The Future Work Economy

A topic I have been thinking about for a while now is what is the future of work, and of employment. There are a number of questions which come up, to which I must say I don’t have any answers.

One question I think about is the expected mismatch between the demand and availability of work in the future. Another is about the possible mismatch between skills requirement and availability.

Coming to the question of expected mismatch between work demand and availability, one dimension we need to consider, when building future scenarios is overall population. We are told repeatedly that technology is meant to make our lives easier, so we can spend more time with our loved ones. While thats a nice idea, what that means is that in the future, we are likely going to see much more work being automated at a global level, with people having to work less and less. This means lower demand for human resources, which could lead to a future this op-ed from Washington Post describes.

That said, however, there is another aspect which we need to consider. This is the fact that while a number of traditional occupations might not be around a few decades from now, there are likely going to be a number of new occupations, or even industries which could be generated over a period of time, as this piece from University of Kent tells us. While video games have been around for a while, no one could have anticipated the level of growth the gaming industry would see, for instance. New occupations and industries, of course, would require different skills, something we need to prepare our children for.

The other dimension is the mismatch between skills demand and availability. With Europe growing older, for instance, Europe will likely need to import workers, and with Africa growing younger, its quite simple to see where the additional workers required would come from.

This is an illustration of possible imbalances we could see in the future. The larger point here is this … the regions of the world which are well-off are likely to have fewer people in working age-groups in the future, while the regions which would have larger working-age populations would likely be unable to give access to the kind of education required to meet the needs of the job market.

Does this mean that it might be important for certain regions of the world to subsidise education and skill-building in other parts of the world? Should Japan, for instance, invest in education/skill-building in India? In other words, are we headed toward a far more integrated world as the viable solution to the problems of tomorrow?

Social Eminence

A discussion I was having the other day with colleagues about eminence and the role of social media in creating the persona of people who are experts at things brought out some rather interesting thoughts. One of the ideas that came out was that social reputation is based on one’s willingness to share knowledge. While I completely agree with that, this viewpoint confuses knowledge with the act of sharing. One can actually share things on social media without really knowing much about them. One of the things I see, for instance, on twitter, is that the rate at which people share links must mean they are reading like probably a thousand words per minute. Quite a few people I know just glance through an article or blog, and share it on social media. This is why I say hat sometime knowledge can be confused with the act of sharing.

Another important thing to understand is that it is very easy to manufacture things on social media. You might have seen a number of quotes from Albert Einstein on the web, and I don’t know how many of them are attributable to him. Taking an instance of a talk show I was watching, the analyst on the show was quoting a long-departed leader as having said something. This didn’t quite sound logical to me, so I started searching. After much searching, I found a blog which told how a lie was fabricated and why, and how it was circulated all over the world over social media. The “fact” may find it’s way twice around the world before folks start finding out. Also, there will be a number of folks on social media who will have spread the word, and very few who would take the effort to validate. What this means is that social eminence can be manufactured, and while there are self-correcting mechanisms which are there in the social ecosystem, these methods may not always be effective in a world with a very short memory. By the time you figure out something is wrong, nobody’s really interested, and setting the record straight is a moot point.

The point I am trying to make is that we need to be selective in the sources we subscribe to, and that we need to do our research before publishing something, a thing which is seldom done.

Folk Dances in India

Heres a nice blog about folk dances in India. The point the author is making is that in India, folk music and dance has two purposes. One is the dedication to God and religion, where the dances play out episodes from the epics or from mythology, and the other is to celebrate life, and to mark the passage of seasons, with their importance to the agricultural cycle, especially the harvest season.

Folk Dances in India

And do check the videos. Really nice ones!

Happy viewing, and Happy Dasahra!

About Education …

Been a while … Not sure whether it was writer’s block, or whether nothing was able to overcome my natural lethargy. I think its the latter, for, one has to be a writer for writer’s block to occur. Be that as it may, ex-boss, friend, and educationist, Prithwis Mukerjee share this link. I found it quite a nice read. The article gives you an understanding of how well schools in different cities are doing. A nice way to foster collaboration within the education system.

Be that as it may, there are a few things i wasnt too convinced about, with the survey. One of the things which stand out are:

“There’s more. Even the top schools exhibit rote learning. They have not been able to display the analytical skills that were expected of students of such top schools,” he explained. 

Serious malaise in the education system? Maybe. I am not one to comment on the broad spectrum of schools in a country as vast and diverse as India. On the other hand, there seems to be some sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy thing with this. Look at it this way … surveys that are run like these, are exam-based. What this means is that as part of the survey, children are probably given a test, and their performance defines whether the school is teaching its students well or not.

And this is where the fallacy comes. A malaise of the education system we are seeing is that there is too much focus on education, far less focus on learning. Schools, parents are more focused on how well the children do in the exams, rather than on whether they actually learn something or not. This means that in a survey like this, schools which focus on rote learning, on the exam-centric form of education will, by definition, outperform schools which might be focusing on learning.

The New York Dispute

Theres a dispute raging about whether Park 51, and the centre for multi-faith dialogue and engagement should go ahead or not. As predicted, passions run high. The question that comes up, though, is whether this is about religion at all or not. Looking at it as a political dispute is also probably missing the basic idea. It is, i feel, more about the attitide people have for others different from themselves, and though i have no opinion, either for or against, i am just trying to look at the larger picture of intolerance and misunderstanding that provides the backdrop for this, and a number of other disputes raging across the world. I do feel this is more about attitude and ignorance than anything else.

There is an interesting piece written by Mr. Ashok Malik in Hindustan Times about A Strange Crusade. There is a picture of an a protestor holding a placard saying “you can build a mosque at ground zero when we can build a synagogue at Mecca”. Interesting, that, isnt it? Well, there are places in the world where religions can co-exist. Yes, there can be disputes, but they dont necessarily need to go out of hand, do they? There are numerous examples of this from around the world. Interestingly, there are quite a few examples of this in South Asia, considered one of the most volatile regions in the world. No, i am not talking from a political perspective, rather from the perspective of the common man, the human being.  I was, for example, recently reading a book titled Empires of the Indus by Alice Albinia, and i feel she has written wonderfully, capturing the synthesis of Islam and Hinduism into a common cultural fabric, which, though sundered by partition, is nevertheless part of the social psyche, the Punjabi Taliban notwithstanding. This, i feel, should be a wonderful demonstration of the way sometimes mutually opposing philosophies (and religions cannot be mutually opposing) can find a way to live together.

This finds much more expression in the Sufi tradition of the sub-continent. Though originating from the Middle East (i havent read much about the history of Sufism, so if you know of a good book which is available in India, please do leave a comment), i feel Sufism came into its own in South Asia, where the tradition drew from the rich heritage of both Hinduism and Islam to build something which is all encompassing, transcending organized religion, looking at The One God. Why this cannot be an example for building a movement towards greater inter-faith engagement i dont know, and where this should be physically located may also not be the central question, in this virtual world of today. Should the movement gather enough steam, the virtual world itself would keep the momentum going. What is more important is attitude.

What i found interesting in the article is that Mr. Malik writes that Christians and Jews paid tax which Muslims didnt have to pay when Cordoba was a part of the Caliphate. Jaziya, if i remember history. Though what that has to do with 2010, New York, or any other part of the world, as Mr. Malik says, i dont really understand. What i also find interesting is:

To laypeople in the West, the Moorish rule of Spain was simply occupation and colonisation by an alien people. That may not be the entirety of the story but it is certainly the popular one.

That may or may not be the entire story, but its the popular one. One mistake we make is that we tend to see history in black or white. History, i feel, is never so. Rather, since history is the story of the changes human civilization has been through, and changes are always gradual, at least at the social level, history is full of transition periods where civilization is changing from one form to another, and these transition periods are shades of grey. There is no “us-or-them” in history, what we see as something which is neatly dividing into pigeonholes is actually more like a flowing river. Or, in other words, what we see as a series of lakes is actually a river. This sentiment is basically assuming that anything Islamic cannot be native to a particular region. But this doesnt consider that its people, culture, psyche which are native to the region, and is a belief system which people adopt, in a way which goes along with their cultural ethos. Which is why you find that the same religion is followed in different ways in different parts of the world.

I feel it is important for us to understand this. That there is no “us-or-them” block which can divide me from the next person, and that we are all in it together. Its not easy to divide the present into neatly divided pigeonholes, just as we cannot divide history on similar lines, for both are defined by the flow of time.

How we Behave

There are times when i go to watch a movie with my son. Of course, these movies are children’s movies, but then, i seem to enjoy them probably as much as he does. Having said that, that’s not what i am writing about. Today, i went to see a movie with him … Toy Story 3. Now, this is one of those few series of movies where the sequel is as good as the original (somewhat gives a reason for them to actually create sequels) but again, that’s not what i am writing about.

So what am i writing about? Going to the theatre was fun. The popcorn and water was fun, too. We had reached a few minutes early for the show, so we had to wait. Which is ok, too. This is about father-son quality time, remember? The movie is in 3D so we had to collect the 3D glasses before going for the movie. And this is what i am writing about.

Actually, not this, but rather, the way we react to things. Sonny was excited about the movie, so he decided that he would get in the queue to collect the glasses (you cant really trust papa with these complex things, can you?). Slowly we moved to the top of the queue. Now, this is not to say that the queue was really a queue. As Jug Suraiya had written a few days back, we Indians don’t believe in vertical queues, but rather, in horizontal queues. Gives each one of the feeling of being close to the gate, window, whatever is the object of the queue, without anyone getting the feeling that they are being discriminated against in terms of distance. This again is something that i am used to, sometimes having participated in this phenomenon.

So what am i writing about? Its simply this. Some people believe that they have the right to reach out and get what is being given, even if that means, no, not breaking the queue, but almost jumping above a child who is being a good boy, standing in queue to approach the window to collect the glasses which would enable him to watch the movie he has been looking forward to for a few weeks now. As we approached the place where the glasses were being distributed (you had to show your ticket and get the glasses), a gentleman walked up to the counter, collected his glasses and walked off. Then a lady, with an infant in her lap walked up to the counter, collected the glasses and walked away. What is interesting is that neither bothered to look at the child standing quietly in the queue. After all, what are these stupid things they call queues?

I tried sarcasm. It usually works. Told my son that aunty (or uncle … choose your pick, i don’t really think its much of a difference) is quite a bit of a hurry, so he should let her get into the queue ahead of him (between him and the counter in other words) and take the glasses. Not that either of them actually got into the queue. They just pushed whoever was in the queue aside, reached out to the counter, and got what they wanted. Your stupidity is to believe in abstract geometrical concepts like lines, which don’t mean much either way.

What i found amazing is that this is the Sunday evening movie-going crowd in Gurgaon. This is the famous “educated Indian middle class” which behaves in a way which one wouldn’t expect from any educated people. And its not just about getting into the queue ahead of people who just happen to be decent enough to not shout scream and so on. What’s also unnerving about this “education” is that “educated” people believe that they can push aside any child as long as its not their child. What this means is that i am here to only ensure that i can push my child through, its ok, whether i push aside any other child, it doesn’t really matter.

The question i have here is just this … is this what education is meant to be? Are these the values, world-views that education is supposed to give to the people it is supposed to uplift? Because here i couldn’t find too many values in the way these “educated” people were behaving. Or is this just the way things are meant to be … the jungle brought to the city? Or am i over-reacting?

About Education

These days, plenty is being written about the education system in India, its inefficiencies, flaws, and how the education system is designed to produce rote learning, rather than real learning, leave aside actual understanding. Though i think this is not the first time this subject is being approached in a creative way. This subject has been approached around four decades ago in a way which is still remembered, a way which is still uttered by students the world over, not just in India. A way which has become sort of an anthem for college students (if not school students too) the world over. If you ask me, i havent seen too many college-goers who dont identify with the song. Even if you havent heard the song before, the words are something which would leave you enthralled. Or at least among my generation they have. Along with the leads, that is. So what am i talking about? Click here to find out.

Well, this preamble was just to build up the idea of the topic. I dont think you would have needed to have been given an introduction to this song. Pink Floyd are a rock icon, and The Wall (especially Part 2) is a youth anthem the world over. If you look at this closely, you will find that the song is about the way the education system is designed to create clones of an assumed perfect archetype of a student, children being able to replicate the tasks that the education systems decides for them in a manner and in terminology that is envisaged by the education system. The role of originality, creativity in the process of learning is totally ignored in this model of education. And this is something which recent films like Taare Zameen Par or 3 Idiots highlight as well. The intolerance of the education system to children who are different, or children who dare to think different. Or those who believe there are other ways to learning than prescribed ones.

But one important thing you would see if you compare the way the idea is presented by Pink Floyd, and by Mr. Aamir Khan is stark. While one is depressing, almost to the point of being deranged, the other is filled with hope, of a day which is tomorrow which is going to be better than it is today. While this could be the general affliction of Bollywood, this could also be an indication of changing times. I would like to assume the latter. The difference between the times when Floyd sang, and Mr. Khan made the movie is simple … the latter is a new world, very different from the former. A world which looks at the future with the eyes of hope, and this hope comes from the past, because the past has seen so many changes, that change is a reasonable assumption from the future. Question then is, how did the past, the last four decades since Pink Floyd see such change? The answer, i think, is simple … this has been because of the contributions of the likes of Pink Floyd, the flower-power folks who tried to think of a world very different from the world of the day, a world where the interactions of people were very different from their own, where people looked at the world around them, both in terms of space and time in ways which were very removed from those before them. And this is how one wave of change builds on another … As Sir Isaac Newton said:

If I have seen further than others, its by standing on the shoulders of giants.

The other day, Hindustan Times carried an article by Sagarika Ghosh about the flaws with the philosophy of 3 Idiots. You can read the article here. I think i disagree with some aspects of the article, but only where she is interpreting the meaning of a movie like 3 Idiots, and not so much in the basic intent of the article. While i agree to an extent that:

It lampoons and trivializes our higher education system as an unrelieved arena of bad teachers, suicidally pressurized students, manic success-oriented parents and evil money seekers who care nothing for learning but only want grades so they can get big jobs and Lamborghinis. Such a caricature is, as we all know, far from the truth.

While i agree that the caricature, any caricature is far from the truth (thats what caricatures are meant for, after all, arent they), there is another aspect which i think gets overlooked in the general discussion that happens. And this is something i like to point out whenever there is a discussion about the way engineering is taught in India. A few years back, i was reading an article (cant find the link, if you can find it, please post it) about a bridge over a river built in China, where everything from designing to procurement to process management, and everything about the bridge was done by students of an engineering college. I dont know whether we in India can claim to have achieved something like this. A point where students learn not just how to apply some formulae to solve a numerical in an exam, but where they can apply concepts to build value. And this is where i think the issue is.

Coming back to the difference between Pink Floyd and Aamir Khan, another aspect which i think has a role to play is the way technology has brought people across the world, across all kinds of faultlines together. And this has been a massive difference in the lives of many.