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Only 60 percent of young adults worldwide agree their formal education is useful in their current jobs. Even fewer (42 percent) think their education prepared them for what to expect from working life — and nearly three out of four agreed they had to learn new skills when they started their job.

Those are some of the thought provoking finds from new research by Infosys, a Bengaluru, India-based business-consulting firm led by former SAP executive Vishal Sikka.

It's eye opening not only for young adults weighing the merits of formal education, but for every manager directly or indirectly struggling to fill job vacancies.

And it raises some important questions about the economic value of higher education in general, especially in the United States where the cost of a four-year degree at a private university now exceeds $128,000, according to the College Board.

Learning for Life

The report, Amplifying Human Potential: Education and Skills for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, was commissioned by Infosys and conducted by Future Foundation, an independent research agency. Researchers polled 1,000 people between the ages of 16 and 25 in Australia, Brazil, China, France, Germany, India, the United Kingdom and the United States, and 700 in South Africa.

Infosys gently acknowledges that it "provides insight into a generation that is positive about technology, keen on success-oriented learning and not entirely satisfied about their formal education."

Respondents:

  • Acknowledged technology skills were important: Clear majorities in both emerging (74 percent in India and 71 percent in China) and developed countries (60 percent in France and 59 percent in the UK) rated computer sciences subjects as key education tools
  • Expressed concern over their own technical aptitude: A total of 68 percent of young adults in emerging economies such as China and Brazil and around 50 percent in France and Australia are concerned a lack of technology skills will make it increasingly hard to advance their careers
  • Rated their job prospects as worse than those of their parents' generation: This sentiment is particularly strong in developed markets, suggesting greater confidence and optimism among young people in emerging markets

But the conclusion that education is "failing to prepare many young people for working life" is perhaps most troubling. Respondents worldwide question how well their academic experiences equipped them for their careers — with half of those surveyed in developed countries like Germany, Australia and the US reporting their education did not prepare them for what to expect from working life.

Sikka, CEO and Managing Director at Infosys, said young people worldwide can see that new technologies, such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, "will enable them to reimagine the possibilities of human creativity, innovation and productivity."

But to thrive in this era of digital transformation, "our education systems must bring more focus to lifelong learning, experimentation and exploration — in addition to bringing computer science and technology more fundamentally into the curriculum.

"Every one of us can reimagine our circumstances, innovate and create, but our education systems must instill new ways of thinking, which include finding the most important problems to solve, collaborating across diverse groups and learning from quick failures - so that each one of us can find our own meaningful, purposeful work."

What Have We Done?

A hundred years or so ago, people didn't go to college because they wanted to get a job. They went to college to get an education: to read the classics, learn to debate, examine philosophies, explore the unknown.

In short, they wanted to learn to think.

Somewhere along the way, thanks to the soaring costs of higher education, the objective changed. The focus became narrower and narrower, and more and more students became determined to get highly specialized degrees in niche fields.

To justify the cost of college, students had to guarantee themselves that their degree would land them a job.

But how is that possible — in an era of rapid technological innovation, when the jobs themselves that new hires will be filling in a few years likely don't even exist yet?

How can students effectively prepare for jobs yet to be created?

The report draws two important conclusions:

  1. Education systems must modernize to embrace the new reality of rapid technological changes requiring constant learning.
  2. Our educational systems must teach the ability to learn, not the ability to memorize.

The Lost Art of Thinking

"Students and employees of the future can only be as successful as their learnability quotient. Their education system must teach them how to learn and learn for life," said Vandana Sikka, chair of the Infosys Foundation USA.

But the current school system in the US focuses on testing and grading rather than creating a future workforce with a high learnability quotient.

Oh, how well I know.

Every September, while rearing my five children, I went through the same drill. The kids would bring home a questionnaire from the teacher.

The newer and less experienced the teacher, the greater the number of questions. But one of the questions was always the same. "What do you want your child to accomplish this year?"

Most parents, in the hyper-competitive suburban New York City area where I lived, wrote comprehensive answers that invariably involved Advanced Placement and honors courses — and focused on scoring as high as possible on the standardized test of the year.

My answer, in contrast, was always short and always the same.

I just wanted my kids to learn to think.

Smarter than a Robot

Sometimes I worry technology is replacing common sense. And I'm not alone.

Way back in 2007, in a review of what he characterized the "electronic collision-avoidance nannies" which were just gaining traction on high-end cars, Wired's Matthew Phenix asked:

"Is it merely alarmist hyperbole to suggest that technology is creeping in where common sense and driving skill used to live? Do I feel safer because an acronym assures me that my car is looking out for me? Do I feel safer knowing other drivers' cars are doing the things — like checking mirrors and applying enough pressure to the brake pedal — they should be doing themselves? Not really."

Technology makes it easy to find information. But like the UPS driver who goes unrecognized without his brown uniform, the information is confined to a limited context.

The key is to transform information to understanding. That requires thinking, a skill challenged by technology.

If you have any doubts, close your eyes and answer this question: What's your best friend's phone number?

I'm sure you have it on speed dial, but did you bother to memorize it?

Bill Buxton, a principal researcher at Microsoft Research and a pioneer in the human–computer interaction field, once explained:

"Since technology is changing so fast, it is far more important to develop our ability to think, learn and problem solve than to master Microsoft Office. Sure, you can develop these skills using computers. But personally, I think our time is generally much better spent studying music, history or even hockey."

The risk of technology making things too easy is the gradual loss of our ability to think — the way most kids have lost the ability to make change for a small purchase in their heads.

Think of it as the ability to connect-the-dots, and relate the consequences of A to B. Think of it as being able to function when the electric grid fails and the batteries in your phones die. Think of it as whatever you want.

Just think.

Title image by Alex Jones