This article foresees a future where the current schools’ core curriculum becomes obsolete in the face of an exponential growth of new technology, and the new skills required by individuals to thrive in a post fossil fuel economy.
It emphasises the need to give equal weight to the creative subjects as a driver of innovation, and environmental studies to understand the challenges of the climate emergency and see through the greenwashing of the vested interest groups who would maintain ‘business as usual’.
“There can be no greater measure of a society’s sustainability than the investments it makes in the wellbeing of its children.”Catherine Russell (UNICEF)
We talk about stranded assets when talking of the future of fossil fuels…
But what could be more important an asset, and one potentially more stranded, than our children who will grow up in a world devastated to a greater or lesser degree by our addiction to fossil fuels and the cult of extractive growth?
The world is changing very quickly. We are living in exponential times and we’re seeing rapid displacement of job sectors across the world. The need to re-skill people is now paramount.
The amount of new technical information is doubling every two years. For students starting a technical degree today, much of what they learn in their first year is likely to be outdated by their final year of study, and many of the jobs that today’s school students are being prepped for will not exist when they come to graduate. They will have gone the way of the lamplighters and the talking clock.
The fourth industrial revolution
The fourth industrial revolution is bringing us developments that will transform the way we live and the way we work. Jobs that don’t exist today will become mainstream.
Jobs in retrofitting and renewable power technology will take over from those in the dying fossil fuel sector and renewable companies will require a subset of skills in a range of competencies – marketing, sales, IT, architecture, surveying, the law and so on. Jobs in advanced robotics, autonomous transport; artificial intelligence, machine learning, biotechnology and genomics will become the cutting edge. And expanded career possibilities in food sciences – nutritionists food techs, arborealists, botanists etc – as we green our agricultural practices.
The UK Government aspires to deliver two million ‘green-collar’ jobs by 2030 and is aiming to create these roles, in collaboration with the private sector, in alignment with its commitment to ‘level up’ regions. Indeed, if the UK remains on its current track, we will see a five-fold increase in the level of solar panel installation, a 20-fold increase in the number of heat pumps, and the Construction Industry Training Board estimates 30,000 new jobs will be required per year to support retrofitting. The National grid has also suggested there could be some 400,000 energy related jobs.
And, if society can get its priorities right, nurses, doctors, electricians, plumbers, farmers – the occupations of regeneration – will be championed and remunerated above those which serve only the vested interest groups that place profit over people.
Skills for the future?
So, what skills do we need to give our children for the future? What skills will best serve climate mitigation and ensure that we transition to a low carbon regenerative society?
When universal education was introduced in England and Wales in 1870, it was largely due to pressure from industrialists looking to create a better skilled and educated workforce to maintain the country’s technological cutting edge. Unfortunately, that patrician aspiration has been superseded by successive governments who have disparaged and side-lined the creative subjects and those that promote divergent thinking skills.
According to the World Economic Forum (WEF) report The Future of Jobs, the key to future success both for our children and for the planet, is having a set of ‘innovation skills’. They highlight complex problem solving; creativity which encompasses cognitive flexibility; the capacity to collaborate… and to look to ‘service’ as the noblest of aspirations.
Despite this the Government continues to disparage and defund the creative subjects at all levels of education. In 2021, the UK Government approved a 50% funding cut for 13 subjects with divergent rather that convergent learning objectives, including art, design, music, drama, dance and media studies with the money redirected towards the STEM subjects so beloved of Rishi Sunak.
Both Sunak and the Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, have expressed a desire, for the future of the nation’s economy, to make the UK home to the “world’s next Silicon Valley.” What they have failed to register is that innovation requires creativity.
Indeed, Steve Jobs of Apple Mackintosh has opined: “Part of what made the Macintosh great was that the people working on it were musicians, poets, and artists, and zoologists, and historians.”
The WEF also emphasise the need for critical thinking skills and emotional intelligence: giving students the critical skills to see through the greenwashing and propaganda of forces currently working against their interests and recognise that a future based on extractive growth is a dead end. Literally seeing the wood for the trees.
A current government survey finds that some 85% of the population are concerned about climate. Of course, for those for whom the century rolls out before them, the concern is higher. However, the suggestion that they could mitigate their future working in a career that would be part of the solution was not touched upon.
In her influential book, Doughnut Economics, Kate Raworth argues that a new educational model is vital to meet the needs of a post-industrial era.
Only through such a model can we assure the next generation that they can have a future as contributors to sustainable growth, where investment in activities which kill our planetary home – whether fossil fuel extraction or agents of biodiversity loss – is directed towards activities that add to our wellbeing. And only through giving them a voice and agency can we hope to mitigate the despair inertia which plagues their generation.
In 2021, UNESCO said that environmental studies should be at the core of the curriculum in all schools by 2025. As Lorenzo Fioramonti, UNESCO associate and former education minister in Italy, said: “Without faster progress on education there will be no chance of achieving the goal of net zero emissions by 2050.” In the UK, the Labour Party recently presented a bill to introduce ‘sustainable citizenship education’ in schools from 2023 and the aspirations of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to promote an education system around a circular economy is gaining traction. I would suggest that this initiative should begin in kindergarten.
A post growth society
But these initiatives require a radical reframing of the assumptions of capitalism. Growth needs to be measured in terms of net domestic product rather than GDP. Success should be measured in happiness and health, not acquisition. The romantic and Thatcherite ideal of the primacy of the individual is a lonely one: adaptation needs not be retrogressive.
By all indicators, Millennials and Generation Z are individually ahead of the game, whether avoiding fast fashion or changing their diets. It is up to our educators to smooth their passage addressing the grander narrative of culture change.
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