Are Indian youth equipped mentally and culturally to face the challenges that the Internet era throws at them?

As technology changes our day-to-day lives in ways that were unfathomable only a few decades ago, the world of work is also undergoing a parallel transformation. In his bestselling book, The World is Flat, Thomas Friedman argues that the twin forces of globalisation and technology, especially the Internet, are rapidly and radically altering how and whom we work for. A click of a mouse can erase geographic boundaries, and routine jobs are increasingly getting automated. Social networks, online retailing, e-books and GPS maps have revolutionised how we socialise, shop, read and navigate our worlds. As a result, new jobs are being continually created that require different mindsets than traditional manufacturing jobs. The aptitude and skills that the 21st Century worker needs are indeed quite different from those that his predecessors required, argue renowned educationists.

Ethical mindset

Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner states that five kinds of minds will be valued in the future. As human beings continue to break new frontiers of knowledge from miniscule nano particles to gargantuan galactic spaces, specialised knowledge is going to be increasingly prized. Gardner argues that experts in particular domains or disciplines will play important roles. Research across domains as diverse as chess to physics to dance indicates that it takes about ten years for a person to become adept in a field. Second, as we are bombarded with information from diverse media, the mind that can gather information from various sources and synthesise it in a meaningful way will be critical. Third, as routine jobs get automated, the mind that can extend knowledge or understanding in creative ways will be esteemed. As the world gets more interconnected through the web of globalisation, we need to learn to tolerate and respect difference, be it in the form of language, religion or culture. Finally, in the Indian context, we need to nurture an ethical mindset in students so that they learn to think beyond individual self-interests.

Digital deluge

In a similar vein, educationist, Tony Wagner, says that students need to acquire “seven survival skills” to meet the dynamic demands of an ever-changing workplace. Similar to Gardner, he emphasises the ability to problem-solve and think creatively. Instead of being overwhelmed by the digital deluge of disjointed information, students need to learn to synthesise effectively. As the world gets increasingly specialised, he says that people need to learn to work collaboratively in order to make a difference. He also adds that we need to hone our ability to communicate cogently, both orally and in writing. Clichéd as it may sound, change is the only constant in the future workplace. People, thus, have to demonstrate flexibility and adaptability and not display rigid mindsets. Finally, we have to keep the spark of learning in ourselves alive forever; a willingness to learn and accommodate to the demands of a job will be essential. In fact, Ken Robinson, who writes and lectures extensively on creativity and education, urges us “to adjust to a world where, for most people, secure lifelong employment in a single job is a thing of the past.”

Wagner bemoans the fact that education, unfortunately, has not kept pace with the changing landscape of work. He rightly states that the content schools and colleges teach should be used as a “means of developing competencies, instead of being the goal”. However, school systems across the world are mired in emphasising traditional academic subjects at the cost of honing other talents, according to Robinson. He says that our academic fixation and pervasive testing ends up “stifling the very skills and qualities that are essential to meet the challenges we face.”

The Indian mindset

In an article in The New York Times, Mohit Chandra, a partner with KPMG, complains about the lacklustre quality of Indian graduates. He says that our students need to work on five areas that employers value: communication, creative problem-solving, resourcefulness, curiosity and professionalism. Indian recruits typically expect to be handheld and given detailed instructions for all jobs, and do not necessarily think for themselves. We tend to defer to authority but rarely try to solve problems for ourselves. Students’ thinking is also streamlined into giving the one and only ‘right’ answer that the teacher will award maximum points to. In our culture, we also tend to view a Master’s or doctoral degree as the pinnacle of learning; the idea that we need to continually enhance ourselves is not celebrated in our culture. Even basic rules of conduct like honouring job contracts, sticking to one’s word and being punctual have to be spelled out. As students try to cultivate these traits, our anachronistic educational system also has to wake up to the fact that a notebook does not necessarily have to be made of paper.

In order to make students skilled and savvy for work in the 21st Century, schools and colleges also have to exhibit more innovation, creativity, flexibility and zeal, thereby modelling the very skills they need to impart. Finally, as Gardner says, education in the “broadest sense” cannot be left to schools and colleges alone. Thus, all stakeholders including parents, policy makers and the media have to do their bit to cultivate 360º minds.

The author is director, Prayatna.