There is much talk these days about what the ‘skills of the future’ may be. Whether it’s learning to code like a desk-bound jedi, incorporating the latest business jargon into your lingo, or just being able to zip between the shifting pillars of technology-driven reality. Very little remains the same, and the rate of change is faster than ever before.
So yes, the future will demand skills, but it is crucially about what kind of world we want to live in too.
Where are all the jobs of the future going to come from, on a planet of 8.5 billion by 2030? By then the jobs market around the world may be even more globalised, with possibility that technology is no longer creating more jobs than it destroys.
Most job advice rests on a rosy picture of unfettered merry upward global economic growth. Sure some of it gives a nod towards the jobs market contracting, but maintains that it will balance itself out over time.
With growth rates beginning to stagnate over a longer period in the West, particularly in Europe – what skills will be marketable if it all seriously contracts, or blows up in a global financial meltdown? The ground is shifting quickly and the meaning of work, social values, and social structures will all change.
Such scenarios are not generally in the lived memory of people in their thirties like me, but many examples sit within only two generations of us on smaller and larger scales.
Most isolated talk about skills is bullshit (not excepting myself) anyway because very few people have a clue what is actually going to happen beyond dinner today, and if if they tell you otherwise, are kidding themselves or likely looking to gain something (watch out or I’ll take your money).
The fact is the global financial system, and much of the world’s economy, sophisticated as it is – relies in first principles on digging stuff, burning it, and selling the polished results. The global economy is at its core linear; known inputs, work, and output, including waste. In a distinctly non linear, and finite-resource world in which its also non-linear inhabitants possess so much knowledge, these fundamental principles of economic operation are at best infantile, especially over the longer term.
At current scale, they are also unfortunately world destroying. Local, smart, and sustainable is key.
Moving Laterally, Backwards and Across on the Skills Chart
Take preppers – those people busy preparing for potential national and international disasters. They are learning to grow their own food, build houses, and generally fix, mend, or trade for what they need locally. I admire this.
Ok so not all are preppers – the true preppers are probably buying hunting rifles, fortifying their homes, and ensuring they can fully provide for themselves in a sustainable way. Not to mention learning that crossbows are no use in a zombie-apocalypse and sizing up their neighbours to see who might make a useful ally should things get real in short order.
There are a lot of skills to be learned from that line of thinking. Basically living a locally resilient, laterally-creative, independent way as people have done for thousands of years. Interestingly this is referred to as a ‘growing trend’. It’s not actually a trend, it’s life as it has been lived for thousands of years.
In the transition to a more circular global economy, I think core survivalist skills will come to the fore, in way that they have not been in the post World War 2 march to industrialisation. If we don’t transition to a circular economy and invariably end up doing even more enormous damage to the planet, such skills will be increasingly vital. This actually involves reconnecting with older wisdoms whilst at the same time not forsaking the real hard-won gains of modern society.
We are always looking forward to the next solution though, the next piece of progress. If progress is continually removed from the very real context of our current planetary dilema, not to mention ever-sharpening regional disputes, we or future generations may very well be its victims.
For me an integrative and broad approach to simplicity and consumption lies at the heart of this – and that involves distinguishing the sense from the nonsense. Seeking to be a well-rounded, reasonably independent, and resourceful human in place of a narrow-minded agenda pushing shit peddler seems central to this. I hope you agree.
Economic Circles Mean Less Work
The transition to a circular economy is as good a way forward as I’ve heard – it will require many new skills, including the ability to adapt to a world in which there will potentially be less work available. In fact, if work is something most of us presumably could do with less of, then how come there is always more of it created? Work expands to fill the time available and all that.
People today work just as hard, if not harder, than they did thirty years ago, often for proportionately less money. Leaving aside theories of puppet-master illuminati pulling the proverbial strings along which we merrily dance, it always strikes me as strange that no clear path has really been outlined for people to in fact, work less. If efficiency is going up, the maths should be reducing the work input required right? Yes, but it depends.
As long as the predominant view held of the individual is a competitive, ego-centric, mé-féiner, and social structures reinforce this, serious consideration will never be given to the potential to end the need to work the way we do today because everyone’s in competition all the time. The general ‘we’ will always be too busy scrambling over the pieces of the survival puzzle. The efficiencies being wrung out of economies at the moment generally squeezes more money upwards, right out of the tube. In a circular economy there is enormous potential to balance things differently in favour of life, not work.
For less of the unwanted kind work it to be feasible – and I believe it can be – wealth will have to be redistributed on a massive scale. The top 0.1% simply do not have a right, legal, moral, or natural, to almost the same wealth as the bottom 90%, in America or anywhere else.
Sharing is a skill too, let’s have more of that.
The Paradox of Choice
Tensions between devoting time to a broader pursuit of interests and skills, or focusing on a specialised career paths are already evident in the highly structured society of the West and will become even more so. Practically speaking, it may be possible to do anything you want, but not everything. Is presenting a skills choice like that even the right question? Assuming the question is correct, doing one, both, or neither is certainly an option for many people living in the West, at the moment.
The increased specialisation of the different choices in life really is an interesting feature of modern society though. Yes, there is lots of choice, but the time necessary to start over in another area is often much larger than anticipated as the distance between specialisations grows. I know this because I am a bit of a sampler by nature. It can cause quite a bit of anxiety. It’s taken some time to actually recognise this bit of a manic streak in myself and understand my relationship to it. Even knowing that there was an ‘it’ really.
Perhaps the paradox of choice is one of the great misunderstood themes of our time.
Having lots of choice is not something most of us who have it would roll back on. Those of us that have it in our societies are very lucky, and should understand why those who do not have it, or other things we take for granted, would wish to sample some of the same also. My outlook on these things is distinctly Western of course – I am afforded the luxury of thinking about the meaning of choice in this way whilst refugees die crossing the Mediterranean every day in pursuit of a sliver of Western freedoms.
Trite a truth may be but false it is not.
Where do we go from here? Look around the world today. Most of us have a well-defined picture of what may be right or wrong in our lives and even the world at large. There is a kind of disconnect between the reality of the direction we as a species are taking, and the reality of nature itself. Nature is slow, circular, and ultimately restorative. We are its troubled, gifted protéges who have figured out how to use the gifts but haven’t fully integrated complext consequence with the origin of actions yet. The marriage of nuclear weapons and North Korea being a case in point.
“An individual can disconnect from all that’s cooperative, meaningful, and loving and still survive, but nations don’t have that luxury. Unless we learn how to overcome all the ways we’ve fragmented the human race, nationally, religiously, economically, or whatever, we are going to continue to find ourselves in a position where we can accidentally destroy the whole picture.” -Montague Ullman
Consider the current state of affairs on the planet. The key skills needed are actually not technological, or dictated by market forces. The last thing we need is more advances across the board, especially if the effect of our collective attitude to the planet and management of various social messes remains the same. What are we advancing towards, and why? No one has a clue. Not that anyone really has ever had a clue, but now it is all our collective future in the chips on the table.
The blinkered relationship to progress has been put on steroids by the techological frenzy of the last 30 years. What seems ‘normal’ to people of my generation and younger, is in fact anything but. It is completely extraordinary. The fact is, if competition, greed, inequality, and societal conditioning could be replaced as dominant values by common sense, relatedness, morality, compassion, and connection to nature the required survival skillset would be very different.
Technology could be used as the great balancer. Of course it is possible to point to it being the great balancer today, as it is equally possible to point to it being a great unbalancer. It depends what data set you are analysing, and what it is being compared to.
What skills are necessary to enjoy greater levels of common sense, relatedness, morality, compassion, connection, and natural wealth? Should such skills be prioritised, as they would surely help secure the future? It’s a kind of deception – the skills needed are integrative and lateral, not linear. In many ways, they are qualities, not skills. And they involve a reprioritisation.
Joy and Beauty
Joy is probably the optimal functioning condition in which to carry out the business of living life. Cultivating it within ourselves is the single most important thing anyone can do, for if it can be found in us, it spreads to others. It’s free, low cost, low maintence, rewarding, sustaining.
Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy – W.B. Yeats
Beauty is related to this too. Beauty is fundamentally about our relationship with the world and how we see things. It goes far beyond aesthetics, into the meaning of things, the purpose of living, the worth of the non-material. It is something that we all share a common recognition of with no training, understanding, or reasoning. An expansion of beauty within the individual, expressed in joy and that person’s relationship with the world is a manifestation of a kind of progress that is real, and underappreciated in a society build around structure, methodology, and sometimes, reason without context.
I’m not a proponent of New-Age flower waving hugginess, and that’s not what I am getting at either. If we continue to try to measure wealth and wellbeing through GDP and other metrics, and skilling ourselves along lines designed solely to keep it humming along, it flatters us into thinking things are going well while we are destroying our long-term future.
The relative trickle of refugees into Europe became a flood very quickly in recent times. Their search for basic human rights, opportunity, and dignity is borne from the scarcity of these things in their home lands. The scale of the flood was predictable, and to a large degree unheeded in its potential, even as the storm gathered. They are under no impression that things are going well.
To the extent our collective assault on the natural environment resembles oppressive regimes’ treatment of their own people, it would be hard to argue that similar dark clouds exist over the rivers, forests, and the shared heritage of all our co-habitants on earth. The rest of nature must see us like the armies of Mordor; the bloody orcs. It will be hard to argue at the reckoning that we didn’t see ourselves coming either.
What is the response? Logic and sense tells us to preserve the environment, but they are not enough. The collective sharpening of our sense of beauty is a part of it. If it is something we all share, but experience individually, and it can grow momentarily and massively in those moments on top of a mountain, or looking out into the ocean, or with your kids, or wherever, it can grow elsewhere too. In the everyday and in response to its need in the everyday.
The flight from the cold, segmented, materialistic worldview towards one that is directly and incontrovertibly integrative of beauty, love, and joy may happen faster than we realise, in direct proportion to its need. It is a potential wave of change as real as the industrial revolution, or the sweep of the information age. It’s among us now, who knows.
There was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not across the Bay, then up the Golden Gate or down 101 to Los Altos or La Honda. . . . You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning. . . .
And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. . . .
So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.” – Hunter S.Thompson
Watch out for the next wave, because the alternatives are pretty grim. Oh, and learn Chinese.