❮  Back to Resources

Skills of the Future

The EIU examines how schools can prepare students for tomorrow’s job market.

Evolving business needs, technological advances and new work structures, among other factors, are redefining what are considered to be valuable skills for the future. Determining what these are, however, is far from straightforward.

The very pace and unpredictability of change means that, as Paul Cappon, former president of the Canadian Council on Learning, puts it, “we are not going to be able to predict the skills that people will need in 20 years”. Yong Zhao, director of the University of Oregon’s Institute for Global and Online Education, agrees, adding that skills are also highly context-dependent and multifaceted. Levels of creativity, for example, depend heavily on the area in which an individual is seeking to be creative and may require the acquisition of a substantial level of knowledge in that field, as much as an ability to approach problems in a certain way.

Another substantial issue when considering which skills will be valuable in the future is deciding who will be assigning that value. As Mr Zhao points out, the parents of a student in a developing country might value skills that their child can exploit in the global digital economy; the government of that country might instead prefer skills that help the national economy industrialise; and the child might well prioritise skills that facilitate artistic expression. Nor are these wishes necessarily immutable. Svava Bjarnason, senior education specialist at the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation, notes: “It is very difficult to suppose what any one country might have aspirations for, even over the next decade. If you look at aspirations in the Middle East compared with three years ago, how would you judge the right skill mix [for the future]?”

Bearing such constraints in mind, The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) embarked on a research programme, sponsored by Google, to examine to what extent the skills taught in education systems around the world are changing. For example, are so-called 21st-century skills, such as leadership, digital literacy, problem solving and communication, complementing traditional skills such as reading, writing and arithmetic? And do they meet the needs of employers and society more widely?

To investigate these issues, The EIU convened an advisory board meeting of education experts and conducted a series of in-depth interviews. In addition to comments from the advisory board and the interviews, this report draws on data from global surveys of senior business executives, teachers and two groups of students, aged 11 to 17 and 18 to 25. The key findings are listed below.