Our Human Advantage in a Digital World

The headlines can be scary. “Robots Are Taking Over Everything!” News reports often create fear and insecurity about the future, especially in the job market, and lead us to question our children’s potential for success. While it is true that automation is changing every aspect of our lives and redefining the workplace of tomorrow, there is something that is emerging as a clear advantage: our humanness.

A recent survey conducted by the World Economic Forum for their report, The Future of Jobs, highlighted the value of our human qualities. The list of the Top 10 skills needed for high-paying jobs by 2020 was:

  1. Complex problem-solving (requiring human interpretation of data)
  2. Critical thinking (requiring human logic and reasoning)
  3. Creativity (requiring human interpretation and expression)
  4. People management (requiring human leadership)
  5. Coordinating with others (requiring human collaboration)
  6. Emotional intelligence (requiring human perceptiveness)
  7. Judgment and decision-making (requiring human discernment and communication)
  8. Service orientation (requiring human charitability)
  9. Negotiation skills (requiring human interaction)
  10. Cognitive flexibility (requiring human adaptability)

In 2015, creativity was 10th on the list, now it is the 3rd. Creativity is not easily automated and because of the pace of economic change, the ability to find ways to maneuver people and organizations through this seismic shift is increasingly important.

But, how well are we doing in preparing our children for this critical skill? According to some recent findings, not well enough. Dr. KH Kim, a professor at the College of William & Mary, analyzed over 300,000 creativity scores.

She found that American creativity scores increased each year between 1966 until 1990. From 1990 on, however, creativity scores have steadily declined. Most concerning is Kim’s finding that the sharpest drop in creativity scores occurred in elementary-age children from kindergarten through 6th grade.

Kim views the increasing of standardized schooling as a major culprit. Conformity, the hallmark of our school systems, impedes creativity.

Experts argue that creativity can be taught in all disciplines, not just art classes.  A 2010 Newsweek article by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, titled The Creativity Crisis, addressed this point.

Overwhelmed by curriculum standards, American teachers warn there’s no room in the day for a creativity class. Kids are fortunate if they get an art class once or twice a week. But to scientists, this is a non sequitur, borne out of what University of Georgia’s Mark Runco calls “art bias.” The age-old belief that the arts have a special claim to creativity is unfounded. When scholars gave creativity tasks to both engineering majors and music majors, their scores laid down on an identical spectrum, with the same high averages and standard deviations. Inside their brains, the same thing was happening—ideas were being generated and evaluated on the fly.

We often think of doctors or lawyers as logical rather than creative professionals. But, creativity underpins all those who are highly successful in these jobs. Today, doctors understand that every human body is different so they devise individual treatment plans. Likewise, a lawyer must review evidence and develop a strategy that best serves their client within the confines of the law. Complex problem solving is a creative process that applies to almost all fields.  

Ted Dintersmith, a former venture capitalist and author of What School Could Be, sees the economy changing so quickly that within the next 10 years every routine job will be gone.

This is a fact: If it involves pattern recognition or following instructions, or if it’s something you can write a tight job description around, it’s probably going to be done by machine intelligence. If all you’re good at is memorizing content, replicating low-level procedures and following instructions, you will not be getting a job.

Clearly, our current education system is not preparing our children well for this future. Our overemphasis on memorization and testing is taking away time that is needed to develop important human attributes critical to their success. Our insistence on rewarding individual achievement over collaboration further harms their ability to learn to navigate this new world they are soon entering.

Creativity, working with others, and the ability to communicate, are the human advantages our children have over automation. These themes show up over and over on employers’ lists of most desired traits and they cannot be generated by computer programs. Machines don’t understand the nuances of emotional intelligence or adapt quickly to changes in behavior. They don’t provide leadership or communicate with empathy and understanding. Humans do. We need to give our children time to be human.

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