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What do you want to be when you grow up?

We start asking our youth this question almost as soon as they can speak. It’s usually asked with the best intentions, and followed with encouragement to keep working toward their stated career aspirations. However, as we examine the future of work and the transformational role that technology will play in it, this question may be setting an identity trap for our youth.

Technology will shape every single job that exists today. Studies show that technology may also replace up to 800 million of those jobs all together. Therefore, technology will likely augment or even replace the jobs associated with whatever career aspirations a primary schooler may have by the time they enter the work force.

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Linear career paths, as we once knew them, will become a thing of the past. According to the Foundation for Young Australians, young people in school today are expected to have 17 jobs across five careers in their lifetimes. This has implications in North America – the same study was cited in leading U.S. future of work strategist Heather E. McGowan’s book, The Adaptation Advantage. In fact, 65 per cent of children entering primary school today will ultimately end up working in completely new job types that don’t yet exist.

Because of this, we need to prepare them for a complex and changing world and a life of continuous learning. Therefore, we should not impose on our youth the socially constructed belief that one’s career identity is static and anchored to a singular profession. Instead, we need to encourage children to explore what they love to do, figure out what they love to learn, and think of problems they would love to solve.

This is what this could look like in practice:

  • Repositioning our education systems around experiential learning, problem-solving, and learning how to learn;
  • Prioritizing digital literacy;
  • Teaching soft skills such as emotional intelligence and adaptability; and
  • Introducing age-appropriate real world problems during play and encouraging children to use what they have learned in school and at home, in combination with their imaginations, to solve them.

I engaged in real-world problem solving with my nieces and nephews during a recent video chat. My nieces and nephews (all under nine years old) have started growing vegetables in their garden. They beam with excitement at every vegetable harvest. I used this opportunity to discuss the problem of climate change and plastic pollution. I asked them how their gardening skills could help the planet. Their responses included solutions like “No longer needing to drive to the grocery store” and “No longer needing to wrap up food in plastic packaging.” I showed them photos of vertical farming structures and 3D printers. By the end of the conversation they were jumping with excitement about the idea of turning their porch into a “vertical farm” and “printing lunches and snacks” for their neighbours.

It’s impossible to predict how the technological revolution will unfold, including the jobs and industries that have yet to be invented. We can, however, support our youth to thrive in this complex and changing future by encouraging them to lean into their curiosities, explore their passions, and use what they are naturally endowed with: an imagination.


Sinead Bovell

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Sinead Bovell is a futurist and founder of WAYE (Weekly Advice for Young Entrepreneurs), an organization aiming to educate young entrepreneurs on the intersection of business, technology, and the future. She is the Leadership Lab columnist for August 2020.

This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about the world of work. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab and guidelines for how to contribute to the column here.

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