Let’s face it. The world is becoming more complex than our individual capacity to adapt to the changes. Knowledge inequality is on the rise and if we are left on the lower side of the spectrum, we become truly vulnerable.
In a world where elections can be so easily manipulated by algorithms on social media, where machine learning or deep learning is already impacting most of us even if we don’t realise it, or where a change in the interest rate can immediately impact everyone’s income, we simply cannot afford to leave our educational systems behind. Most educational systems were founded on the principles of the 19th century Industrial Revolution decades ago and simply do not respond to today’s needs.
If you don’t understand how the economy works, how your government affects your daily life (and income), how you can use the latest mass technology, can you still be considered a free citizen? We have access to more information and knowledge than ever before, but do we also have the capacity to understand it?
We need to upgrade the “baseline” and bring literacy to the next level, one that can enable anyone to think critically. And for that, we should focus on 3 fundamental areas of skill development for this century:
According to Standard&Poor’s Global Financial Literacy Survey, out of 144 countries there are 119 where more than half of the population is financially illiterate. For ±70 countries the financial illiteracy rate is even over 65% (including in some EU and OECD countries).
Pause for a second to reflect on that. Billions don’t have the minimum financial skills to succeed in today’s world.
That has an effect on basically everyone, because low financial literacy means most are at the mercy of the banks or the financial system in general, borrowing and spending more than they can afford, saving less than they should or in some countries realising they will have a pension that will barely allow them to live normally when it’s too late.
Financial literacy is also strongly related to individual freedom. When we understand financial concepts, we have higher expectations from our politicians and policymakers and we can keep them accountable much easier. When we don’t, we risk falling victims of fake news or populism.
All of that sounds a bit gloomy (and it is). But let’s also look at the bright side. Young people, seniors and many others want to develop their financial skills.
The European Commission has recently published a report where financial skills where in the top 3 skills that young people are asking for in the European Union. In our nonprofit we have been involved in a small research on NEET (Not in Education, Employment or Training) youth where financial skills were topping the needed skills, among others. I have also heard many, including seniors, who were genuinely interested in learning more about saving, money management, loans and so on, but didn’t know where to start or look for reliable information.
There is a clear, visible need out there and we need to deliver on it. Advocate for it as citizens or nonprofits, deliver it if we have the capacity as organizations, implement it in the core educational system if we are policymakers.
A few months ago I facilitated a workshop for a youth civic engagement programme and we simulated together a few scenarios to see how much tax do we actually pay as individuals or families to the state every year. We took into account income tax, social contributions, VAT (sales tax) for most things we spend money on, as well as the additional taxes we pay for things like alcohol, gasoline or tobacco. The results shocked everyone. If you calculate it roughly for yourself you’ll probably have a similar reaction. Basically more than 2/3 of our income goes in a way or another to the state and there are just a few people out there who actually decide what is happening with those funds. People who we have the power to elect (at least in some countries). And yet voting and civic engagement are not quite a priority for many.
To be active citizens we first need to be aware of what’s happening. To understand how the “system” works and what our role is in it to shape it. In many countries civic education classes from the formal education system are boring, useless and not developing any actual skills. That needs to change fast.
Lack of genuine civic literacy leads at its best to voter apathy and at its worst to populism and extremism. People who lack civic skills are more vulnerable to being exploited by reckless politicians and quickly afterwards to growing divisions in society, as other people start blaming those who voted for populists for the country’s problems. All of that creates a vicious circle.
Even worse, as Brexit has shown (check out the movie “Brexit: The Uncivil War” with Benedict Cumberbatch for some interesting insights), social media can be used as a political weapon to access private data and “steer” voters to a certain cause. That puts into question democracy itself, as we question who is actually in control, the voter or those who are behind the algorithms. And the less informed the voter, the less control he or she has. But they really wanted to “take back control”, didn’t they? 😛
Recently I was watching Netflix’s “Knock Down the House” documentary and its ending really captured the essence of civic engagement, as Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (a 29-year-old member of the US House of Representatives who ran for office without any prior political experience, strongly led by her beliefs for community change) told a story about her father. Sitting on the steps of the US Capitol when she was a child, he gave her a simple and yet fundamental lesson of democracy: “Everything that you see here is yours, is mine, is ours”.
And he was right. A country belongs to its citizens. Politicians are there to serve, not to be served. And when more of us will understand that and act on it, our communities will look different.
By 2030 no less than 9 out of 10 jobs will require digital skills. At the same time, 800 million jobs are estimated to be replaced by automation, according to the World Economic Forum. And to top it off, machine learning and deep learning are strenghtening algorithms every day, with some soon to become better than humans at various tasks.
As the world becomes increasingly digital, we need to make sure nobody is left behind. Today toddlers are already using tablets and are more connected than ever. Some children even become global celebrities by age 10 or less, with millions of global followers of their age. All of it while many who grew up in a totally non-digital world are struggling to adapt.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution will certainly also create hundreds of millions of jobs. But will those jobs be open to those who lack advanced digital skills or will require cutting-edge learning? When accountants’ and lawyers’s day-to-day work will be automated, will there be enough of them with sufficient skills to do the creative, high-level work required at that point which will not be automated? What will a person who is 55 do if their career suddenly disappears and is automated, with 10 years left until retirement and not enough skills to go to the next level or switch to a career in demand at that time? We don’t have answers for this now, but we need to start reflecting on it and be proactive.
Is this enough? Certainly not. It can be a first step. But until then…
What can you do?
→ INDIVIDUALLY: Learn as long as you live. Learning has no age and certainly doesn’t stop when you graduate anymore. Be curious, be prepared to switch to a totally new career at one point, try to better understand the world you live in and most importantly, help others do it too. Subscribe to dynamic educational channels on YouTube, read quality magazines, stay informed from reliable sources.
→ IN YOUR COMMUNITY: Volunteer your time for educational programmes OR launch yourself educational programmes on Literacy 2.0 skills for those who need them. Join a local, national or global NGO which you identify with and help deliver programmes on financial, civic, digital, critical thinking skills. You don’t have to be an expert, you can find a role suitable for you.
→ AS A CITIZEN: Advocate to make sure the basic skills for the 21st century are being taught in schools or through non-formal methods. Promote these causes online on your social media channels, petition your politicians who represent you (or call them, request a meeting, do online advocacy), volunteer for campaigns organised by various organizations, vote for parties who have this on their agenda. Or if you are already active in an NGO, take action directly and get your community around your needs and goals, publish policy papers, advocate on them to enact legislative changes.
Just don’t wait for others to do something.
“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” (Alvin Toffler)
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