What will you do when the robots grow up? Putting the ‘C’ word in the skills debate.

Young people, skills, disruption, and precarious education, training and work trajectories

Michael Koziol, in an article in The Age from February 2018, introduces Bruce Reed as the former top domestic policy advisor to US President Bill Clinton, as the former chief of staff to US Vice President Jo Biden, and as a co-chair of the Aspen Institute’s Future of Work Initiative.

In that article – that reads very much like a ‘harvested’ press release for a major annual meeting of Higher Education leaders, policy makers and politicians in Canberra – Reed is cited claiming that:

‘…The so-called “gig economy”, symbolised by the explosion of services such as Uber, will rapidly expand the proportion of workers who are freelancers, while increasing automation in the workplace will reshape the skills and jobs for which universities will need to prepare students…’

‘But Uber and its like are only “the first inning of disruption”’.  

The ‘rush to develop self-driving cars, buses and trucks, Boeing’s testing of autonomous planes and Dubai’s plan to replace taxis with single-passenger drones…’ signal, for Reed, and many others, the trajectories of disruption that are heralded by the changes that we see in our presents and in our futures.

For Reed: ‘“The question used to be, ‘what will you do when you grow up?’ 

The question now is, ‘what will you do when the robots grow up’” 

So, what will you do when the robots grow up?

In this blog I want to do a number of things that seek to address some of the work that we are doing at the UNEVOC Centre@School of Education, RMIT University

I want to do this from the perspective of the work that I have done over a number of years on young people, education, training and work pathways and identities, young people’s health and well-being, and an ARC Discovery Project that I am leading that is titled Arts based social enterprises and marginalised young people’s transitions.Much of that work – including in books such as Working in Jamie’s Kitchen: Salvation, Passion and Young WorkersThe Self as Enterprise: Foucault and the ‘Spirit’ of 21st Century Capitalism, and Re-thinking Young People’s Marginalisation – is shaped by a strong empirical focus on the social enterprise model of providing education, training and work pathways for the most disadvantaged, dis-engaged and marginalised young people, and a theoretical and methodological commitment to using the ‘c’ word.

The ’C’ Word

Capitalism is the main game in town, and we need to name it as such, and explore the consequences for organising all our institutions, all our relationships, all our activities through logics that seek to commodify and extract value and profit from all aspects of our lives – and to calculate value only in the terms set by these logics.

All around us today we are witness to the outcomes, the possibilities, limitations and consequences of the dominance of these logics.

All this talk of disruption, skills, labour markets and equity only makes sense when we use the ‘c’ word!

My response, then, to the question of What will you do when the robots grow up? Will take the following form:

In the first instance I want to briefly introduce the work of the Foundation for Young Australians and its Future of Work Series.

This series has cornered and captured the market on commentary and advocacy in the space of young people, education and training, and work largely through its construction of disruption and the future, and the ways in which so-called enterprise skills or 21st century skills provide the answers that other commentators, policy makers, politicians and businesses are looking for in times of disruption.

I want to then contrast this form of problem making and problem solving logic to the model of social enterprise and the struggle of the marginalised and left behind to develop skills that promise to get them back into the game.I want to finish up by briefly sketching the work we are doing in the UNESCO UNEVOC space, and the ways in which discussions about Young people, skills, disruption, and precarious education, training and work trajectories, can productively reference the UNs Sustainable Development Goals framework for global action and transformation.

The Foundation for Young Australians and The Future of Work

The Foundation for Young Australians (FYA) is an Australian Third Sector Organisation (TSO) that advocates on, and for, an array of ‘youth issues’. For much of the last decade FYA has, as a significant part of this advocacy work, commissioned and conducted research on the changing world of work, on the education and training regimes that can meet the ‘needs’ of this changing world of work, and on the attributes and characteristics of the forms of personhood that young people must develop to meet these changes. 

This work has come together in a number of recent reports comprising the New Work Order series (see this link for reports referenced here). This series has come to occupy an influential space in the discursive assemblage of labour market change, globalisation and technological disruption, the risks and opportunities young people encounter in these contexts, and what governments, businesses, education systems and communities should do to enable young people to become more enterprising. 

FYA identifies three broad themes in its telling of the story of labour market change: 

Automation: Ever-smarter machines are performing ever-more human tasks-taking, replacing or eliminating the need for whole categories of employment.

Globalisation: Our workforce is going global and the global workforce coming to us

Collaboration: Technology is increasing the potential for cooperation and collaboration across multiple platforms. (FYA, 2015, p.7)

The FYA (2015, p.8) sees both opportunity and risk for young people in these ‘disruptions’. 

On the opportunity side FA identifies a number of possibilities: 

the ‘barriers to entrepreneurship are falling. Technology and globalisation are making it easier and cheaper at multiple stages in the lifecycle of a start-up’; 

‘New technologies and ways of working are providing unprecedented flexibility in how and where people work, which is one of the key drivers of worker happiness’; ‘

Technology has accelerated the division of labour and enabled companies to divide up work into ever-smaller tasks that can be sourced from a global labour pool’. 

Opportunities in these New Work Orders also bring ‘risks’: Digital disruption threatens to ‘disappear’ jobs on a massive scale, and young Australians are already over-represented in the population of the under and unemployed: 

“Already nearly one in three young people in Australia are either unemployed or underemployed. And over the past 25 years, nearly one in ten unskilled male workers lost their jobs and never found another”. 

The FYA identifies a final risk in these labour market changes: 

“a risk of increased employment insecurity. More than half of new jobs in advanced economies since the 1990s have been temporary, part-time or self-employed”. 

Unemployment. Inequality. Insecurity. In imagining these as risks, and, at the same time, glossing over them to suggest that these are inevitable aspects of life in 21st century capitalism, FYA makes explicit that it does not imagine that its research and advocacy agenda on behalf of young people involves any serious, critical encounter with a political economy of neo-Liberal capitalism. 

Indeed, FYA’s research and advocacy response is framed by a sense that, given the trajectory of the changes it identifies then, governments, education systems, businesses and community agencies need to develop approaches to young people’s education and training that fosters and enables young people to develop what it, and others, see as ‘enterprise skills’.

For FYA (2017, p.5) enterprise skills are ‘transferable skills that enable young people to engage with a complex world and navigate the challenges they will inherit’. These skills, it is claimed, ‘are not just for entrepreneurs; they are skills that are required in many jobs. They have been found to be a powerful predictor of long term job success’. What others, at various times over the last 3 decades have named as ‘generic’, ‘soft’, and, more recently, 21st century skills include: ‘Problem solving; Communication skills; digital literacy; presentation skills; critical thinking; creativity; financial literacy.’

Indeed, the World Economic Forum, alongside organisations such as the OECD, has done significant work in trying to identify and categorise the capabilities that young people need in order to flourish in times of crisis and disruption.The point I would make here is that the primary focus in these ways of framing the problem of young people, disruption and skills is on the supply side of the equation, the human capital capabilities that individuals need to develop to meet these challenges and opportunities.

Social Enterprise, Skills and the Most Disengaged Young People

I have been interested for a number of years with what happens to those young people who, for an array of reasons, are unable to develop and perform these capabilities in ways that come from, and enable, engagement in worthwhile education and training and employment pathways.

It is in these spaces that we encounter the work of social enterprises and their programs that aim to engage the disengaged, and develop meaningful, accredited skills training that might enable the disengaged to get back into the only game in town – paid work.

In a 2011-2014 Linkage Project with Mission Australia at their social enterprise based training restaurant at Charcoal Lane, and in a current Discovery project titled Arts based social enterprises and marginalised young people we have conducted action research and case study research on social enterprise models of providing accredited skills training programs – such as Certificate 2 and 3 in Hospitality, or Certificate 2 and 3 in Creative Industries (Digital Media) – for profoundly dis-engaged young people.

While there is much that I could discuss in this space I just want to make some observations about this model, these types of capability/skills building programs, and what they suggest more broadly about young people, disruption, and skills.

  1. Social enterprises operate in complex ecologies in competition for funding (government, philanthropic) and for business (what is their ‘product’); need to comply with ‘accredited’ training systems; at the same time trying to maintain focus on ‘core business’ (‘mission drift’)
  2. Social enterprises are often small, place-based businesses, operating ‘at-the-edge-of-chaos’ – uncertainty, precarity, P/T workforces, the most marginalised (high need) young people
  3. The most marginalised young people are marginalised for reasons – health and well-being, multiple measures/indicators of disadvantage – most often engagement and well-being come before skills and transitions
  4. Social enterprises have limited impact on education and training systems, and labour market structures
  5. But they offer the promise of personal transformation for a limited number of young people – and when they deliver on that promise the transformations can be profound

The last point to make here is that these sorts of organisations, these sorts of young people, these sorts of skills, and these sorts of challenges are not often, if ever, spoken about when young people, disruption, skills, training and the future of work are discussed. At these times we might be forgiven for thinking that advanced manufacturing, STEM, coding and ‘what industry wants’ are the extent of the conversation.

In this social enterprise space we see the sorts of ‘human capital’ that industry doesn’t want, and can quite easily do without. Indeed, like many millions of people in a time of disruption, these young people are in danger of leading what Zygmunt Bauman called wasted lives in which they are redundant, surplus to requirements, of no use.

UNESCO UNEVOC, Skills and the UN SDGs

Which brings me to my final point for discussion – the ways in which the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals can provide a framework, and an agenda, for thinking about and responding to the challenges and opportunities of young people, disruption, skills and the future of work.

The background to the SDGs, and the complex system of measures, accountabilities and reporting embedded in the framework are beyond the time and scope of this presentation

In 2015 the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) agreed and endorsed a series of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) under the banner of a resolution titled Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

As a global framework for action the SDGs have yet to make a significant impact in policy, commercial, educational and labour market debates and discussions in Australia (and possibly in other ‘over-developed’ countries of the EU and OECD.) Which raises the question: Is sustainable development still seen as a problem only for developing economies?

As part of the work that my colleagues and I do at the UNESCO UNEVOC Centre at RMIT we want to explore how we – those who live in the over-developed neo-Liberal democracies – critically entangle with the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Particularly:

Goal 4: Ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning

Goal 5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls; and 

Goal 8: Promote inclusive and sustainable economic growth, employment and decent work for all.

My colleagues, and I want to play a role in changing these conversations through a variety of discussions that are informed by some of the following questions:

*          Does adding the ‘c’ word (capitalism) to the SDGs produce an oxymoron – or a further series of contradictions and paradoxes to an ‘earth system’ already in deep crisis?

*          What is the promise of the SDGs for joining social justice concerns to development and sustainability on a global scale (not just in Australia)

*          At the other end of the scale, can the SDGs provide a warrant for shaping ‘place-based’ interventions into communities to critically re-imagine issues related to quality education and training, gender equality, development and decent work for all?

*          How can the SDGs help us to imagine ourselves and our communities as being truly inter-connected, as being-in-this-trouble together, as having to figure-this-out together?


Michael Koziol, What will you do when the robots grow up?, The Age, Wednesday February 28, 2018, p.11


By Peter Kelly

I am a Professor of Education at Deakin University.

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