If we’re to thrive in an automated world we need to re-think our education. Jobs and the required skills will be different in the future – and that future is closer than we may think. With the growth of AI, automation and robotics, we need to acknowledge the shift to a graduate workforce; expand access to relevant education by opening up underused facilities and bringing business on board; abolish student debt and tuition fees; and pay (re)training and education salaries.

We must ensure that advances in AI and automation are harnessed to unleash individual potential and enable a very human future. By waiting too long to address the issues and shift our approach to education, we could find that we are simply too far behind to ever catch up. Now is the time to consider the options and opportunities and ensure that we, our children, and our children’s children are all in a position to make the most of them.

We’re in the middle of a crucial debate about the potential impact of artificial intelligence (AI) and automation on specific tasks, roles, jobs, employment and incomes. It shows no signs of slowing, and we are being presented with a range of predictions, from the doom-laden spectre of mass unemployment to the exhilarating challenge of creating a wave of jobs, some of them entirely new. This debate is clearly of great significance to anyone involved in education, since it raises questions about the skills and knowledge our young people may need to navigate a very different future, questions of both a policy and a practical nature.

At present the world is legitimately clueless about five key factors. 1) How far and how deep these new technologies will actually penetrate over the next five to twenty years. 2) The scale of opportunities that will be generated in the new sectors and businesses that might emerge. 3) How the nature of work, roles, jobs and workplaces may evolve over time. 4) How governments, businesses, educators and individuals might respond and the innovative solutions that may emerge. 5) What the net impact might be on employment and the economic prospects for today’s children and young people.

"We need to think the unthinkable."

We need to think the unthinkable. This means considering how to go about preparing the current workforce and the next generation for an uncertain future; creating new jobs and businesses; supporting the unemployed in a fair and dignified manner that positively assists their search for opportunities; and funding the transitions from this economy to future ones.

The key to all of this is education. It’s becoming abundantly clear that at the national, business and individual level, what will determine our ability to survive and thrive in a rapidly evolving landscape are our levels of education and big picture awareness. Our capacity to navigate a turbulent landscape will be driven by a number of factors: our understanding of how the world is changing; our digital literacy; our capacity to think, reason and solve problems; our ability to learn new skills and approaches quickly; and our mastery of life skills such as collaboration, scenario thinking, coping with uncertainty and handling complexity.

We need to help our young people to develop these skills and prepare them to move from role to role in a world where job tenures are shortening and lifespans could continue to increase. They will also help a new generation to start their own businesses and take greater responsibility for their own livelihoods. This is something that could become an increasing priority as medium to large organisations reduce their workforces as a result of competitive pressures and automation. We can see an increasing pressure on small to medium enterprises to provide the bulk of employment across the economy, which will even affect future careers in large organisations. Here are some of the key policy experiments we are advocating.

"Automation seems highly likely to reduce the number of lower and mid-level skilled jobs."

It is now common for business executives to attend immersive study tours to meet new ventures in emerging sectors, or to spend one or two weeks taking part in transformative courses at institutions like Singularity University. These are designed to accelerate “mindset change” in organisations, by providing a crash course in the ideas shaping the future and the technologies that might deliver them. A similar, lower cost, society wide option would be to create a range of such programmes ranging in length from a weekend to a month. They would combine business visits, lectures and projects, and discussions with innovators, change agents and entrepreneurs.

The programmes would be aimed at those in work, the unemployed, students, parents, teachers and those who realise their business has to change. The faculty could be drawn from business, academia and those in the local community who are retired or unemployed, but have a desire to serve and grow at the same time.

Automation seems highly likely to reduce the number of lower and mid-level skilled jobs in the economy. We can see a scenario where, within five to ten years, 80 per cent of the new jobs created will require graduate level education or equivalent. This means a cornerstone of any employment policy has to be to ensure we are readjusting the skills and knowledge base in the country at every level.

In particular, this means encouraging and incentivising adults to enter into continuing education while still in employment. Equally it means confidence building programmes for the unemployed, basic literacy support for those who have been left behind, and a massive expansion of access schemes to allow those with few or no formal qualifications to transition into higher education.

Funding will always be an issue, but the cost of inaction and a poorly educated workforce could far outweigh a large-scale expansion in provision. This could be delivered in innovative ways by, for instance, encouraging firms to sponsor local education programmes either through direct funding, providing tutors, or allowing the use of their meeting and training room facilities during the day, in the evenings, and at weekends.

"A government funded salary could be payable during a training programme."

Vacant facilities in schools, colleges, and universities could also be used in the same way. A key part of the learning agenda here would be to take people into the new and emerging businesses to help them understand the changing nature of work and workplaces and learn about the skills they require now and in the emerging future.

Support systems could be provided for communities to self-organise education and skills programmes, sourcing tutors locally, and using attendee ratings and feedback to determine who best serves the needs of local communities. Clearly, pump priming might be required for areas where no such local tutoring talent exists, but the key is to try a range of experiments, share the experiences, and scale the best practice models for different types and sizes of local communities.

In the UK, students are typically finishing higher education with debts ranging from £30,000 to £60,000 and, in many cases, with poor job prospects and relatively low morale. This is the very group that needs to be inspired to create new ideas, services and businesses for a changing world. Hence, a cancellation of student debt and individually paid tuition fees might help to make it more attractive to go into higher education, especially if meaningful student grants were reintroduced.

For those who are made redundant or struggling to find work in their current sector, an option might be to retrain for a new career or in a different sector. Here, a government funded salary could be payable for the duration of a training programme or degree course. To help deliver on such retraining requirements, new salaried models of vocational training could be developed by evolving existing professional bodies and creating new ones. Their primary purpose would be to help to develop the skills and personal competencies required for the new world of work. These programmes would combine work specific training, workplace placements, and the development of general work, business and social skills. A training salary would be paid throughout the retraining period to take away the associated stress of taking time out to learn new skills.

Finally, continuing professional development might have to become compulsory or be incentivised through the tax system to encourage individuals to keep acquiring skills to help them move from job to job. Alongside preparing young people, reskilling the nation’s adults and changing mindsets, a parallel process is required to help stimulate new jobs and the businesses and industry sectors that will provide them.

These are some of the many ideas we have been exploring for how to address the challenges presented by a world that is in transition. You won’t be surprised to learn that there are no answers at present. However, there are ideas that warrant investigation and experimentation. We need bold leadership to take these ideas and launch experiments to see how we can educate young people, reskill society and create new job opportunities for the future.