Monday, March 21, 2016

Education and The 'Fourth' Industrial Revolution : 1

Whether we call it the 'Second' Machine Age or the 'Fourth' Industrial Revolution, the idea that we are at some kind of technological tipping point - that moment in history where society would change - seem to have consensus. Such change, going by historical experience, means different things, doing new things and not doing old things as well as finding new ways of doing old things. This transformation, all these new ways, is a function of education.

There are winners and losers of the transformation so far. All economic evidence points to a massive loss of privilege for the middle classes, though the feel-good factor of house prices somewhat soothed the effect. In fact, the stagnation of middle class life, despite all the excitements of Uber-hailing cabs, is present and clear, making the economists question whether the Information Technology revolution has had much beneficial impact on living standards, particularly in comparison with earlier episodes of industrial progress (specifically, when compared against the 'Second' Industrial Revolution, the late Nineteenth century period running upto the Great War).

This observation is perhaps more true for the Developed countries than the Developing. Life has indeed got better in Asia, Latin America and Africa in general, and a large part of that could be attributed to the progress in Information and Communication technologies. This, combined with the expanded global cooperation at the end of Cold War, enabled a new wave of globalisation, giving birth to a new word, Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) and a complete ecosystem of people, ideas and education. 

Consider India, as an example: It built a huge BPO industry since the 1990s, which now employ millions of workers, which has been a job-creating miracle. This meant a number of things, including a newfound love for English language (in the 80s, many Indian states made the attempt to promote local language education, but by 90s, those efforts were dead in the water), massive expansion of education of a certain kind (Engineering College capacities expanded more than a thousand times in twenty years), change in the composition of labour force (more women and minorities in mainstream jobs and careers). This meant other things too: Courtships and marriages across caste and language barriers became far more common; mobility, always a problem in India with its language and ethnic barriers, became more common; Young graduates started looking for jobs in large Indian BPO companies rather than the public sector, and marriage market started putting a greater premium on these jobs.

The point about the 'Fourth' Industrial Revolution, though, is that we are now entering a very distinct phase of technological progress. There is anxiety about how this will play out, and the coining of the term, Second Machine Age captures some of it. As the capabilities of machines increase, the 'jobs' that sustain Middle Classes may further contract, and by one estimate, half of the current occupations, including the popular ones such as Book-keepers and Taxi-drivers, may become obsolete. The optimistic vision of it, while accepting that this would indeed be the case, point to the fact that newer professions may emerge. And, while the newer jobs may not numerically offset the loss of existing ones, the optimists point out that we may be reaching a point on the technology learning curve that may translate the technological progress into standard of life benefits. However, all these, the emergence of new jobs as well as translating technological progress into standards of life benefits, demand a new form of education, which is not yet forthcoming.

Before speculating what form that education may take, however, it is worth thinking what impact this 'Fourth Industrial Revolution' may have on the Developing World, and particularly India, as this is the country poised to supply a quarter of the new workforce of the world in the coming decades. Some shifts are already visible. Despite its massive size, the BPO industry has stopped growing, though it continues to recruit new people because of its massive churn. The recent US-India WTO dispute around the H1B Visa Fees also point to the shape of things to come: The political will in the United States (and in other developed countries) to allow the Globalisation of Jobs to continue is sapping. Chinese data may be hard to come by, but one estimate points to loss of at least a third of the contract manufacturing jobs on like-for-like basis, primarily due to the near-shoring of manufacturing enabled by increased automation: The same is now happening in services. Applying the same formula used by Oxford economists Frey and Osborne, the ones to predict the threat of automation to half of the occupational categories, three quarters of Indian BPO jobs may become automated in the next decade. Indeed, in India, most of the recent new job growths have come from sectors servicing domestic consumers, as their incomes and consumption has expanded. The Engineering college expansion has somewhat given way to Skills education, aimed at developing tradesmen but one that has really evolved into servicing the needs of sectors such as Retail, Automotive, Banking, Telecom and Education. While this has helped hundreds of thousands of people to find employment (many of them Engineers stuck in non-technical, non-graduate jobs with a low wage), this is basically the second act of the impoverishment of the Western Middle Classes: The maturity of technology revolution is now inflicting the same misery on the Indian Middle Classes, the very people who benefitted from the cheap job phenomena at the beginning.

How would Education - and particularly Post-Secondary Education, being at the faultline of life of learning and working life - respond to all this? The hangover of the immediate past still dictates policy-making, the Western countries want the universities to host incubation centres and Developing countries are still building Engineering schools, but the world has moved on. The middle classes, caught inbetween the peaks and troughs of globalisation, are sleepwalking, trying to cling to outmoded aspirations and illusory promises of national grandness, falling pray to demagogues everywhere. At this point, the educational challenge and the educational possibility has peaked into a perfect storm, allowing spaces for education innovation, infeasible at normal times but obvious at moments like this.

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