A View from the Hill – January 2019

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Creativity and Emotional Intelligence will determine success in the 21st century

The job of futureproofing children begins where we all begin: in the womb.

The Oxford anthropologist Anna Machin has surveyed parental bonds around the world, both in humans and in other species. She has made what at first sight seems to be a curious discovery: that a secure, loving relationship between parents and children allows offspring to wander away, to become independent. True emotional attachment, oddly, allows children to detach themselves earlier, to be autonomous, creative individuals. In extreme cases, where such bonds are combined with exposure to risk, toddlers of just three and four can seem almost preternaturally assured and mature – an effect Machin has noticed among children in Congolese tribes who are allowed to play with fire and knives from an early age.

The appetite for risk in Surrey may not quite be up to Congolese standards. But for experts in the field, ‘resilience’ is the word that crops up most often. In order to face the wildly uncertain future, children will need not just academic qualifications but above all emotional and mental flexibility and resilience. And the best way to foster that, Machin says, is for parents to work hard, and consciously, on the bond with their child, as soon as possible, even if it feels strange. “The safer your child feels at home, the more confidence and self-esteem they will have to go out and face the world. If they feel secure, strongly tethered, it allows them to sail out into the storm, knowing they can pull back into port if they begin to sink.”

Once that bond is established, it’s time to start working on how your children learn. The psychologist Tali Sharot, mother to two small children, now three and five, conducted an interesting experiment on one of her own children. She placed a range of objects in front of her daughter when she was only a few months old. Of these objects, the baby reached repeatedly for the iPhone. Yet she had no way to activate the phone, no use for it, no understanding of what it did. So why go for that? Sharot concluded that it was because the baby noted the importance of this device to her mother and instinctively deduced that it would also be valuable to her. “If you want to improve your child, then work on yourself,” says Sonia Livingstone, Professor of Social Psychology at the LSE and author of Parenting for a Digital Future. “You are the big example. From healthy lifestyle to which way you vote, parents are the single biggest explanation of our children’s behaviour.”

Early years, Sharot insists, are the time to focus not on specific skills but on traits. “With grit and optimism you are more likely to succeed wherever you are,” she says. “Emphasising these things is something you see in the best schools.”

All this is part of the “EQ not IQ” movement – a recognition that as machines and computers are increasingly able to perform rational, repeatable elements of our work – skilled and unskilled, from data entry to medical diagnosis – it is creativity and emotional intelligence that will set human beings apart. When parents talk of “tomorrow’s core skills” and inevitably mention STEM, or coding, or fluency in Mandarin, what they should really be thinking about, from a very young age, is adaptability and resilience. “That’s where the emphasis in education increasingly is now – or should be,” says Sharot.

Cut the cord, embrace the future

For middle class parents, willing and able to leverage advantage to plot and micromanage children’s routes to success – the importance of resilience ought to serve as something of a warning. We have to stop doing everything for them: stop the endless stimuli so they are never bored and never have to work out what to do next for themselves; stop hovering so they never graze their knees if they fall; resist the urge to leap in and guide them to the right answers. Instead let them play games of their own devising, let them fail, and let them fail repeatedly.

The improbability of this is that the focus on generically human traits like grit and optimism comes at a time when the world is becoming ever more specific, more personalised. In the future, the main role of teachers could well be to help children find their own bespoke methods of learning. Their jobs will not be the pure transmission of facts, that is almost certain. We already live in a world where each of us carries the world’s knowledge in our pockets, on our internet-enabled smartphones. That wealth of knowledge, accessible as never before, will only grow richer, more available.

“Technology, whether through holograms or virtual reality (VR), will create new opportunities for teachers and lecturers really to discuss what the science means or what relevance history has for the future, and help develop those higher-level cognitive skills,” says Julie Mercer, Head of education research at Deloitte. “We are moving from a world of simple teaching to a world of exploring.”

It is this combination – of generic human traits with specific computer-led insights, of rich human emotional intelligence with dry digital data-crunching intelligence – that points the way to preparing our children for what comes next. Homo sapiens owned the past. Robots may eventually own the future, or at least run so much of it that humans are liberated from the conventional ‘9-5’ routine. For the next few decades, we will work together. “The smart money is on human-AI partnership,” says Ian Pearson, a former engineer who turned his talent for analysing how systems plug together to become a “futurologist”, focusing on the interaction between social and technological trends. “In the short and medium term there’s a big advantage in being human,” he says. “From nursing to policing, from teaching to HR, in every aspect of business leadership, you now have to have good personal and emotional skills to bond with and lead other people.”

Those skills will come to dominate as AI levels the playing field on the IQ side. As research from Google – a company which initially hired only brilliant computer scientists – revealed in January this year, the seven top characteristics of its most successful employees were soft skills: coaching, listening well, making connections with others to solve complex problems. Raw STEM ability (in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) came last.

The figures are dramatic. Deloitte recently analysed more than 350 careers, and found that the number of jobs available in 160 of them is declining. In the 205 where job numbers were found to be increasing, it noted “softer, transferable skills are more prominent. Occupations requiring a higher level of skills such as active listening, complex problem solving and the ability to exercise judgement have seen a net increase of 1.9m jobs between 2001 and 2016.

These skills are only going to become more important as AI and robotics become rooted in the workplace. “The world of automation will not be bad, it will mean the liberation from routine,” says Mark Minevich, who advises both the UN and the US Council on Competitiveness on the impact of AI. “We will see greater productivity. Greater wealth.”

So while it is easy to take fright at a PWC report that suggests more than a third of jobs in the UK are at “high risk” of automation by the early 2030s, we should draw comfort from the fact that, in a survey by the computer manufacturer Dell, business leaders predicted that 85 percent of the jobs students today will be doing in the 2030s don’t yet exist. It’s easy to mourn the loss of what we know; harder to celebrate the arrival of what we don’t. But it is coming. “By 2030,” the Dell report concludes, “in-the-moment learning will become the modus operandi, and the ability to gain new knowledge will be valued higher than the knowledge people already have.”

Prepare for the unknown

As technology marches forward, the established phases of human life – education, higher education, career, retirement – are likely to blend and merge. That will be exciting, and also unsettling. Instead of a career for life, those in school now are predicted to have had 10 different jobs by the time they are 40. Chances are they’ll be freelancers, picking up tasks outsourced by companies across the globe, managing their own financial affairs beyond the safety blanket of the monthly salary.

We cannot see around the corner. We cannot predict with certainty how the world will turn out. Still, the indicators are powerful: there will be jobs for our children. The ever-stronger partnership between man and machine will lead to better jobs, shorn of dull routine – and in the same breath, less routine will mean more uncertainty. 

The fundamental role of parents today is to prepare our children for that uncertainty. To foster in them the drive and resilience – mental and physical – for a world in which bespoke solutions to boost their talents will exist, if only they are persistent enough to seek them out.

It used to be easy. People knew what the markers of success looked like: A-Levels, a university degree and an establishment profession. Now the markers are very different – and the greatest challenge for parents who grew up under the old system may be to believe and accept that. If the old ways are disappearing, though, the new are not baffling. They are driven by technology and complexity, but they are not technological and complex. Quite the opposite. To prosper in the new age our children must not behave like robots. They must not learn like robots. Not work like robots. The real robots will do all that.

In order to prosper in the new age, nothing will be more important than being human – with creativity and emotional intelligence as the key determinants for success.

N.B. This blog is adapted from an original article by Harry de Quetteville in the Sunday Telegraph.

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