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No experience necessary, just polymathematics

I don’t generally agree with Thomas Friedman, but he has the sense to talk to people who are smarter than he is, like Tony Wagner, and even when Friedman comes up with the wrong result, he explores difficult issues and raises useful conjectures.

In a piece for the Sunday NY Times called Need a Job? Invent it, Friedman condenses some of Tony Wagner’s ‘Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World’ in which Wagner makes the case that our schools are not teaching what kids will need to make their way in the near future. And Friedman observes,

This is dangerous at a time when there is increasingly no such thing as a high-wage, middle-skilled job — the thing that sustained the middle class in the last generation. Now there is only a high-wage, high-skilled job. Every middle-class job today is being pulled up, out or down faster than ever. That is, it either requires more skill or can be done by more people around the world or is being buried — made obsolete — faster than ever. Which is why the goal of education today, argues Wagner, should not be to make every child “college ready” but “innovation ready” — ready to add value to whatever they do.

I recently wrote about research from the Federal Reserve of New York, which shows that over the past  30 years, the number of workers employed involved in routine occupations — following explicit instructions and obeying well-defined rules — has dropped by 20%, matched almost exactly by the  growth of nonroutine work, which flexibility, creativity, and problem solving.

The researchers also looked at the split of cognitive work, and the decrease of manual work:

So, these views gibe pretty well. And looking ahead, and extrapolating from the diverging lines in the chart, we can expect nonroutine, cognitive work — already the leading sector of jobs — to continue to grow, so that by 2025, when many primary and secondary school children will presumably part of the workforce, 75% or more of jobs will be nonroutine, and the majority of the work will be cognitive.

Tony Wagner’s response to Friedman’s ‘innovation ready’ statement?

Today, because knowledge is available on every Internet-connected device, what you know matters far less than what you can do with what you know. The capacity to innovate — the ability to solve problems creatively or bring new possibilities to life — and skills like critical thinking, communication and collaboration are far more important than academic knowledge. As one executive told me, ‘We can teach new hires the content, and we will have to because it continues to change, but we can’t teach them how to think — to ask the right questions — and to take initiative.’

My friend, Jacob Morgan, adds a wonderful observation to this discussion:

Experience used to the hot commodity to get a good job.  When I graduated from UCSC even the entry level jobs I was applying for were asking for 2-3 years of experience and these were basic jobs.  I was always candid during my interviews and told the people interviewing me that even though I may not know how to do something that I’m sure I could figure it out.  Experience, experience, experience, that’s all I would ever hear.

Today experience is no longer the primary commodity.  Things are changing and evolving so quickly that experience is becoming less and less relevant.  New jobs are emerging that didn’t exist a few years ago and so experience for them is irrelevant.

I will quibble a bit with Jacob, although I agree with his sentiment. By ‘experience’ he is referring to a history of working in the same role as a company might be hiring for. Obviously, in many complex fields — like brain surgery or rocket science — training in relevant science is essential. But if someone wants to apply, for example, ethnological thinking to product design (a hot field these days) it is not required to have spent time in a rain forest watching Yanomami tribespeople crafting blowguns. A brainy, self-motivated, polymath of the sort that Wagner and Friedman are hypothesizing could spend a month or so boning up on the core principles of ethnography, and track down some of the people actively involved in this new area of cross-pollination and pick their brains. And then, such a person might even be offered a job through her new network of ethnodesign contacts. (Note: I thought ethnodesign would be a good term for this fusion. It turns out to be in use already, although in scare quotes.)

So, businesses today and in the future will be hiring folks for their capacity to learn and inhabit the role they are hiring for. The role is becoming more of a hashtag, and less of a definition of scope or the implied resume of the person. It is no longer a slot that a person fills, and not really even an occupation to be occupied. Titles like ‘Product Ethnographer’, ‘Researcher’, or ‘Chief Digital Officer’ now feel more like map headings, indicating the realms we are exploring.

Wagner is dead on, of course, about the horrible mess of our schools, that focus completely on the wrong things — like standardized testing on narrowly defined subjects — and spend basically no time on the creativity and reasoning side of things. The recent surge of interest in Finnish schools — which are now considered one of the best, if not the best, school system in the world — may change our direction. Finland has, according to Anu Partanen, no standardized testing, less homework, and a high focus on creativity, but was actually trying to improve something else altogether: equality of educational opportunities. The system, incidentally, has no list of best schools or best teachers: it is massively uncompetitive, unlike the American educational norm.

It is pellucidly obvious that US educational policies are completely unsuited to the business world of today, and even less so for the world looming over the horizon. Perhaps our educational system is so divorced from reality that we won’t be able to fix it, and young people emerging from its corridors will find themselves totally unready. My hope is that we will come to our senses and invest the money and time needed to create the millions of polymaths needed for this brave new world.