Parents worry about a lot of things—like whether their children will get into college, or become drug addicts, or get abducted by strangers. But I spend a lot more time worrying that my children are going to live with us forever because robots have taken all their potential jobs.
As somebody who has spent her adult life focused largely on two things—studying technology trends and raising children—I’m acutely aware of the effect that continued advances in artificial intelligence could have on my children’s opportunities. After all, a recent McKinsey report predicts that by 2030, when my two children are just joining the workforce, up to 30% of today’s current work will have been automated.
The problem is, we don’t know for certain which particular jobs will be automated years from now, because AI is constantly developing in surprising ways. So while it’s helpful to get a broad sense of which kinds of jobs or skills are most likely to be taken over by robots, all of that is only so useful.
So how do you raise robot-proof children? Helping them develop a broad set of particular skills is the best way to improve their odds of being gainfully and happily employed. Here is a list of things you can do, whatever career path they go down.
Teach them to code: Yes, robots will eventually do most of the actual coding, so this isn’t about coding jobs. The point of learning to code is that there’s no better way to anticipate where automation is heading than to understand what kinds of problems code is or isn’t good at solving. Coding knowledge will also help future workers survive or excel in fields that become increasingly automated. For example, lawyers may do less contract-review work, but more work establishing the rules for contract-reading bots.
Even if your children won’t take a programming class per se, you can still teach them the principles of coding logic with a mobile game like LightBot, toys like Wonder Workshop’s programmable Dash robot, or our new family favorite, the card game Potato Pirates. Yes, these can get expensive—but not compared with feeding your unemployable child for the next 30 years.
Include arts education: We already know arts education is good for the soul and creative thinking. But now it’s essential to foster that kind of creativity as a competitive advantage. That’s because, in general, jobs that involve creativity are less likely to be automated than routine or predictable activities, or those that involve processing large amounts of information.
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Include some after-school art classes in your children’s education (whether that means painting, music or theater) alongside sports or academic enrichment, and look for teachers who focus on creative thinking as much as technical skill. You may need to get creative yourself to find the activity that’s a fit for your child. My eldest loved every kind of arts class, but my youngest was only interested in tech-related activities, so we found a digital art class that suited him better than sculpture and painting.
Nurture emotional intelligence: Even the most breathless forecasts still put the arrival of emotional robots very far in the future. While some chatbots and robots are learning to recognize emotional cues and respond with simulated emotional affect, there are many career paths—like teaching or nursing—that require a level of emotional connection far beyond what any AI will be able to provide. And in any field, nothing will give your child an edge over the machines like a strong empathetic orientation and great interpersonal skills.
A book titled “The Whole-Brain Child” by Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson helped me learn some conversational strategies for prompting emotional self-reflection in my children. Or look for a program like Roots of Empathy, which brings babies into classrooms to teach empathy to elementary-school children.
Rethink the rules: Both the traditional school system and a lot of parenting advice frame child discipline in terms of compliance and rule-following. But rule-following is exactly where robots excel, and where even the most disciplined worker is likely to fall short in comparison. So encourage your children to question rules and think independently—because that fosters the kind of thinking that robots can’t master. Yes, it makes parenting a bit harder in the short term. I regret all the rule-questioning whenever I’m just trying to get my youngest to sleep. But I’m banking on it paying off in a couple of decades.
Insist on self learning: Make sure your children teach themselves at least one significant skill or subject—like a language, a tech skill or an academic subject—to a level of excellence equivalent to at least a year-long course. It’s crucial that your children learn how to learn, not just in the classroom but also on a do-it-yourself basis, because they’ll need to continuously reskill to keep up with rapid technological change.
My children have enjoyed learning digital illustration from tutorials on TutsPlus.com, math via KhanAcademy.org and beginning animation at JAM.com.
Skip entry-level service jobs in favor of entrepreneurship: Many children need part-time or summer jobs to pay for college, contribute to their family’s financial well-being or get a little pocket money. But if you’re insisting that your child take a first job at a store selling, say, coffee or clothes, because you think it will help them build useful work experience—well, think again. Frontline service and retail jobs are widely predicted to disappear, so the experience children gain in these jobs will be far less useful than the experience of starting their own business, since many of them will need to create their own jobs as small-business owners, consultants or freelancers.
Help your children develop an entrepreneurial mind-set and skill set by encouraging them to run their own businesses, even if they are small or time-limited: They could create their own online storefront, selling their own creations or reselling pre-existing products, or run an offline business like dog walking or babysitting. One of my children set up an Etsy store at age 8, with some parental help, and six years later still draws on that experience in a new online business doing art and illustration work by commission.
Talk about the bigger picture: While you’re busy robot-proofing your children, take the time to engage them in the bigger questions that a robotic future will bring, and how they can prepare for a world in which they are likely to be working side-by-side with robots and artificial intelligences.
Movies like “WALL-E,” “Big Hero 6” and “Bicentennial Man” for younger children or “The Matrix,” “Her” and “Robot & Frank” for much older children can give you a starting place for conversations about what kinds of things robots are really good at, and what is uniquely human. The more your children learn to reflect critically on the role of automation in our society and our economy, the more they will be prepared to shape that future.
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