Rethinking 21st Century Skills

The label - 21st Century Skills - is popular, but the definition behind it are questionable (see the previous post). However, this is not to deny that the skills we need - to live and to be successful - are evolving. One interesting and oft-used thought experiment to figure out what we may need is to compare the experiences of a time traveller traversing through the last century. Say, we could get someone from 1900 to come to the world of 1950, and another person from 1950 to come to year 2000 - who do we think would experience greater changes? It is perhaps the person from 1900, who would see automobiles, aeroplanes, widespread use of electric lighting, airconditioners and tall buildings, who might experience greater changes in the material environment. But it is the person from the later half of the twentieth century, traveling to the threshold of the twenty-first, comfortable at first seeing only incremental changes (faster automobiles, bigger planes, taller buildings and more appliances), would soon discover deeply unsettling new social norms, of living, of parenting, of schooling, of marriages, of dressing, so on and so forth.  Overall, she would see greater stability of personal lives - people living longer and more healthily - but a great turmoil in the families and communities, contrasting greatly with the first half of the century, when war and diseases afflicted personal well-being but people lived in stable communities and within the bounds of defined family norms. 

Skills, particularly as policy makers got involved in it, have assumed a very specific, technical, meaning in the recent years. This is also partly because of the Human Capital theorists, who have seen skills as an external thing, which people can be equipped with, rather than attributes that people may have in themselves. What skills we need, therefore, is a discussion informed by what skills that the employers may need to carry out the business activities, which further reinforces the external nature of skills. Because we define the skills in this very particular way, the context of changing social norms may not sound relevant to the discussion about 21st Century skills. Instead, the discussion about skills has tended to depend on the largely fictional existence about a global labour market, and on the mistaken assumption that employer skill requirements tend to operate independently of the broader social requirements. In summary, skills have become disconnected from lives that we live.

Indeed, the narrowing down the definition of skills is a mistake, because instead of business skill requirements driving the society, it is the changing social norms that define what skills may the businesses need. Going the other way round, as we are trying to do today, create a vast number of people narrowly skilled in tasks that may soon be redundant, clueless about how to live and disengaged from others around them. Skilling, as it stands today, is designed to perpetuate a low-skilled society, rather than creating social engagement and trust that create what may be called a high-skill, productive society. And, instead of answering these fundamental questions about the nature and purpose of skills, the discussion about 21st century skills has increasingly concerned itself with technicalities.

So, the talk about 21st Century skills, being superficial and insufficiently informed by social context, reinforces the schism between life and work, accentuating the social dislocation that underlie modern living. No wonder that most people concerned with skilling complain about lack of motivation on part of the intended beneficiaries. And, besides, despite all the efforts going into skills training, even employers still report a relative decline in workplace skills, and talk about an impending global workforce crisis. And, the failure of the skills practice, instead of prompting inquiry into the nature and purpose of skills, has consolidated the skills orthodoxy to extend its reach to the previously untouched areas - soft skills, as we started to call it - which concern itself with the behavioral aspects of a person rather than his/her technical abilities. 

However, the discussion about soft skills is not an attempt to move away from technicalities, but rather usurping the discussion about motivation and engagement with the technocratic terms. For example, communication has become one of the key soft skills to be covered within this new skills agenda, but the term has been endowed a new, technocratic, specific, meaning. Communication now is no longer being able to communicate in the normal sense, which would invariably require some efforts at understanding the other person and even empathy, but rather the very specific activities such as being able to present, to sell (ideas and commodities) and to speak in some very specific language. Critical Awareness (which has come to mean being anything but critical), Problem Solving (which has become divorced from problem identification), Collaboration (which now has to operate within the context of privatized knowledge) have all become labels without their common sense meanings.

So, in conclusion, it is not that we do not need new skills and abilities to live successfully in the twenty-first century, but the skills and abilities that we need may be broader than those which are being promoted as 21st Century skills. Starting to ask the questions about what we may require to live successfully may be a good starting point, even if this does not fit the narrow technical boundaries of skills discussion as it happens today. In that sense, the discussion about twenty-first century skills may have to be re-imagined, and we should start from the society we live in rather than the job descriptions handed down by the employers.


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