Derek Newton: “I write about education including education technology (edtech) and higher education. I’ve written about these topics and others in a variety of outlets including The Atlantic, Quartz and The Huffington Post. I served as vice-president at The Century Foundation, a public policy think tank with an emphasis on education and worked for an international education nonprofit teaching entrepreneurship. I also served as a speech writer for a governor of Florida, worked in the Florida legislature and attended Columbia University in New York City.”
This appeared in Forbes on July 26. 2018
At a time when facts and figures are tossed around indiscriminately, it is well to remember that school reform rationales have too often been anchored in false statistics. One example will do. For nearly forty years, business and civic leaders have claimed that schools are failing to prepare the next generation for a workplace or as a recent IBM report put it: “ … sixty-five percent of children now in primary school will work in job types that don’t exist today.”
This figure of “65%” has been picked up and disseminated repeatedly by corporate leaders, top public officials, and academic researchers to prod schools to adopt business practices in preparing children and youth to enter an ever-changing workplace. That the percentage has no credible source, seems to have been made up and then blazoned on the bandwagon of school reform for nearly four decades is what Newton points out in this piece For a more detailed inquiry to the source of the fake 65%, see Benjamin Doxtdater, “A Field Guide to ‘Jobs That Don’t Exist Yet.”
The movie The Big Short opens, more or less, with this quote from Mark Twain, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”
It appears, though, that Twain never said that. Which makes the quote insightful, ironic and appropriate for what we are sure we know about technology, the future of work and the shortcomings of our education systems.
A fairly loud chorus knows for sure that three things are true – that technology is going to deeply and massively change the nature of work, that our schools, and colleges and universities in particular, aren’t preparing future workers for those future jobs and that a failure to quickly adopt massive changes in the way we teach will result in certain doom for future workers, businesses and the global economy.
In May, IBM, the global advice and technology leader, sang a version of that tune with a released report called, “The six new competencies Industrial companies need on their path to digitization.” The first statistic in that report is, “ … sixty-five percent of children now in primary school will work in job types that don’t exist today.” IBM highlights the figure and used it in social media ads to promote the report.
Which brings us back to the Twain quote that opens The Big Short. Not only is this 65% statistic something we know for sure that just ain’t so, the stat itself is fake – simply, it appears, made up.
The footnote in the IBM report leads to this 2016 article in Fortune Magazine by John Chambers who was then the executive chairman of Cisco. In it, Chambers wrote, “ … it is estimated that 65% of children entering primary school today will work in job types that don’t even exist yet.”
It is estimated. That’s it. No footnote. No source.
A similar stat appears in a report by the World Economic Forum called “The Future of Jobs and Skills,” also in 2016. It says, “65% of children entering primary school today will ultimately end up working in completely new job types that don’t yet exist.” And that statement footnotes to “McLeod, Scott and Karl Fisch, “Shift Happens.””
ShiftHappens is a series of viral YouTube videos from 2007. The videos are great but so dated at this point that it seems other-worldly to see references to the growth in MySpace as evidence of our technology future. But the problem isn’t the date, it’s the fundamental accuracy.
Scott McLeod, J.D., Ph.D. and associate professor, Educational Leadership, University of Colorado Denver, one of the creators of the videos, told me that the 65% stat, “ … indeed, is not a statistic we ever used! .. Not sure where it came from.”
McLeod isn’t the first or only person to have expressed bewilderment with this statistic. In 2017, the BBC did an entire segment debunking the “65% of primary school” idea. Also in 2017, Benjamin Doxtdator did some great research on the stat and found, “ … the claim is not true.” According to Doxtdator, “ … versions of it date from at least to 1957.”
If you think about it, the idea that 65% of kids will take jobs that don’t exist today is implausible. To be real, coming technology would need to replace jobs like chefs, dog walkers, lawyers, software engineers, bank employees and directors of non-profits entirely, and within in a decade or two. That should be inconceivable on its face.
So, it’s an embarrassing wonder that IBM used it as recently as May of this year to make the case that businesses and schools need to gear up for major, inevitable changes in technology and prepare for a new generation of workers.
When asked, IBM repeated the premise of technology disruption in the workforce. “IBM’s position on this issue is that AI may not replace every job, but it will change every profession. So, jobs as we know them today, will be different in the future,” an IBM spokesperson said.
And, to be fair, IBM isn’t the only one to get that stat wrong. As noted, the World Economic Forum, Fortune (via Cisco) and others have repeated it without checking.
And that’s the problem. It’s one thing to see statistics tossed around by anonymous sources in backroom bulletin boards. Those should often and rightly be ignored. But when otherwise credible sources such as IBM and WEF peg entire research reports to false, narrative-forming points, it’s damaging to the necessary and honest debates about what we should expect from employers and schools.
Yes, we should be more skeptical about the things we read. But IBM and others should also do better than just repeating statistics they hear in the chorus, which feels like the place to remember something else Mark Twain said, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies and statistics.”
And as true as that feels, no, it seems Twain didn’t say that either.