Engaging in some crystal ball gazing in 1930, in an essay titled “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren” John Maynard Keynes, the noted British economist whose work has transformed the theory and practice of macroeconomics and the economic policies of governments, argued “…We are being afflicted with a new disease –namely, technological unemployment. This means unemployment due to our discovery of means of economising the use of labour outrunning the pace at which we can find new uses for labour. But this is only a temporary phase of maladjustment. All this means in the long run that mankind is solving its economic problem.”
While Keynes’ uncanny prescience explains just how he won (and lost) fortunes on the stock market in his lifetime, the assumption of factor/resource scarcity that underpinned contemporary economic thought is today profoundly debatable.
The subject of how technology is going to transform the world of work has been extensively dealt with. It is now time for us to put our minds to the follow-up questions that are thrown up by this scenario: What should be the new mission of universities in this context? What are the levels of preparedness that coming generations will need to face the anticipated change? In what ways are our experiences as educators relevant or irrelevant to them? What are the qualities and temperamental attributes that they seem to already possess which we can identify and enhance?
Universities find themselves in an ironic situation today where they claim to invest in all manner of programs and activities to enhance “graduate employability” while simultaneously declaring that the future is highly uncertain. If we have accepted the premise of constant change, why not prepare students to cope with it over the long run instead? This could mean encouraging certain mindsets across the board or addressing location-specific attitudinal hurdles, as the case may be. Some key insights about the nature of work in the future include obsolescence of the permanent job, increase in remote assignments/work-from-home and more project-based work that involves cross-border mobility.
Today’s educators are likely to have grown up in a world that stood in stark contrast to this emerging reality. In my view, the real value addition we can make in higher education is to equip students with the right attitude and spiritual wherewithal that would set them up to succeed no matter what the future holds (possibly starting with redefining “success” itself). Universities have tended to view their responsibility to students as being limited to helping them adjust to the economic transitions caused by forces of globalisation. However, it should be amply clear by now that there is a very real cultural and personal fallout of globalisation. For instance, as enticing as the idea of a globally mobile career sounds, it also means constant adjustment, losing friends and a prepared speech in response to the question: where is home? Being able to cope with such a work-life call for mental agility, spiritual awareness and a deep sense of rootedness in where one comes from. An unqualified celebration of the homogenization and inter-dependence fostered by globalisation, regrettably excludes the development of a strong sense of belonging somewhere, which is an indispensable component of psychological well-being. Psychological well-being, in turn, is vital to the make-up of the mental capital that we now agree will be the main contribution of humans to the knowledge society.
As an educator in India, I would like to see universities focus on two important challenges specific to our context. It is hard to imagine an Indian university graduate who, while trying to launch her/his startup or make it as an ethical hacker, is quite happy to drive an uber or deliver lunches. This is because our university system does not inculcate respect for the dignity of labour; au contraire, the express purpose of getting a degree for most people is to never have to do “lower-end” jobs. The second alarming development is that generations of young Indians are invested in the idea that their future security is guaranteed by reservation in public education and employment in a situation where privatisation and automation are rapidly taking over. We need to explain to these youths that the fact that you can download land title records from a local government portal or file a complaint on a Police department website with astonishing ease, means that people are no longer needed to perform these jobs.
There is much else that students can gain from our experiences – determination, facing rejection, accepting criticism. There are other ways in which our experiences could be unrelatable at best, and potentially misleading for them. When I completed my higher studies, I promptly went and got a job and haven’t missed a utility bill or an EMI since. Today, talking to my students, I discover that “Adulting” is apparently optional. It is these conversations which reassure me – perhaps they really are prepared to face the future and we should just listen and learn.