Trends & Technology succeed in an age of uncertainty

Preparing our children to succeed in an age of uncertainty

Technology has dramatically transformed the way business is conducted. The modern world of work is characterised by relentless change. Innovation and reorganisation are routine activities and few businesses have escaped major overhauls. Although a push for increased efficiency and productivity while continuing to make and sell indispensable products or services remains the overriding objective, the speed at which technology triggers change is unchartered territory. And the general modus operandi is sink or swim. As we see Yahoo’s decline, one of the first major players in this space sell off its assets, it is clear that in order to prosper, companies need to remain at the forefront of innovation while staying in touch with consumers’ behaviour and needs.
For young people entering the work force, the future lacks clarity. Computers or robots are increasingly replacing traditional jobs. Supermarkets, airlines, and even passport control have all embraced automated checkouts. Innovations coming to market threaten to wipe out entire industries. Consider self driving cars and professions that rely on driving to make a living. New business trends are also exposing a different type of consumer keen on instant gratification with a preference towards a ‘shared economy’. Airbnb vs hotel, Getaround vs rental car or WeWork instead of an office are all relevant examples. Access to most products and services are now a tap away on our cell phones. Digital behaviour has also exposed vast amounts of fresh consumer information commonly known as “big data”. How we make sense of that information and optimize it to solve the world’s problems or improve our lives is work in progress.

Young people are catching on. We have seen a large increase in university applicants opting for computer science. Imperial College claims a twenty percent increase year on year, making it one of its most competitive courses. Not surprisingly, Business & Management degrees are also a popular option according to Which?University as young people seek to learn about business in this new environment. Entrepreneurship is often a module taught as part of the degree. Durham University has taken it a step further offering Entrepreneurship modules for students across the University from “non business disciplines”.

The key question on most parents’ mind beyond university subject choice is how to prepare their children for this uncertain future. Education as we know it, simply does not adequately train young people for work. Students lack both the skills and knowledge required to be meaningful workers of value in their first job. Modernising education to address this void is a complex issue. Consider creativity as an example. In the “old days” creative subjects were indulged as pleasant hobbies because the common held belief was that they were unlikely to pay the bills. Sir Ken Robinson, the author and expert on education, is very outspoken about schools killing creativity and the need for reform. In the real world, authentic creativity is in high demand, a sought after asset by employers as they continuously look to push new boundaries and reinvent the world as we know it. We also now recognize that creative and academic are not mutually exclusive and instead can be highly complementary. Elon Musk who has often been labelled a creative genius with his knack for building successful businesses with a purpose, is a physicist and economist by training.

We know success means different things to different people but to me, the ultimate measure is personal well being. Having a fulfilling professional life can contribute vastly to this. Previously formal education provided the most important stepping stone to a professional career which in turn had a distinct pathway in which you worked your way up the ladder. Today, higher education still translates into more earning power. But future career trajectories are no longer linear and disruption is commonplace. Job loyalty, a previously valued trait, means little to the millennial nor is it likely to be frowned upon. The Bureau of Labour Statistics estimates the average worker today will have ten jobs before they reach the age of forty. This number is likely to climb as job hopping becomes increasingly routine. So, when parents ask me how best to prepare their children for this age of uncertainty, I stress the importance of planting and nurturing the raw ingredients that will allow a young person to thrive.

It starts with an appreciation of the journey ahead, one which is likely to encounter many twists and turns, while instilling faith in the outcome. This is true not only of future career paths but life in general. Life is full of surprises, both good and bad. Teaching your children how to enjoy life is a parent’s responsibility. It means teaching them to be flexible and open to the changes in life’s blueprint. It also means weaving gratitude and what matters most into the fabric of their thinking: health, family and friends above all else. This helps with being able to put life into perspective in the face of setbacks, professional or other. Continuously attempting to rescue one’s children from life’s inevitable disappointments can do more harm than good. Experience is instrumental in learning to overcome disappointment, fear and gain perspective. Resilience and grit are first cousins, all qualities valued by the modern employer.

Thriving in this new age will also require young people to be authentic, independent thinkers, trust their instinct and be bold. Helicopter parents need to be cautioned to hand over the reigns. The end of school also marks the end of childhood and parents need to let their offspring spread their wings and fly. There is a big difference between guiding students to avoid mistakes rooted in inexperience to doing everything for them. Burdening students with a laundry list of activities orchestrated by what adults think is valuable while hiring tutors to do much of the thinking for them does few favours for preparing them in life.

Interests, real genuine interests that students personally own, take time to develop and are rarely inspired overnight. Parents should encourage interests but allow their children to own them. Samina Khan, Director of Undergraduate Admissions at the University of Oxford, suggests that children should start preparing for getting into Oxford as early as eleven years old. Rather than prompting pushy parents into overdrive, her intentions are well meaning. She advocates that cultivating sincere interests in children increases their chances of a successful application. Oxbridge chooses students who can talk around their subject and can articulate why they want to study it. The reason they answer these questions better than others is because these students genuinely are interested; an interest they have developed by educating themselves and being engaged. This breeds motivation and ambition. It also builds confidence and instils a sense of worth. A saying comes to mind celebrating National Library Week in the US:

The more you read, the more you know. The more you know, the smarter you grow. The smarter you grow, the stronger your voice when speaking your mind or making your choice”.

By the same token, parents are responsible for teaching their children to be pro-active. Few things come easy in life. Procrastination and passive behaviour in which students hope that everything works out for the best is an all-too-familiar trap. The complex new world order will reward entrepreneurial thinking and a go-getter attitude. This holds true of career progression as well. If you rely on human resources, a recruiter or even your boss to tell you what to do, you’ve missed the opportunity. Seeking support is fine, but one must be self-reliant, take responsibility for moving the needle and make things happen.

In a nutshell, parents should put children in the driving seat of their own destiny. They need to embrace their children’s independence, individuality and interests while teaching them that most goals are attainable with effort and hard work and to shut out the noise that tells you any different.

“Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now”.
– Goethe

Sarah Norris is committed to helping young people achieve their potential in life. She is the founder of Step Into My Shoes, an educational consultancy with an expertise in British higher education and future pathways. Her focus is on improving student performance through lateral thinking and skill based training. Sarah’s clients include multiple schools and students in the UK and abroad. She is also engaged by multinational corporations such as Allen & Overy to coach students in competitive assessment for entry into selective universities. Sarah delivers the annual Youth Enrichment Programme in collaboration with London Business School, Europe’s highest ranked Business School, to talented students in Year 12 across several London based schools.
Sarah holds a BSc Econ from the London School of Economics & MBA from London Business School & Stern School of Business.
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