Literacy 2.0: How to prepare young people for the 4th Industrial Revolution

Source: Helloquence on Unsplash

We are in the midst of the 4th Industrial Revolution, with technology advancing at a rapid rate, but also with direct consequences for the lives of everyone around the world. The World Economic Forum estimates that over 800.000.000 jobs will be replaced by automated processes until 2030. That’s only 12 years from now. With billions of global citizens digitally illiterate, are we bracing for a crisis amidst a radical change in the required skills on the job market? Or we are heading to a world full of opportunities, basic income for all and more time to enjoy life while robots do the hard work? But most importantly, how should young people be prepared to face all of this? Will they have the needed skills of the 4th Industrial Revolution?

Why is it important

9 out of 10 jobs will require basic digital skills. That’s a whooping 90% and might happen sooner than we think. An increasingly large number of jobs will also require advanced digital skills in time.

44% of Europeans lack basic digital skills, according to the European Commission. That’s almost half of the population of one of the world’s strongest economic powerhouses. Even worse, in countries as Romania and Bulgaria, only 27% of the population has basic digital skills, almost half than the EU average.

47% of all jobs are expected to be replaced by automation by 2030, according to a report published by Oxford University. Globally, it looks bleak, but estimates are even more dramatic for the developing countries, where the rate is expected to be at over 70% because those economies strongly rely on industrial processes which may be easily automated and moved back to the home countries.

There are 700 million illiterate people in the world, out of which 66% are girls. Billions have no digital skills. Worldwide the statistics are worrying, with the inequality gap ready to rise, pushing even more people to poverty and extreme poverty, especially in the developing world.

Digital skills are becoming fundamentals of literacy. A strong gap is emerging between people with digital skills and those who lack them, which limits the latter’s opportunities to access the job market, to further learning and become financially independent. This strongly affects young people from less economically advanced areas, including in developed countries like the US or in the EU.

A new set of skills is emerging as a requirement “to succeed” in the 4th Industrial Revolution world. Skills which make the difference between poverty and middle-class, between those left out and those with a seat at the table. Among these: basic and advanced digital skills, critical thinking, flexibility, proactivity towards lifelong learning, financial and civic skills. Already the World Economic Forum estimates that by 2020 the skill set will change and will require: complex problem solving skills, critical thinking, creativity, coordinating with others, people management, emotional intelligence, to name just the top 5.

What can be done

1. Make lifelong learning the standard

Most young people today are led to believe that education finishes when you graduate high-school or university, and from that point forward you find a job and that’s it, you don’t need further education. Wrong. The 4th Industrial Revolution will make entire careers disappear and many will find themselves back at school to learn new skills.

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” (Alvin Toffler)

Lifelong learning should become the norm, not the exception. We should no longer expect to have 1 career our entire lifespan, but several. We should be prepared to adapt to the needed skills and face these challenges proactively, not reactively.

As a society, we should already start teaching children and young people this and get them ready to learn, unlearn and relearn. But adults should be on-focus as well, although the challenge will be much greater.

2. Transform education and include non-formal methods in the curriculum

Our current educational system is based on the needs generated by the first Industrial Revolution almost 200 years ago. It is still a “factory” which tries to produce mass employees for certain parts of the economy. With a few exceptions like Finland, most educational systems are not prepared for the new challenges which are soon taking over, and we will all pay the bill for failing to reform them in time.

We need a system which is designed for the entire population, from children to seniors, enabling lifelong learning. A system which encourages critical thinking, flexibility, which is based on the passions and strong points of each individual, but also on the real needs on the job market. A system where the individual learns both through formal and non-formal methods, where you can learn both from books and from direct experience, in facilitated environments.

3. Put digital skills on an equal footing with reading and writing. And then add financial and civic education to it.

We need to redefine literacy. Just knowing how to read and write no longer guarantees the bare minimum. Without digital skills, an entire world is out of bounds to an individual. Without financial skills in an increasingly more complex financial world, you cannot have true financial independence. And without civic education, you cannot be a truly free citizen.

Literacy 2.0 should take all of this into account and consider digital, financial and civic skills a minimum for any citizen. In a world of artificial intelligence, we simply cannot afford to have half the population lacking basic digital skills.

4. Encourage cross-sectorial cooperation for education

Education is no longer just in the hands of schools and universities. It should increasingly become a blending point where schools and universities work together with employers/companies and nonprofits to make sure the community makes the most out of it and that real needs are addressed.

Where companies provide practical skills and opportunities for practice/internships/learning-on-the-job, nonprofits can bring complementary educational support which develop the soft skills of the individual, critical for success in the 4th Industrial Revolution Age.

5. No person left behind: social inclusion, girls empowerment

Inequality is a keyword of our age. And the digital gap will only widen it if it will not be properly addressed. This is a time when we will need, as a society, to ensure that we leave no one behind and we develop social policies which will enable everyone to transition to the digital economy. Easily said than done.

But still, it will be a critical turning point. The more people remain “behind”, the poorer we will all be in the end. And with possible dire political consequences.

However, not all vulnerable groups face equal challenges when it comes to the digital era. Girls are some of the most affected, especially in the developing world. We are not talking just about girls who work in the IT sector, but also about those who lack basic digital skills. They are disproportionately affected, in some countries due to traditions, in others due to economic difficulties. And if we want a more balanced society, we need to make sure that girls have the same true opportunities as boys.

Why can non-formal education help

Non-formal education has been gaining steady ground in the past decades, especially in youth work all around the world, where it is now the main set of applied principles. In Europe too it’s been strongly developed especially through the Youth / Youth in Action / Erasmus+ / European Solidarity Corps Programmes of the European Union, which are funding non-formal education projects across the continent.

But let’s see what is so different with non-formal education:

Experiential learning

Learning mainly happens by doing, through direct experience. For example, you develop your leadership and communication skills in a training activity where the entire group has to cross a lake by building a boat.

You learn the main concepts and then you experience directly the situation and learn from it. For developing digital skills, you may assemble a basic robot in a dedicated workshop and then use visual coding apps to make it do basic things. This can be done by children very easily. Compare this to learning from a book or being told about it.

→ Soft skills development

Activities based on non-formal learning are focused on developing soft skills, something which usually lacks in schools or universities. They develop critical thinking, independent life skills, leadership, organisational and communication skills, team spirit and teamwork abilities, creativity / personal expression. Which are mostly the required skills for 2020+.

→ Individual learning needs

Non-formal education is based on the learning needs of each individual, because it is flexible enough to allow everyone to learn what, when and how they want. Some may learn better by watching, others by writing or listening. Some may learn easier in groups, others alone. While not perfect, NFE provide an opportunity to better respond to the 21st century challenges, departing from the “factory standardization mentality”, where everyone must “be educated” in the same style and by the same methods.

→ Real-life situations

Would you trust more a manager who learned everything he knows just from books or someone who also faced real challenges in organizations or simulated environments? Non-formal education prepares the individual for real-life situations, developing skills which are actually helpful and which complement the theory and concepts that come from the formal educational system.


Education, the main challenge of the 21st century?

In the last decades education has become one of the easiest areas to cut funding from and to ignore investments and quality reform in, because its results are only seen in years, so it’s not very helpful to politicians. But as we have seen above, continuing like this may make all of us pay a large bill. A bill for which we may still limit some of the effects, if we act swiftly. Education will probably become a main differentiator between countries, between digitally developed economies and those which are left behind.

We already have the first generation of young people in history who will be poorer than their parents. We have billions of people around the world digitally illiterate. And a big opportunity waits around the corner in the shift to the digital economy, if we know how to benefit from it.

Let’s start by making education a priority again.


Author: Razvan Sassu, President of the Young Initiative Association

This article is part of the #iTech project co-funded by the European Union through the Erasmus+ Programme. The project is coordinated by Digijeunes (France) and is implemented in partnership with Asociatia Young Initiative (Romania), Burgas Free University (Bulgaria) and FabLab Pau (France).

Responsibility with the content lies with the author. The points of view reflected in the article do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Union.