We’re told that many traditional jobs will be obsolete in the next couple of decades. So what skills should our children be learning? Mandarin? Coding? Adaptability? Laura Craik investigates.
There comes a time in every parent’s life when their child will turn to them and ask the one loaded question that makes them want to reach for the whisky, even if it’s 11am. No, not ‘Where do babies come from?’ – far more fraught than that. In 2019, the most ticklish question of all is ‘What career should I choose?’
Obviously, if your child is three with aspirations to be a firefighter, then that’s fine. Or is it? Wait…won’t fires be put out by robots in the future? How soon is too soon to discourage him or her from a career with looming obsolescence? My elder daughter is 12 and keen to be a journalist like Mum. I love my career, and she can see that, but it was very different when I embarked upon it in the 90s. The internet was in its nascence and newspapers and magazines were in rude health. Journalism is a rewarding job – but is it future-proof?
Increasingly, this is the question that parents are asking themselves as they prepare their children for the working world. And while it’s all very well mocking the local tiger mum, whose eight-year-old is learning Mandarin, robotics and how to trade in Bitcoin, when the Bank of England has warned that as many as 15 million UK jobs are under threat of replacement by machines over the next 20 years, perhaps these efforts to prep their child in every conceivable discipline is justified.
According to the Bank of England’s chief economist Andy Haldane, accounting, sales, administration, clerical and production roles are at risk, with the growing use of intelligent robots particularly impacting unskilled workers, causing inequality to rise. If you happen to be a parent whose own job has been affected, it stands to reason that you’ll move heaven and earth to avoid the same fate for your child.
‘I didn’t think I’d be like this,’ says Alice (not her real name), 43, who would only speak anonymously, such is her embarrassment over the wealth of extracurricular activities indulged in by her ten-year-old daughter, which include coding, cello, Kumon maths and yoga. A former credit analyst, Alice was made redundant 19 months ago, and has now resigned herself to the fact that even if she does find another role, computerisation has rendered her chosen profession a precarious one. ‘I’ve stopped short of Mandarin classes, because she already learns French, Spanish and Latin at school, but the coding feels essential. There are so many scare stories about the havoc tech will wreak on our children’s lives, and I want my daughter to be prepared.’
Presumably, similar worries are contributing to a marked rise in home-schooling. According to the Department for Education, the number of home-schooled children in Britain has risen by 20 per cent in the past 18 months to around 45,000. However, as part of government strategy, all state secondary schools have been required to appoint a ‘careers leader’ to link curriculum learning to jobs.
Meanwhile, rising numbers of wealthy parents are eschewing a ‘one-size-fits-all’ education for an approach that’s more tailored to their child. A 2016 report by The Sutton Trust found that 42 per cent of state-educated children in London had received private tuition (as compared to 25 per cent elsewhere in England and Wales), which explains why bespoke tutoring services are flourishing, despite fees that can cost up to £60 an hour. Exclusive tutoring service Golden Circle, which charges £35,000 a year for full-time tuition, caters to the mega-rich by offering a curriculum that can include anything from cryptocurrency to jujitsu.
That the wealthy use their money to buy the best possible educational advantages for their children is a given. Increasingly, however, parents on lower wages, too, are stretching themselves to fund private tutoring as a means to prepare their children. ‘China is the major trading partner of 126 countries – far more than that of the USUS,’ says Ayesha Thomson, a single parent who works part-time in human resources, of her decision to fund her 13-year-old son’s £40-an-hour Mandarin classes. She is far from alone in thinking fluent Mandarin is the key to career longevity. In 2005, eight per cent of state secondary schools offered Chinese: now it’s 13 per cent. Chinese has also overtaken German to become Britain’s most popular language at A-level.
Sir Martin Sorrell, founder of advertising giant WPP, recently said that the only two languages that children need to learn are Chinese and coding. As you might expect from a school costing £5,830 a term, British-Chinese prep school Kensington Wade in West London teaches both. ‘Everything points towards an increasingly interconnected world in which China will play a dominant role,’ says head teacher Jo Wallace. ‘Our parents believe the ability to speak more than one language will help future-proof their child. Research has shown that learning a language boosts brain power. Dual-language children tend to have a better understanding of other people’s point of view, and more mental flexibility in dealing with complex situations.’
But Jeremy Pounder, futures director at global media agency Mindshare, sees it differently. ‘Today’s generation of children is being exposed to incredibly advanced technology from a very early age,’ he says. ‘As a parent, I’m working hard to equip my children with the tools to be able to think independently, and be comfortable questioning the content they are shown – after all, with the advent of “fake news” and the rise of incredibly realistic artificial intelligence [AI], the lines between real and virtual are more blurred than ever.’
We should ‘foster the most human skills – curiosity, empathy and creativity’ he says. ‘This could encourage your child to interact with others in the playground. Or give them a simple toy, such as a cardboard box, to stimulate their sense of imagination – it can open the doors to endless possibilities.’
The tech titans of Silicon Valley agree. They may be making billions by creating the gadgets and apps that are reshaping our world at an alarming rate, but they don’t want their children anywhere near them. Instead, they’re sending them to Waldorf Schools (or Steiner Schools, as they’re known in the UK), where primary-age school children are taught how to sew, churn butter and dig vegetable gardens. Screens are banned until pupils are 13, work isn’t marked and there are no standardised tests. Of course, this homespun vision of simplicity comes with a hefty bill of £15,000 a year for nursery, and £31,000 a year at senior school.
So parents needn’t panic if their children aren’t learning coding? No, says Andreas Schleicher, director of education and skills at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). At a recent innovation summit he described it as ‘just one technique of our times’, and urged schools to teach data science or computational thinking instead. ‘You teach [it] to three-year-olds and by the time they graduate they will ask you “Remind me, what was coding?” That tool will be outdated very soon.’
‘Future-proofing is all about adaptability,’ notes Lucy Quick, founder and principal of Perform, a drama school that focuses on building children’s confidence. ‘You can’t know what skills your child will need, but you can equip them with the social skills to rise to challenges and come out on top. If you’re confident, articulate, a team player, have great leadership skills and are able to improvise and adapt, then you are equipped for most jobs.’
‘Learning is the job now,’ confirms Kathryn Parsons MBE, co-founder and co-CEO of Decoded, a global tech company that aims to increase digital literacy. Parsons predicts that data scientists and engineers will be in particular demand, and is passionate about encouraging girls to pursue these careers, given a 2017 report by the Chartered Institute for IT showed that just 17 per cent of those working in technology in the UK are female. ‘Employers are looking for problem-solving skills, an appetite to learn, adaptability and speed,’ she says.
Which is what they’ve always been looking for, surely? ‘There’s a lot of uncertainty about the jobs that could be lost to automation, but the reality is many of these roles will simply change, rather than be rendered obsolete,’ says Mindshare’s Jeremy Pounder. ‘The most vulnerable jobs are those that are highly repetitive and easily replaced by AI – driving is a good example.’ But the jobs with a high degree of social or creative intelligence, or even great manual dexterity, such as hairdressing, are most resistant to automation, according to the OECD. Great news for hairdressers, but what of journalists? Should I be dissuading my daughter from following in my footsteps?
‘Journalists have witnessed a profound period change. Print has gone online, social platforms have, arguably, become media companies in their own right, and fake news “bots” have tarnished the media landscape,’ says Pounder. ‘But slow, quality journalism is having a resurgence. The public is hungry for sources of news they can trust.’
Personally, I’ve decided to let my daughter make up her own mind, rather than packing her off to Mandarin lessons (she currently does one extracurricular activity – musical theatre – and she even wants to quit that). Thankfully, I know enough non-tiger mums to ensure that my attitude is far from unique. ‘It’s better to equip your kids with EQ [emotional intelligence], not IQ,’ reckons Carolyn Asome, a fashion consultant and mother-of-three. ‘That’s what will really future-proof them: having the resilience to deal with whatever life throws at them. My eldest child sees me mess up regularly, and how I pick myself up and get on with it. The problem with a lot of these parents packing their kids off to extra classes is that they live a comfortable life. They don’t practise what they preach. I’m trying to make my children resilient. But the only way you gain resilience is by putting yourself out there.’
Which echoes the words of the author and TED speaker Simon Sinek, who contentiously blamed ‘failed parenting strategies’ for the narcissistic, ‘quitterish’ tendencies of the millennial generation. ‘They were told they were special [and] could have anything they want,’ he said. ‘They got medals for coming last. Then they were thrust into the real world.’ Ouch. No, we can’t predict the future. But if we can teach our kids resilience, at least they’ll be well-prepared for whatever it holds.
Yes, you can be a vape guru!
Not so long ago these bonkers-sounding jobs didn’t exist… so who knows what our children could end up doing?
Caroline Apsey, 33
Regardless of what her lofty title might suggest, Caroline’s work has nothing to do with religion or the weather. She works for the tech giant Oracle, helping companies use ‘The Cloud’ – software and services that run on the internet – in creative ways to boost their business.
A sports science graduate who has no coding skills and only moved into the tech field to pay off her debts, Caroline says developing software to help beekeepers track the state
of their hives remotely is her most famous project to date. ‘We can measure weight, heat, humidity, even bee language,’ she explains, ‘and can tell the beekeeper if the bees are “talking” about leaving the hive 21 days before they do.’
Other projects her company has worked on include a changing-room mirror that can suggest a handbag or shoe to match a certain outfit, and a wristband that acts like a credit card for guests at a five-star hotel.
Salary: £55,000 to £100,000.
Henry Fletcher, 28
Most of what Henry does is top secret. He isn’t MI5, though – or so he says; instead his work involves creating drones for airborne home deliveries and investigating the safety issues attached to such proposals.
‘Something capable of carrying a 20kg load isn’t what you want landing in the garden of your terraced house,’ says Henry, who has worked on projects involving Ocado’s warehouse drones. ‘Drones can be two metres across and pretty noisy. In test flights, I have seen people’s dogs go bananas when one of these things attempted to land in their garden.’
Henry has developed a drone that hovers in the air and drops its ‘load’ using a parachute, which he is in discussions about bringing to market. ‘They are usually pretty accurate, but once one of our loads got caught in the upward blast of the drone’s propellers, which nearly caused the whole thing to blow up.’
Henry, who grew up trying to make toys airborne, studied engineering at Cambridge University and is now employed by Cambridge Consultants, which has worked with brands including Nasa and Nike. Unfortunately, ‘drone technology is being held back by legislative and social worries,’ says Henry. ‘There are concerns about privacy and the system being hacked.’ Undeterred, however, he is currently looking at ways drones can deliver fresh vegetables from field to plate without going via a supermarket.
Salary: £45,000 to £62,000.
Grace Fforde, 26
After finishing her master’s degree in ancient Indian philosophy, rather than pursue a career in ethical investment as planned, Grace started selling her old clothes on social shopping app Depop (@graceff). She now has over 47,000 followers, shifts up to 50 items a week and is about to put down a deposit on a four-bedroom house in South London.
‘It’s very millennial running a business from your phone,’ Grace says. ‘My parents have finally stopped asking what my real job is.’
Grace sells clothes from the 1990s and 2000s and trawls markets and warehouses for stock, working up to 12 hours a day. Such is her success on Depop – which has ten million users, most of them under 25 – she is now looking to employ a full-time assistant to help her pack and send the clothes.
It’s Grace’s passion for sustainability that is the driving force behind her business – she hasn’t bought a new item of clothing for four years. With the UK throwing away a staggering £12.5 billion of clothing each year, it’s second-hand selling sites such as Depop that are helping to promote the recycling and upcycling of garments, she believes.
Salary: £30,000 to £35,000.
Sam Irving, 29
Sam once ate three dozen custard doughnuts in order to replicate the flavour perfectly. However, he is not a chef but is in charge of producing the flavours added to e-cigarettes.
Sam, from Edinburgh, concocts hundreds of so-called ‘e-liquids’ from food-based artificial flavourings at the UK’s largest vape shop VPZ. Working with the help of an in-house chemist, it can take four to six months for an e-liquid to go from an idea to the finished product. The company currently has more than 500 flavours.
‘It’s all very Willy Wonka,’ says Sam. ‘Sometimes we work towards a brief, other times I just sit there and come up with ideas.’
It can often take as many as 40 versions to get the flavour just right – and considerable real-life research, such as buying dozens of doughnuts. And, of course, not all flavours
are successful. His most disastrous one was an attempt to reproduce a classic Christmas dinner. ‘We put in turkey, potato and cranberry flavours but the end result tasted awful.’ However, Sam says, it still wasn’t the worst flavour he has ever tried. ‘That was called hamburger – it was like vaping a wet dog.’
Quitting his own 30-a-day cigarette habit in 2013 and experimenting with homemade vape flavours led Sam to the unusual role. Having shared recipes online with other enthusiasts he gained recognition, and eventually landed a job inside the fast-growing £1 billion industry.
His most popular liquid – VO Tobacco, which tastes like tobacco and is used to help people give up smoking – has sold 750,000 units to date. To be a vape mixologist, Sam says, there are no formal qualifications needed, but ‘a good palate is essential’.
Salary: £20,000 to £50,000.
Kim Havelaar, 39.
As millennials increasingly reject Britain’s boozing culture, a nonalcoholic drink is taking over: tea. With the popularity of the cuppa on the rise – there are now 68 countries producing thousands of varieties of tea worldwide, and more than 13 million people in the UK drink tea outside the home – those keen to savour it like a fine wine can turn to tea sommelier Kim as their guide. At her award-winning tea brand Roqberry, Kim creates unusual teas including Sushi & Spice – a Japanese green tea with flavours of ginger, wasabi and seaweed.
After ditching her job in commercial operations three years ago, Kim enrolled on a two month course at the UK Tea Academy in Northwest London. Here she learned everything from optimal growing conditions to tea etiquette and ideal food pairings. As well as a theoretical exam, Kim had to identify and correctly brew a ‘mystery tea’ to earn her title of sommelier.
Of her new calling, Kim says, ‘Finding the right blends is always interesting, especially getting the level of spice right. But the best thing is seeing people’s reaction to trying my teas for the first time, especially if they’ve told me they “only drink coffee’’.
Salary: £30,000 to £50,000.
Pete Reis-Campbell, 31.
His job may involve using digital techniques to build companies’ profiles online, but Pete is unlikely to trouble Interpol – his work is entirely legitimate.
The founder and CEO of London-based Kaizen agency, Pete can improve a company’s ranking on Google and use social media influencers to boost brands, and create a sense that customers who are not engaging with the company are somehow missing out. He can also bury bad news online and, he reveals, has had several high-profile people – including one former dragon from BBC series Dragons’ Den – asking him to push down a bad news story on Google rankings. ‘There was also a company named in the Panama Papers [the 2015 leak of 11.5 million offshore tax files] that came to us,’ Pete says. ‘I turned them both down.’
A self-confessed geek, Pete built his first website, dedicated to the US cartoon series The Simpsons, at the age of 11. After discovering the search engine Ask Jeeves would pay him two pence every time someone clicked on its page, he hacked into his school’s 400 computers and set each homepage to the search engine’s one – ensuring he made around £60 per day in clicks.
By 18, he was making up to £30,000 a year in online advertising, and set up his company Kaizen from his bedroom. His parents, he admits, had no idea what he was up to. ‘My dad is not tech literate at all. He still tells people down the pub that I’m a web designer.
‘Now I have a team of 20 and a fancy office and my parents are proud of me, but I would never use the words “growth hacker” when talking to them – they wouldn’t have a clue what I was on about.’
He credits his grandmother for his technological nous. ‘She had a GameBoy and constantly played Tetris. She started off my nerd-ism.’
Salary: up to £150,000.