No one knows precisely what the future holds. Still, in the newly released English translation of his book “Future Skills,” which is distributed by Simon & Schuster, Finnish Futurist, Entrepreneur and Author Perttu Polonen makes a case for a whole new approach to child education and worker training that he believes is critical to preparing future workers for a marketplace destined to be defined by change.
In September of 2021, Polonen sat down with The Debrief to share his thoughts on the type of individuals most likely to succeed in the coming decades and the “soft skills” these future workers will have to master to survive an ever-changing marketplace.
The Debrief: Hi Perttu. Thanks for sitting down with The Debrief. Can you talk a little bit about your education and background?
Perttu Polonen: Thank you so much for having me. So, coming from Finland, I went to school over here [in the U.S.] to study composition. Music was kind of my first love. I was playing cello and piano. I wanted to become a composer, but I invented a tool in high school that helps children learn music theory, and that kind of drew me in with entrepreneurship circles.
TD: What is a Futurist?
PP: They call me a futurist, but I don’t really love that title.
TD: What title would you prefer?
PP: I’m an entrepreneur. But you can say I’m an inventor and an author. I’m also an artist or a composer who turned into a futurist. Or just a person who wants to make the world a better place.
TD: And how old are you right now?
PP: I’m 26
TD: Tell us more about your book “Future Skills.”
PP: It’s the follow-up to my first book “Future Identities.” It was previously released in Europe and is now being published in the US. As the title says, it is about necessary skills in the future.
TD: What are the most in-demand skills right now in 2021?
PP:Adaptability has become kind of the word of the day because of COVID. Because now we have to take responsibility for ourselves when we work remotely. Where do we draw the line between work and leisure? And how do we keep ourselves so that we don’t get thrown out? So, I think adaptability will always be one of the key things. That, and problem-solving skills. I think that’s one of the most important recruitment factors today.
TD: Is that need for more adaptability because of COVID?
PP: COVID didn’t necessarily change the direction, the trends already were there. But rather, it kind of sped it up. I think this is the direction we would have gone anyway. It just accelerated the process.
TD: What current workplace skills do you feel are the closest to becoming obsolete?
PP: First of all, I always try to be careful saying that something is useless or becoming obsolete, because who am I to say? Who knows? But obviously, the mundane routine things that we have seen getting away from us, that’s only going to increase in the future. I would throw the question to the readers. Try to examine or reflect on your own job. What are the things you do that you believe a machine could do in the future?
TD: Okay, then which skills would you say are diminishing in marketability?
PP: What do you think?
TD: How about driving? Won’t commercial driving become dramatically reduced if we succeed with automated driving?
PP: That’s a good example, driving. I think the best way to find the skills that we are not going to need is to look at technology advancements. Take 3D printers. Suddenly we don’t need to ship as many things, we don’t need the people to drive or work on the ships, or even manufacture those things. Look at virtual reality. This is going to change the gaming industry and the entertainment industry. And robots changing the factory lines. I think we need to look at the technology when we make these predictions.
TD: What traditional skills do you think will be most in demand in the next 20 to 30 years?
PP: I would say traditional skills like philosophy and empathy challenge us to think in ways that computers really can’t think. The more digitized, more technological our society will become, the more humane, more empathetic, more compassionate our society should also get. Right now, we haven’t seen that, so I think technology is a bit ahead. For instance, we get addicted to software and devices, and we are not really controlling it right now. I think we need philosophy to really question ‘what are the good and bad implications of the devices?’
TD: Do you feel today’s schools are training and preparing children for the careers of the future?
PP: I think around the world all schools face the same challenge, you need to get evaluated or tested in one way or another. With grammar or mathematics, you have right and wrong. But when it comes to the “soft skills” like curiosity, compassion, and creativity, we don’t have a universal right and wrong. So it’s kind of difficult to test your compassion. What would a test in compassion look like? It’s also more difficult to teach and evaluate.
TD: How can parents make sure their children are being adequately prepared for the future?
PP: I think, as a parent, as an educator, we need to make sure that there’s also time in the child’s life that is not aimed at anything, that there’s not always a [specific] goal, and kind of let them be children. For example, I think one of the best things that we have realized [in Finland] is that children’s play is their work. Up until nine or so we get very little homework, and after every lesson we are required to go out and play in the yard.
TD: Do you think technology will make a skill like being multilingual obsolete? Or will there still be a benefit to speaking to somebody in their native tongue rather than through translation software?
PP: Even though certain skills might seem like, ‘oh, we don’t need that much anymore,’ I would say look at the purpose behind learning to speak a language. If it was just, ‘I need to be able to communicate with people from other parts of the world’ well today we have these software translators, so just communication cannot be the primary goal. But maybe another language is a different way of thinking, or of understanding the world, of interpreting what’s around you, or even communicating in a more nuanced way. I think having the possibility to express things in a different manner with a particular language will still have value. So I would say that no, it’s not obsolete, but it may become more limited or more cultural.
TD: How do you determine which skills will continue to trend downward, and which will become more in demand?
PP: I think this is what keeps people on the tips of our toes. There are no secure degrees or jobs anymore. We have to face that fact. We cannot guarantee anybody a lifelong career anymore, that this one type of skill set is what will help you for the next forty years. ‘If I get this degree, I get this job, I make this much money,’ that mostly does not exist anymore. Even though you do all the things right, you still might find yourself without a job.
TD: Or a marketable skill set.
PP: Exactly. I think we now need to learn to live with uncertainty. Find peace in uncertainty. I think that’s [going to be] a challenge for many, but we need to learn to live a happy, peaceful life in times of uncertainty.
TD: How do we do that?
PP: I think we need to update our skill set as we update our phones. That has to be the mindset for the future. For example, if you think of somebody who got their MBA degree before Microsoft Excel, and then somebody, say, five to 10 years later who got their MBA when Excel already existed, these two people have very different [market] values, right? So that first person needs to be able to update their skill set to match the second.
TD: What is the single largest trend you see affecting the future workplace?
PP: Think of the traditional way we have acquired new knowledge. In history, this has always gone from the older generation to the younger generation; from parents, to children, from master to pupil. Now we are in this interesting time in history where a 17-year-old teenager is teaching their parents how to use the mobile phone, a kid is teaching their grandparents how to use the laptop. For the first time, maybe ever in history, crucial information without which you cannot survive is being transferred not from the up-down but from the bottom up. From the younger generations to the older generation. I think this is the first time ever in human history when this is possible. A child now cannot ask his or her dad, ‘what did it feel like when you were bullied online as a teenager?’ That didn’t exist yet. Or they can’t ask their grandparents, ‘what apps did you use Grandma, when you were my age?’
PP: We have to redefine expertise. Now it is possible that a teenager, a 19-year-old YouTuber, is one of the best social media consultants in the country because they really know how the algorithms work and what to do, what not to do on YouTube. They understand the trend. I would say this is one of the best examples. When I say this out loud, people look at me and say, ‘this 19-year-old teenager doesn’t look like an expert. They don’t wear the clothes that experts wear, they don’t use the words experts normally use. Nothing about them reminds us of an expert.’ My point is, in the new marketplace, we will need to see that expertise comes in more forms.
TD: In my generation, we used to joke that we had to teach our grandparents how to program the VCR to record their favorite television show. Wouldn’t you say it’s modern technology driving that shift?
PP: I think that’s right. I was at my friend’s place, and they have these young girls. I think one of them was like eight or nine. She had her birthday coming up, and she told us that for her birthday she wants this factory on a desk. We were all like, ‘What is this toy? What is a factory on a desk?’ Then one of us realized she was talking about 3D printers, but she just didn’t know the word. The mother and the grandmother didn’t know what she was talking about. They had never heard of it. And so they weren’t able to answer this immediate emotion that this girl had. That’s when I started thinking that if we grow apart, what happens if we don’t really understand the world or the view of the other generations?
TD: What is the most important thing about your book Future Skills and the future of the workplace that you want The Debrief to share with its readers?
PP: I obviously talk about the “soft skills.” Sometimes people might think, ‘well, those are not that important, you know, those are kind of, we’d do those if we had time.’
TD: What are “Soft Skills” again?
PP: We’re talking about compassion and creativity, curiosity and empathy. People think it’s like secondary, but I think these will be the most important skills.
TD: It sounds like the direct opposite of popular STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) education models.
PP: Exactly. When we look at the numbers, we might think that these things are an add-on. But I would say that I’m more convinced that this is becoming the core for the future. So even though technology makes us very powerful, very quickly, and we can get big audiences through it, and we can do many incredible things, it doesn’t make us better humans. It doesn’t make us compassionate or friendly or anything like that. We need to understand that it all starts with a human, and who we are. And we hopefully can leverage the technology in good ways, but with the soft skills as our starting point.
TD: How might that type of shift away from more practical, hands-on skills to these soft skills take place?
PP: I really believe that after the Agricultural Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, and the Information Revolution, which is where we are now, the next one would be the Human Revolution. A computer cannot have a personality. They don’t have a character, they don’t have a childhood. If you think of it, we have gone from the field and farmhouses to the factory, then we went from factories to offices, and we are going to continue going forward. So, from offices to some ‘someplace,’ we don’t know yet. It might be a hybrid environment.
TD: Possibly a Virtual Reality office?
PP: Exactly, yes. In the first page of my book, I kind of explained that brief history that we have gone from the muscles to head, from head to heart. So the resource that you needed at work was muscle, like early days, because it was physical work. Then machines outperformed our muscles, so the education system went to, you know, industrial society. And we’re still there. You get a job if you can show it with your head. I believe the next step is from the head to the heart.
TD: So are you saying that in the future, the top skill you can have is to be a good human?
PP: Yes, precisely! I think it all starts with compassion. You know, develop your compassion, and everything will follow.
“Perttu Pölönen is a futurist, inventor and author. He has studied future technologies at Singularity University, based at NASA Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, co-founded an ed-tech company in Myanmar, written two books, and won the EU’s biggest science competition for youth. In 2018, MIT Tech Review honored him among the 35 Innovators Under 35 in Europe.”
Follow and connect with author Christopher Plain on Twitter:@plain_fiction