. According to statistics agency Eurostat, about 58 percent of 18 to 24 year olds in the EU with only lower secondary education and not in further education were unemployed in 2016.

Education also plays a crucial role in tackling the challenges of an aging population: Tomorrow’s workforce will face continued digitalization and possible retraining for needed skills. To help filter an increasing complex world, critical thinking and media literacy are needed in success at work, and perhaps more importantly, for life in general.

“Digital transformation produces strong and rapid changes in the working world, in distribution of employment and among professional profiles, not only in the manufacturing industry, but also in trade, communication, corporate services and services to individuals,” says Profumo.

“The challenge in education is enabling tomorrow’s citizens to enter productive systems and their constantly changing requirements.”

A new study by the Pearson education assessment service in partnership with Nesta and the Oxford Martin School examined the jobs and skills most likely to be in demand by 2030. The report suggests that in the face of automation, just one in 10 are “highly likely” to experience a rise in demand for their job.

“The report finds that work performance in its quantitative and qualitative aspects is not just a function of technological change, but is influenced by a set of variables such as environmental sustainability, urbanization, globalization, demographic change, increasing inequality and political uncertainty,” says Profumo. “Skills needed for success are changing, but 70 percent of the current employees may be able to boost their prospects if they can invest in the right skills.”

“The fastest-growing professions will not necessarily be only those in the high-tech sector. It is estimated that occupations related to hospitality and tourism, health, education, social sciences and the public sector are most likely to see a rise in demand,” he notes.

But in many ways it’s back to the future. “Old” skills are what’s needed to sort and evaluate an ever-more complicated workplace and world.

The study found high-order cognitive skills such as originality, fluency of ideas and active learning together with active listening, judgment and decision making to be crucial. Social skills are branded “the key to success as demand for uniquely human skills rises”.

“I think the future will require higher levels of education compared to the past for the types of jobs that don’t yet exist. We must prepare those kids,” he says. “My advice to them is to study, study and again study! Most likely, citizens will have to go back to school several times in life (it is said 5 times), a continuing education to stay up-to-date and prevent their knowledge and skills from becoming obsolete.”

But with some questionable political leaders appealing directly to regionalism and fear using social media, education and people-to-people exchanges might be most needed to help fight irrational populism and xenophobia.

“Education is the best antidote to populism and xenophobia. School is the place where tomorrow’s citizens are formed,” says Profumo. “For these reasons investment in education and training is a priority for our European countries. That’s the most profitable investment, not only immediately but certainly in the medium and long term.”

According to Eurostat, EU countries with the highest rates of public spending on education are Denmark (8.3 percent of GPD), followed by Sweden (7.7 percent) and Finland (7.2 percent). The lowest proportions were reported by Romania (2.8 percent), the Czech Republic (3.8 percent) and Luxembourg (4 percent).

A version of this story appeared in the Khaleej Times of Dubai.