“What do you want to be when you grow up?” It’s a question we all ask our children. And while their answers are naive – astronauts, doctors and vets are particularly appealing to five-year-olds – it’s a curiously unhelpful exercise in an age when artificial intelligence (AI) has ushered in a host of new possibilities and challenges for the job market.
Parents have the unenviable role of trying to prepare their children for a world of work that is constantly in flux and for careers that may not even exist yet.
“When I was growing up there were only two careers that were made available to me,” says higher education specialist, Ronel Stevens, who has spent 17 years designing, implementing and evaluating programmes for more than 25 000 students in the global education, government and NGO sectors.
Speaking from the audience at a recent networking event hosted by Henley Business School Africa in Cape Town, Ronel said from her perspective as a mother, she is very aware of the need to guide her child to be the kind of person we need in the world today but that she does not really have a clear sense of how to do that.
It’s not always easy to guide this generation of digital natives who have their own ideas about what they want to do for the rest of their lives.
In his book, “Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us,” Daniel Pink talks about our deeply human need to direct our own lives.
Today’s youth are driven by autonomy, mastery and purpose. It’s something parents need to consider as they contemplate their children’s futures, he said.
“As a child, how can you possibly know what you want to be when you grow up? asks Dr Mzamo Masito, chief marketing officer at Google Africa, who was one of the panellists at the Henley Africa event.
“I fumbled my way into what I am doing now professionally.
“As a parent I’m a pragmatist. I explained to my kids which roles are more likely than others to become redundant in the next 15 years; which roles are likely to work in conjunction with technology but will never be replaced by it; and which roles might be replaced by AI altogether.
“I explained the law of supply and demand to them, in the hope that they would understand that if they choose a career that is in demand, they will never go hungry.”
The problem is that sometimes our children listen to our advice and sometimes they don’t.
“One of my children is studying computer science and the other one, despite me doing my best to nudge her towards robotics, opted for film, media and writing. I get it though because I didn’t listen to my parents’ advice either,” Masito said.
His response to his daughter’s career choice was to show her where the future of media is going, impressing upon her the need to learn complementary skills to augment her human capabilities and ensure that she remains relevant within her field.
“I explained to her that she could combine her media, film and writing studies with coding, design, imaging and robotics and that she would need to keep learning and evolving to keep pace with advances in tech and automation, because they are going to keep growing and advancing at a rapid rate,” Masito added.
You can’t force your children into what you believe the future holds because none of us have a crystal ball and we can’t predict the future, said fellow panellist Willem van der Post, early-stage tech investor and chair of Simple Capital and the Global Working Group.
“What we can do is encourage them to be curious and to learn beyond the confines of the classroom, because by the time they graduate the environment they have been prepared for might already have shifted,” he said.
According to the World Economic Forum Future of Jobs Report 2023, which explores how jobs and skills will evolve over the next five years, the fastest-growing roles are driven by technology, digitalisation and sustainability, and while these fields have opened up a new world of possibilities, there are still concerns about the impact technology could have on the job market.
“When I attended Davos in 2017, the metaphor most commonly used for AI was ‘The Terminator’, a scary all-powerful robot who starts a robot revolution,” said Stephane Kasriel, head of commerce and financial technologies at Meta, and former co-chair of the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Education, Gender and Work.
“By the following year the ‘Iron Man’ motif had replaced ‘The Terminator’, reflecting shifting attitudes about tech: from completely replacing humans to complementing, or augmenting their abilities and pushing innovation,” she said.
The truth is that past technological revolutions – from the motor vehicle to the ATM – have created more jobs than they destroyed,” Kasriel said.
“Technological progress grows exponentially, creating smarter and smarter machines, which require newer and newer skills. Plus, in the era of fast-paced technological and scientific breakthroughs the more we discover, the more we need to learn,” she said.
In an era where automation trumps routine tasks, the value of human skills like critical thinking, creativity, and emotional intelligence cannot be underestimated, and they can’t all be learnt in a classroom unless educators concentrate less on teaching, instead guiding their learners towards creative thinking, experimentation through immersive and application-based learning, said Vijay Rai, senior fellow at Portulans Institute.
The future isn’t inevitable, he said. “Throughout history, young people have embraced their agency in shaping the world around them by mobilising to create innovative solutions. The present generation is no exception.”