Digital Literacy and the Future of Work (Part 1)

I’ve been following the emerging debate among futurists about what impact automation and artificial intelligence (AI) will have on our jobs. One presenter I viewed who spoke at a regional TEDx event a few years ago predicted that in the next decades, as many as 50% of human jobs will go away. He said this will be great for humanity, because the need to work is essentially a form of slavery anyway. He suggested that once all those jobs are gone and the work is being done for us by machines, we’ll all have plenty of time to ponder the meaning of life and our human existence! This struck me as absurd on so many levels; but it is one view of the future of work that is out there for consumption.

I prefer a more reasoned analysis coming from the World Economic Forum,[1] McKinsey Global Institute[2] and UK Economic Outlook.[3] They predict that, similar to other bursts of innovation since the first industrial revolution, new technologies do take away some jobs but they also generate economic growth and new jobs/careers in other areas.

The World Economic Forum states its conclusion about the current wave of AI and automation as follows. “It is important to note that while automation will change 50% of jobs, it is not expected to eliminate more than 5%. Rather than being replaced by computers, most workers will instead work alongside rapidly evolving machines.” [4]

The report goes on to observe there will be an increase in jobs that call for high-end coding and programming, that is – information communication technology (ICT) specialists. The forecasters also talk about how digital tools and digital literacy itself will need to be stronger among the general workforce.

The need for digital skills in real time

In the last two days, I’ve observed two examples where workers needed to have more advanced digital skills.

First, we’ve seen the news about the debacle relating to getting the local Democratic caucus results in Iowa sent to the central party headquarters. Apparently, there were some flaws in the computer app itself that was supposed to be used for reporting the local results. There was also a reported degree of human error or perhaps insufficient training on how to use the technology. I think there’s a good chance that some local users weren’t as sufficiently well versed in digital adaptability and problem solving as they could have been.

I also experienced a personal foul-up with a local medical practice that scheduled me for an appointment, but then cancelled the appointment from their scheduling software; unfortunately, a digital notification about the cancellation didn’t reach me. I remember when I originally scheduled the appointment, the appointment staff person mentioned the two networked offices were phasing in a new scheduling platform, while also phasing out the old platform. Again, the problem (a dropped appointment) may have been the convergence between human error and a technical glitch in the design of the software.

“Rapidly Evolving Machines” & “Digital Literacy”

So, as the World Economic Forum brief notes, we as workers must interact with “rapidly evolving machines.” Anything that is “rapidly evolving” also means it may not work perfectly, and the human user also needs to be learning rapidly how to interact with the new tool.

This requires a level of proficiency in what workforce analysts call “Digital Literacy.” What is digital literacy itself?

If every worker needs to have a higher level of digital literacy so we can work WITH the machines and digital tools, then business leaders, educators, and policymakers need to get on the same page to define what Digital Literacy IS and HOW we can help develop it and grow it among current workers and the future workforce.

Digital Literacy, Anyone? In my next post, I’m going to share some helpful definitions of literacy that can inform our work. I’ve already found some good resources, but PLEASE share what you’re using or have heard of that might be helpful. Send any information you have to [email protected].


[1] World Economic Forum, January 17, 2020, “Jobs will be very different in 10 years.  Here’s how to prepare.”)

[2] McKinsey Global Institute, May 2018, “Skill Shift Automation and the Future of the Workforce”

[3] John Hawksworth and Yuval Fertig of PwC Economics Practice, “What will be the net impact of AI and related technologies on jobs in the UK?, UK Economic Outlook, July 2018

[4] World Economic Forum, January 17, 2020, “Jobs will be very different in 10 years.  Here’s how to prepare.”)

Hans Meeder is President of NC3T, the National Center for College and Career Transitions ( NC3T provides planning, coaching, technical assistance and tools to help community-based leadership teams plan and implement their college-career pathway systems and strengthen employer connections with education. 

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