21st century skills – so last century!

‘Imagination, creativity, flexibility, collaboration, communication, critical thinking, self-motivation, initiative, the ability to solve problems – these are the 21st century skills needed to get by in this rapidly changing world, and our schools and universities aren’t teaching them!’

The list of skills may vary but, during the two decades I’ve worked in education, I have read countless articles and sat through hundreds of conference talks which have made variations on this claim, invariably backed up by quotes from industry leaders complaining that young people are woefully underprepared to enter the workforce.

But what is specifically ’21st century’ about these skills? And are they really in short supply?

It turns out the anxieties that underpin the ’21st century skills’ idea are not unique to the last two decades. Almost a hundred years ago, nursery school pioneer Margaret McMillan wrote that 20th century technology required ‘a new order of worker’ capable of exercising ‘enterprise, initiative – plus what is learned – imagination’. Sound familiar?

The skills called for by McMillan and her modern counterparts are used interchangeably, which is probably because they all have something in common – a recognition that life throws up novel problems as well as opportunities and that the human mind holds the key to shaping them to our advantage. As the McMillan quote illustrates, it’s wrong to think this is a new phenomenon but, that aside, there’s a lot to be said for it. Life is full of surprises, and mechanically responding to new challenges with the same old same old is unlikely to be a good policy.

A problem of supply or demand?

I’d argue that, whichever century we live in, the skills mentioned above are well worth anyone acquiring. Yet in the workplace the demand for them is not so clear cut. Jobs involving high levels of, say, initiative or imagination, are still far outnumbered by ones that are more prosaic in nature, as has been highlighted by this year’s pandemic and the belated realisation that society depends on huge numbers of ‘essential workers’ to function. The prospect of AI-powered robots taking over all ‘mechanical’ or ‘repetitive’ jobs looks a lot further off than we were led to believe.

At the same time the covid lockdown has demonstrated that people can be hugely adaptable and resourceful when they need to be, whether that be individuals using 3D printers to make much-needed ventilators, or the entire teaching profession shifting to delivering lessons online with a few day’s notice. So is there really a problem with the ‘supply’ of 21st century skills? Maybe the truth is that most jobs don’t actually demand them.

Indeed, if you’re not careful they can actually count against you. For example, demonstrating your critical thinking skills by challenging a manager’s decision can be a quick way to get fired, as many young people discover when they start their first job. No matter how much bosses talk up the need for making the most of their ‘human resources’, they generally want the majority of their employees to do what they’ve been asked to do, to do it well, and to do it without asking too many questions. In practice, the right to criticise decisions or to have the fruits of your own imagination taken seriously has to be earned. Even in thriving and explicitly creative industries such as computer animation, most roles are relatively narrow and specialised, with limited scope for personal input.

True, some companies have introduced agile processes which give staff a measure of creative autonomy, or have solicited them for product ideas. But those changes amount to tinkering around the edges, for there is a deeper problem. You might not know it but the UK has been in a productivity slump since the 1970s. Many companies, watching their dwindling profits with alarm, have become risk averse and reluctant to invest in R&D because its results can’t be guaranteed. But R&D is exactly what’s needed if we want the innovation that might stimulate a more dynamic economy and generate interesting, challenging jobs in new fields, involving all the skills we’re talking about. Maybe business leaders should look in the mirror and ask themselves some hard questions before pointing the finger at the education system?

Advocates of 21st century skills don’t help matters by arguing that teaching children how to be creative rather than teaching them facts will provide companies with a future source of ideas and fresh thinking. This solution is actually part of the problem, as it downplays knowledge, the very thing which enables people to make creative connections between ideas. If taken seriously, the idea that knowledge has a limited shelf life and can be got on tap from Google is bound to harm a person’s career prospects. Bosses may claim that they just want employees who are ‘ready to learn’, but you’re unlikely to get far at work if you don’t know anything, and it’s deeply unfair on young people to pretend otherwise.

The wrong problem

Of course we are citizens, not just employees, and if we can’t find outlets for the skills we have at work, then maybe we can find them elsewhere. After all, public service and politics are hugely important parts of life in which critical thinking, in particular, is a must. But even here a considerable cultural disincentive to get involved has developed. Many people are now put off entering the public sphere by its increasingly intolerant and censorious atmosphere – characterised by no platforming, cancel culture, Twitter mobs, open hostility to the concept of free speech, and an atmosphere of ‘you can’t say that’. If we genuinely believe in critical thinking and want fresh ideas about how to run society, maybe we should do more to embrace open, unrestrained debate and to challenge censorship?

The ’21st century skills’ discourse ignores this, because its diagnosis of the skills problem is the wrong way round, locating its source in the education system rather than in the limitations of adult work and society. Which leads it to miss the untapped potential that’s out there right now, ready and waiting to go if we’re willing to provide suitable outlets.

We are human beings and, whichever century we live in, our instincts for creativity, critical thinking and all those other uniquely human ‘skills’ are strong. They say we’re not ready for the 21st century, but perhaps it’s the 21st century that’s not ready for us.


  1. Education Through the Imagination by Margaret McMillan (1923 edition), quoted in The Evolution of the Nursery-Infant School: A History of Infant and Nursery Education in Britain, 1800-1970 by Nanette Whitbread (Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, 1975)


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