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Living in Dialogue: The 47% Solution: Playing Musical Chairs with Our Children’s Futures

We all remember the game of musical chairs. At a children’s party, the adults count the number of children, and put chairs in a circle, with one fewer chair than children. The children circle the chairs as the music plays, and when the music stops, everyone tries to get a seat. In each round, all but one child gets a seat. Each round yields a single loser, who must exit the game. The game ends when there is but a single chair, and one of the two surviving children succeeds in getting his butt in it first.

From the latest news, it looks like this is becoming the model for our children’s economic future, as jobs are whisked away, leaving young people as the losers. Diane Ravitch today shared news of a report from Oxford University economists that predicts that as many as 47% of current jobs in the US are at risk of being eliminated by technology. I first reported on this study back in June of last year. This figure may be subject to challenge, but one education philanthropist seems to be taking it seriously.

Bill Gates, in an interview a year ago at the American Enterprise Institute, said this:

Well, technology in general will make capital more attractive than labor over time. Software substitution, you know, whether it’s for drivers or waiters or nurses… It’s progressing. And that’s going to force us to rethink how these tax structures work in order to maximize employment, you know, given that, you know, capitalism in general, over time, will create more inequality and technology, over time, will reduce demand for jobs particularly at the lower end of the skill set. And so, you know, we have to adjust, and these things are coming fast. Twenty years from now, labor demand for lots of skill sets will be substantially lower, and I don’t think people have that in their mental model.

So let’s adjust our mental models right now to the future that is being created for our students.

There will be far fewer jobs. There will be intense competition for the jobs that remain, leaving employers free to keep wages low. It should be noted that in our current economy, even highly educated workers are seeing their pay levels decline.

We are adding one twist to the game of musical chairs we are imagining as our children’s future, where a seat represents a job. Before our young graduates can begin their hunt for a chair, they have to prove they are “college and career ready” by passing a Common Core test. And those tests have been designed so that only about 30% of our students will pass. So about 70% of our young people will be declared losers before the music even starts to play.

We can see from the student protests around the country that young people are realizing the games that are being played with their futures. Tests should not be used to limit opportunities, and the best way to stop this unfair game is to refuse to play by the rules.  Our economy is shaped by human decisions, not natural laws. We can recast the way our economy works, and make jobs and the environment into real priorities — and that is what will serve young people the best. There is no shortage of wealth in our economy — we have the most productive economy the world has ever seen. The only shortage is in the imagination of those playing games with our future.

What do you think? Are tests being used to limit opportunities? Does this connect to bigger shifts in the job market? 

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Anthony Cody

Anthony worked for 24 years in the Oakland schools, 18 of them as a science teacher at a high-needs middle school. A National Board certified teacher, he now lead...