The Innovation Unit has been commissioned by the Qatar Foundation to write a book looking at innovation at the interface between work and learning (Learning a Living). When I joined the team writing this book, I had little idea as to the scale of the challenge facing the world’s education systems. The world of work is changing and the skills needed to be successful in this new world are completely different to those the current system is equipped to teach. As a fairly recent graduate (2010), I have first hand experience of the difficulties facing those young people coming out of university, into a world of limited opportunities and intense competition.
I am a member of what sociologists have come to refer to as Generation Y. Born in the 80’s and educated under New Labour, my generation is highly ambitious. Our baby-boomer parents encouraged us to aspire to lives and careers more lucrative, more prestigious and more fulfilling than their own. Tony Blair encouraged us to believe that university attendance was our ticket to the ball game; that a stable, well-paid and rewarding career lay just the other side of graduation.
What our parents didn’t realise was that the education system on which they pinned their hopes for us was built for a very different world, one in which basic skills such as memorisation and reproduction of knowledge were valued above all. The world in which Generation Y finds itself (particularly in the West) is dominated by knowledge-intensive, highly sophisticated, service-based industries in which the value of an employee is not defined by his ability to perform tasks and regurgitate knowledge, but on his ability to apply this knowledge in creative ways to solve increasingly complex problems.
At the same time the competitive pressures of globalisation are driving companies to pursue ever greater efficiency, resulting in the blurring of traditional boundaries between work and life, geographic locations and different levels of management. Organisations are using the latest technologies to encourage highly collaborative, highly flexible patterns of work based on the formation of dynamic teams to tackle particular problems (often referred to as Swarming).
Generation Y is well-equipped to take on the new world of knowledge intensive, flexible employment. Having grown up with the internet, ubiquitous advertising and sophisticated branding, Generation Y is well-used to processing large amounts of information and switching focus at a moment's notice. But the education system through which my generation has passed has failed to exploit this potential, doing everything in its power to preserve the traditional approach to learning, focusing on the development of out-dated skills.
Youth unemployment is at record highs (75 million globally). Over the next decade 600 million new jobs will be needed to absorb the 40 million new entrants into the labour market each year, and to clear the backlog of 200 million currently unemployed. The result is a generation of young people poorly equipped for the world in which they find themselves, facing incredibly high levels of competition, yet with aspirations to better the achievements of their parents.
But young people are not without support. My work on Learning a Living has opened my eyes to the potential of new approaches that equip people with the skills necessary to be successful in the 21st century. Some of the innovations highlighted in the book are truly inspiring examples of what can be achieved with a little creativity and a great deal of determination. But these are the outliers.
Despite the good intensions of policy makers and educational providers the world over, many education systems are failing to live up to the example set by the innovators in Learning a Living. I am one of the lucky ones, afforded the time and freedom to take on a series of unpaid internships, providing me with the skills I needed to get a paid position here at the Innovation Unit. For those of my generation who can’t afford to work for free, and for those that feel like they have to, the education system has a lot to answer for.