China’s New Normal Requires a New Education

World of Work March 14, 2015

This article is adapted from a special address given by Dr. Yong Zhao at the Xinhuanet Thinker Conference in December 2014. Read the original address in Chinese

Innovation is the new fuel for China’s future growth. The world’s second largest economy is in great need of innovative talents, and thus an innovative education system.

The most critical challenge facing the world today is youth unemployment. According to statistics, 53% of American college graduates either have a job unrelated to their major, or are underemployed. In September 2014, 27.2% of Australia’s youth were jobless, up from 16% in 2008.  Many countries in the European Union are struggling with the same problem. China is no exception. In 2015, colleges in China are expected to churn out a record 7.4 million graduates. The number of jobless youth who have attended college now exceeds the ranks of those who settled for a high school diploma or less. 

Large numbers of well-educated youth are unable to find work. At the same time, the global economy is experiencing a skilled labour shortage. So what is going wrong? Mismatched skills may be the reason. Our schools are not cultivating the talents that the world wants. Our education needs a serious rethinking.

Each economic transition inevitably requires a redefinition of talents. In the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, people were faced with this problem. It would be useless to have more and better farmers in an industrialized world. Why would we want to prepare our children for jobs that are already obsolete? That’s the question we should ask ourselves. 

Humanity is entering the second machine age, a new era powered by computing and digital technologies. Just as steam engine replaced human and animal muscle, computers are now replacing human intelligence. While the Industrial Revolution brought by the first machine age led to a massive increase in the number of factories and a high demand for labour, the second machine age seems to spell a future where more and more people will have difficulty finding a job. Mundane tasks will be taken over by robots; tasks that cannot be done by smart machines will be shifted to countries that offer cheaper labour. It is already happening in China: rising wages are sending its manufacturing jobs to Vietnam, Cambodia… 

Moreover, traditional education holds monopoly on two things: learning opportunities and credentialing. Before, if you didn’t go to school, you would have no way to learn knowledge or upgrade your skills. Another role of traditional education is to provide certification. The result of this monopoly is that many students are interested in earning a certification, but not in learning itself. With digital technologies and online platforms, students no longer need to go to a school to learn. If institutions are no longer the only places to pursue learning opportunities but still hold monopoly on certification, that means it’s time for a change. At Google, around 14% of employees don’t have college degrees. When they hire people, they don’t look at your degree or major; they look at what you can do and what you want to do. 

Traditional education is employment-oriented. This kind of education is very simple: students are educated to meet the needs of employers. Educators teach for career readiness, and parents start making life plans for their children even before they are born. Life becomes a fixed, linear path. From kindergarten to high school, children spend a lot of time trying to be a “good student”. A good student will become a good employee, but being just a good employee is not enough in a future where mundane and repetitive jobs will be done by robots and most of the careers for humans are yet to be invented. 

We need to help young people develop the entrepreneurial mindset to create jobs and opportunities, instead of looking for jobs, so as to better prepare them for an uncertain future. Entrepreneurship does not necessarily mean starting or owning a business. It is more of a creative problem solving mindset. We need to teach our children to ask good questions, which is even more important than finding the answers.  

Innovation is the fulcrum of China’s future growth, but innovative skills cannot be taught just by adding a creativity and entrepreneurship course to the curriculum. It requires a paradigm shift – from employee-oriented education to entrepreneur-oriented education, and from prescribing children’s education to supporting their learning. To make change happen, we need to acknowledge the value and aspiration of every individual, provide equal opportunities to each of them and allow every child the freedom to pursue their interests.