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The Future of Work Is Uncertain, Schools Should Worry Now

Today’s 6th graders will hit their prime working years in 2030.

By that time, the “robot apocalypse” could be fully upon us. Automation and artificial intelligence could have eliminated half the jobs in the United States economy.

Or, plenty of jobs could still exist, but today’s students could be locked in a fierce competition for a few richly rewarded positions requiring advanced technical and interpersonal skills. Robots and algorithms would take care of what used to be solid working- and middle-class jobs. And the kids who didn’t get that cutting-edge computer science course or life-changing middle school project? They’d be relegated to a series of dead-end positions, serving the elites who did.

Alternatively, maybe Bill Gates and Elon Musk and the other big names ringing the alarm are wrong. A decade from now, perhaps companies will still complain they can’t find employees who can read an instruction manual and pass a drug test. Maybe workers will still be able to hold on to the American Dream, so long as they can adjust to incremental technological shifts in the workplace.

Which vision will prove correct?

When it comes to predicting the future of work, top economists and technologists are all over the map.

Inside schools, the result is tremendous uncertainty.

“For thousands of educators, this discussion isn’t about 15 years from now. It’s about the present,” said former West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise, who now heads a national nonprofit seeking to transform U.S. high schools. “But schools aren’t sure how to change what they’re doing, or even what questions to ask.”

That’s why Education Week is launching a new line of special coverage on what the changing nature of work means for the K-12 sector. What skills will today’s students need? Will the jobs available now still be around in 2030? Should every kid learn to code? What about apprenticeships, career-and-technical education, and “lifelong learning?”

Just as importantly, how can schools prepare children to participate in the political, civic, and moral debates stirred up by technology-driven changes?

The time for these conversations is now.

Because for all their disagreements, nearly all the experts say the nation’s educators can take one prediction to the bank.

“Change is going to come,” said Lee Rainie, who heads the study of technology for the Pew Research Center. “Standing pat is not an option.”

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