What Are The 21st Century Skills?

We have come to accept that there are certain things called 21st Century Skills. That these are distinct from what used to be 20th century skills, and universal across national boundaries, are implicitly accepted. A common list is also emerging, which include things such as communication, problem solving, critical thinking, initiative, and collaboration, skills that underpin any kind of 21st century work, presumably. 

The list appears in slightly different modified form at different places, but words, as always, hide more than they reveal. We have no commonly accepted definition of any of these things, except claiming, like pornography, we know it when we see it. But it pays to explore the assumptions that lie behind the idea of 21st century skills.

The first assumption, as Philip Brown et al underlines in their insightful Skills Formation in the 21st Century, is that there is a global labour market. The idea that there could be some universal skills valued across national boundaries can only be true if such a labour market exists, which, for all practical purposes, does not. We are acutely aware of various barriers that exist, and we often forget to count xenophobia and cultural stereotyping among them. The very visible (audible, strictly speaking) globalisation of call centre work came with attendant backlash, parodies and eventual limit of expansion. And, if the last few years represent a trend, globalisation has gone backwards as far as labour markets are concerned, both with increasingly protective labour market policies and near-shoring of most activities.

The second assumption behind claims of universality of skills is that skills are independent of the societies around them. However, we know even if there was a global labour market, this may not be true. Brown et al cites the higher salaries of American CEOs, over their European and Japanese counterparts, as an example. In Finland, the teachers are valued more than they are in some of their neighbouring countries. A nurse in Bangladesh does not mean the same thing as in England. An electrician, even an electrician, may not be treated as a skilled person in India. Being a lawyer is a far more lucrative profession in America than in the Philippines. However much globalisation may attempt to steamroll these differences, a manager will be more sought after as a prospective son-in-law than a programmer in India, while the opposite may be true in some other countries.

Apart from the issue that the skills are not secular, but socially defined, it is also important to recognise that skills are value laden and a signifier of social power. Communication may sound harmless enough, but we know that speaking in a certain accent in England signify better communication than another. Exactly how much initiative one should take often depend on the social position of the person. Problem solving may sound wonderful, but it glosses over the essential first step - problem finding - which is not free of social mores. 21st Century, if anything, has carried on the 20th Century traditions of certain people being better endowed than others to participate in certain things in life, and therefore, 21st century skills, in more ways than one, represent more of 20th century skills than a departure of any kind.

In summary, the talk of 21st century skills hide more than it reveals. For example, the excitement about communication and problem solving undermine the more serious-sounding lists explored by, among others, Howard Gardner. Professor Gardner did not use 21st century, which is the buzzword, and instead spoke plainly about the future. His list of the skills for future included Disciplinary Thinking, Creativity, Ability to Synthesize, Ethical Behaviour and Ability to deal with Diversity. Somehow, this list, which adapts better for cross-border adaptation, did not get the traction, perhaps because these relate more to the person that ought to be skilled and less to the industrial requirements, which we take as the starting point of the skills discussion. But this is the most important issue in thinking about 21st century skills - do we start with what it takes to be a whole person or do we start with what employers are telling us - and whether or not it seems so, we may end coming up two distinct lists depending on our starting point.

Also see
Brown, Phillip (2001), Skills Formation in the Twenty-First Century, in Brown, P et al (Eds) (2001), High Skills - Globalization, Competitiveness and Skill Formation, OUP, Oxford.

Gardner, H (2008), 5 Minds for the Future, Harvard Business Press, Boston, MA


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