The full impact of 2020—on education, on work, on culture, on the economy, on politics—will probably only be appreciated in the cool light of hindsight. We’ll sit down in 20 or 50 years’ time and look back dispassionately at the year that rocked the entire world, that shook up existing power structures and forced us to reconsider old certainties. But in the tail end of 2020, it’s worth speculating about the future of education and work, if only so we can be better prepared when it arrives. Will flexible work become the norm? Will the office fade into history? Will traditional education institutions become irrelevant? Will we ever be the same again?
This year arguably saw the biggest change to global work patterns since the industrial revolution. Large centralized offices gave way, out of necessity, to flexible, work-from-home arrangements. An entire world, more or less, typing from their lounge rooms. According to the latest numbers, this is one change that will probably stick around, at least in the short term. The number of employees permanently working remotely is set to double in 2021, jumping to 34%. Already 55% of employers around the world offer some capacity for remote work, and 18% of the population telecommutes on a full-time basis. While you’d expect many offices to re-open as vaccines become available and the virus begins to stabilise (of course, the word “when” is doing a lot of work in that sentence) remote work, as an upward trend, is probably here to stay.
Upskilling from home
As face-to-face learning became impractical, universities quickly scrambled to online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to some sources, this change was a long time coming. Many educational institutions had been lagging behind in terms of job relevance and tech literacy for some time—the pandemic just gave the industry the push towards a new kind of learning:. Remote upskilling. Deloitte has mapped this trend pretty well. If companies want to maintain relevance in a post-COVID world, they need to continually invest in their staff, upskilling workers in AI, automation, data science, machine learning, robotics, DevOps, cybersecurity and other future-proof technologies. This demand will only increase over time: the global online learning market is expected to hit $350 billion by 2025.
Nothing jump-starts digital transformation like the literal physical lockdown of an entire planet. According to marketing intelligence firm IDC, 40 percent of all technology spending is currently going towards digital transformation, with companies investing more than $2 trillion into the process. And this doesn’t just involve updating your company website or building an app: digital transformation is a full-body pivot towards technology, efficiency and customer experience. This trend is picking up pace, too. Over 85% of digital executives feel they have only two years to nail digital transformation, and 59% worry that it’s already too late for them to adapt. The future will likely be divided into companies that successfully navigated digital transformation, and those that got left behind.
“The pandemic has challenged the suitability, viability and sustainability of university operating models, practices and systems,” Tawana Kupe and Gerald Wangenge-Ouma wrote in The Conversation. “If they are to survive and thrive after the pandemic, universities must reassess and adapt their strategies.” This is a big one. How will universities grapple with struggling revenue models, students’ access to remote learning tech, and differing socio-economic circumstances? This is one area where returning to ‘normal’ isn’t really an option: universities are being forced to re-evaluate their educational approach. Research shows that the future of learning will be remote, targeted and faster than ever before.
Some experts are predicting (somewhat optimistically) that COVID-19 marks the end of individualism. A new age of public spending and public good. “When this ends, we will orientate our politics and make substantial new investments in public goods—for health, especially—and public services. I don’t think we will become less communal. Instead, we will be better able to see how our fates are linked,” says Eric Klinenberg from New York University’s Institute of Public Knowledge. We’re starting to see this already, to some degree. The Victorian government just announced an $870 million overhaul of the state mental health system. Support packages have been rolled out to help small businesses. The ‘Shop Local’ movement has gained traction all over Australia. It’s too soon to tell if this civic-mindedness will stick, but early signs are good that individualism might be on the way out.