Thursday, July 6, 2017

The Undead Factoid: Who Decided 65% of the Jobs of the Near Future Don't Exist Today?

An article published this week on leads with the following breathless description of the future of work:
We live in a world of accelerating change. New industries are constantly being born and old ones are becoming obsolete. A report by the World Economic Forum reveals that almost 65 percent of the jobs elementary school students will be doing in the future do not even exist yet. Both the workforce and our knowledge base are rapidly evolving.
Amid the questionable - do we really live in a world of accelerating change? - and the obvious - things are evolving - we find the very specific claim: 65 percent of the jobs our elementary school students will do don't exist today. Supposedly this startling fact has now been revealed by the World Economic Forum, and thus we should do... something. As if we thought everything was great about education, but now that we have this 65 percent figure, it's a call to action and we need to start changing education right now! Think of the children and their futures!

What follows in the article is a set of mostly non-controversial recommendations - like, teach students to think critically, and communicate well, which sound like excellent suggestions. But I (and others) bristled at the 65% - how could you reveal such a thing? I mean, you could predict it, but why 65% and not 55% or 72%? It just feels arbitrary and made-up. And I knew I'd seen this number before, so I decided to do a bit of digging. 

First of all, the World Economic Forum didn't "reveal" it - they refer to it as a "popular estimate" and attribute it as follows: 
McLeod, Scott and Karl Fisch, "Shift Happens",
This is a YouTube video that you've probably seen that's loaded with facts and figures of various levels of reliability, designed to convince you that the world you know is changing rapidly, to generate gasps and chuckles from audience, and perhaps, to lead to some good conversation. I admit, I enjoyed it the first 20 times I saw it and even showed it a couple of times. I did have trouble with the statement that "We Live in Exponential Times" - what the heck does that even mean? But it does have a gee-whiz quality that's entertaining if not particularly enlightening.

Anyway, this version from 2006 has more than 5 million hits on YouTube, and there have been subsequent versions and it even seems to have launched a cottage industry for the creators - but I couldn't find any reference to the 65% statistic, neither in the presentation nor on the website. The website referenced by the World Economic Forum report has links to sources but most of them are broken (that exponential change at it again, I guess.) I suppose it may have appeared in one of versions, but I couldn't find it - so the trail seemed to end at "possibly invented for a YouTube video". 

But - Google to the rescue! - I found this article from the Atlantic in 2011, an interview with Cathy Davidson about her then-new book Now You See It: How Technology and Brain Science Will Transform Schools and Business for the 21st Century.  The interviewer starts with:
One of the foundational facts of your book comes early on. "By one estimate," you write, "65 percent of children entering grade school this year will end up working in careers that haven't even been invented yet." 
The Atlantic article doesn't mention a source, but googling the title & author brought me to a blog post by Davidson from just over a month ago, responding to a BBC piece that aired on a program called More or Less about statistics. Apparently the 65% stat came up recently in a town hall with a British politician, prompting the BBC journalist (who had a reaction similar to mine) to try to track it down. Go listen to the BBC program, it's fascinating. Davidson says she encountered the stat in a book by Jim Carroll (disappointingly, not this Jim Carroll)  and that it may have come originally from an Australian jobs report - which nobody can find. Furthermore, the BBC examines information on changes in the job market over the last 15 years and finds that - a most - a third of jobs today didn't exist 15 years ago, making the claim highly unlikely. (And, given that the original Jim Carroll book is 10 years old, nearly provably false.)

But just six weeks after the BBC debunked - and Cathy Davidson largely walked away from - the 65% claim, it becomes the lead of a brand new article, attributed to the World Economic Forum. It will no doubt be the reference for a presentation in the future, be cited in strategic plans, and quoted at school board meetings. Some factoids live on as zombies, like bits of urban legend, and I'm sure that this blog will do nothing to kill this one off.

By the way, thank you to the many K-12 public school teachers, and the liberal arts faculty members, who educated me pretty well for the job I do, which didn't exist when I was in Kindergarten. 


  1. Well engaged, sir. Any time I can set you off to create a new post, just give a yell. #WeAreNotThe65Percent

  2. Vampire fact are hard to eradicate. Just think of Edger Dale....

    Now I've got to redo the start of my next talk. Thank you Michael... (just kidding). Cheers mate.

  3. If you had created this post as an image, my brain could have processed it 60,000 times faster, as people remember 10% of what they read, 20% of what they hear, 30% of what they see....