The STEM Branches Out: Preparing for the Jobs of the Future

The brain is without doubt our most fascinating organ. Parents, educators, and society as a whole have a tremendous power to shape the wrinkly universe inside each child’s head, and, with it, the kind of person he or she will turn out to be. We owe it to our children to help them grow the best brains possible.
—Lise Eliot, “What’s Going on in There?: How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life”

In 1900, the average age at which employees exited the workforce was 47, which was coincidentally the average lifespan. It has been predicted that by 2020, workers will begin their careers at the average age of 23. They will change careers five to eight times over the course of the next four decades.

Life expectancy has increased more than 100 percent in the last century. By 2100, the estimated American longevity will range between 108 and 124 years. This data raises several important questions. First, what are the “portable skills” that will be most advantageous over the decades and across the career spectrum? Second, where and how will “lifelong learning” occur without taking a costly career hiatus? Next, when and under what conditions will today’s notion of retirement take place, if at all? And finally, what will the classroom preparing the “best brains possible” look like in the future?


Until the 20th century, most innovations were inventions created to reduce or replace physical work. Today, most innovative tools are designed to enhance (and replace) mental work. A generation ago, we memorized telephone numbers of those closest to us. Now, our cell phones store that information. We now live in a world of information and communication overload dominated by “technological acceleration,” where each technological breakthrough is rolled out rapidly.

Not all news concerning the technological revolution is good news. Sadly, today more elementary school children know how to play computer games than how to ride a scooter. They also experience less “downtime” during their developmental years, contributing to attention deficit disorders. Teenagers are spending more time “cocooning” online, where the excessive amount of time spent on screens leads to greater loneliness and isolation. Unfortunately, the response of many of these 7 to 17-year-olds is to increase the amount of time isolated, leading to a “roller coaster” of deeper depression. This is to say nothing of the known consequences from excessive amounts of time playing video games with violent content.

In 1991, there was one website on the internet, but that figure swelled beyond one billion in 2014, and the average lifespan of a single website is now just under 44 days. There was an average of 109,000 users per website in 1993. However, today there are less than four users per website available. Eighty percent of the websites that will be present on the internet one year from today currently do not exist.

As of April 2016, there were 3.5 billion internet searches per day, and 1.2 trillion per year. More than 1.3 million searches per second are made on Google, and 50 percent of them are made from mobile devices. Over 19 billion emails and 10 billion instant messages are transmitted every day (partially because 56 percent of millennials prefer this form of one-way communication instead of back-and-forth telephone conversations that instantly reveal one’s communications and interpersonal skills deficits). Over 3 million new webpages are made live daily, adding to the information explosion.

Because of computer technologies, more information and data have been produced in the last 50 years than the previous 5,000 years (since the advent of written language). Today’s already-massive body of technical information doubles every two weeks.

In one single cubic millimeter of brain tissue there are more connections than there are stars in the entire Milky Way Galaxy, suggesting that there is absolutely no limit on human creativity. The most advanced supercomputer today is still a quantum leap from matching the storage capacity of the human brain (10 trillion bytes of memory) or the brain’s capability of decision-making. Although computers are powerful, they are not yet inventive.


In the mid-20th century, one could become a bank teller, cashier, receptionist, telephone operator, mail carrier, travel agent, typist, newspaper reporter, data entry associate, or telemarketer (low-level white-collar employees) with only a modest education. However, these 10 careers will be replaced by automation by 2033, according to a recent Oxford University study. The easy-to-secure jobs of the past quarter-century will not exist in the very near future. Many of the new jobs projected for the future will be carried out by machines.

With the advent of driverless vehicles, we will need fewer taxi and truck drivers. “Smart” computer systems with voice-recognition software will supplant the need for their human counterparts in sales and customer service. In today’s world, it is not tangible manufactured products that generate large amounts of wealth; it is innovative ideas like new apps for digital devices. This jobtrend data tells us that the only jobs that will not be automated or offshored will be the innovators, entrepreneurs, and inventors.

With automation, average corporate profits are now at an all-time high (particularly banking revenues are included), while average individual wages are at an all-time low. Corporations are investing more of their profits to purchase hardware and software products that reduce labor costs. A new touchscreen tablet called Presto allows dining customers to make meal, drink, and dessert selections without ever interacting with a waiter or waitress, and there’s no waiting for a paper check to arrive. Thousands of wait-staff jobs are being eliminated nationwide. There are record gaps between the salary of the average worker and that of their CEO, and when charted, the two trajectories continue moving in opposite directions.

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