Several highly publicized inventories of OECD Skills Outlook 2013 hit the media last fall and then promptly fell off the radar. They stayed on my radar, waiting for the propitious time to sort my thinking and develop a blog post. (I’m always late to the party.) The full report is 466 pp., including blank pages, extensive front- and back-matter, and a writing style that positively discourages reading except to pluck quotes or statistics, as I do below. Such reports (e.g., the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) also released in Fall 2013, which I also blogged about here) take considerable effort to compile, but they always leave me wondering whether any of them are actionable or worth going to such lengths to assess, compile, and report. Even the executive summaries expend more effort saying what the reports are rather than offering a cogent conclusion and/or recommendation. This style may well be a requirement of advanced bureaucracy.
Skills assessed by the OECD Skills Outlook are described here:
The Survey of Adult Skills, a product of the OECD Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), was designed to provide insights into the availability of some of these key skills in society and how they are used at work and at home. The first survey of its kind, it directly measures proficiency in several information-processing skills — namely literacy, numeracy and problem solving in technology-rich environments.
Information-processing skills are clearly in demand in First World economies, though more and more functions are being automated, leading to a deskilling trend since 2000. Whether such skills are in demand in Second and Third World economies is an open question, as manual labor is still the backbone of such societies, but labor markets and societies change continuously, so demands also change. A sizable gulf exists between different types of labor, and the addition of the home environment rightly or wrongly presumes that the way we all live now is or should be computer- and technology-driven. Thus, interaction with governmental and business entities now takes place online and and requires modern accoutrements, namely, a computer, an Internet connection, and an online presence, none of which existed only 30 years ago (and may no longer exist in 30 years). So much for our refusal to be mere numbers in some grand, demographics database driven by Big Data and monitored by Big Brother.
The PIAAC Survey takes as implicit that information-processing skills now utilized (presumably by white collar individuals, who are being gradually pushed into blue collar situations, e.g., college-educated baristas) will be mostly the same as those in the future, which is an assumption I don’t especially share. Further, the mad rush toward ever-increasing efficiency, productivity, and growth misses the point of wisdom gained from a less-wired existence, such as the value of slowness.
How the U.S. stacks up against other advanced economies is the subject of hand-wringing in this summary of the PIAAC Survey, which contains graphs and stats I purposely omit. Whether by design (subtle nod to some grand conspiracy) or simply the result of shifting values, the U.S. has lost considerable ground when measured against educational standards and achievements abroad, leading to an influx into the U.S. of foreign high-tech workers to fill positions left vacant by, well, vacant U.S. citizens. Why fools rush in to board our sinking ship is a good question, but I guess the rest of the world isn’t any too insulated from American follies, so why not?
If one deals with intelligence as pure abstraction (as shown in the comic below), there should be no worry that skills and understanding are diminishing among educated Americans, or as I sometimes argue, that Americans develop narrow functional skills and expertise minus the ability to form a contextualized, nuanced understanding of modern dilemmas or even a orientating philosophy beyond making money.
This is especially egregious among marketers, press agents, politicians, media pundits, and other would-be shapers of public opinion who apparently believe that
influencing manipulating perception is the same as creating a new reality. Arguments that assert perception is reality I dismiss out of hand.
So what response is demanded by the PIAAC Survey? I lack confidence to assert that I know better than the next, but my suspicion is that deepening reliance on information processing and hollowing out the minds of Americans (by overspecialization or underdevelopment) do not represent very useful antidotes to waves of disruption due to break across the land in the foreseeable future. Our upward trajectory is about to stall and fall, and the needs of society that emerge quickly thereafter will be of a fundamentally different sort from those we now have. Products of our sordid media and educational environments are wholly unprepared to deal with them.