Navigating the future of work: Gen Z, soft skills, and the evolution of education

November 30, 2023

Jayde Robertson

The relationship between education systems and the job market is undergoing a significant transformation. This shift is pretty profound, occurring against the backdrop of global changes—pandemics, geopolitical shifts, climate considerations, and a redefined cost of living. From what some call the Great Resignation to what others term the Reskilling Revolution, this metamorphosis is ushering in a new era.

And who might be at the forefront of this new era? Surprisingly, (or, unsurprisingly really), it’s Gen Z. 

Education, especially in the public sector, often appears resistant to change. Curriculums remain rigid, and the foundational years seem molded by the repetition of established knowledge. This realization struck home recently as I found myself helping my 10-year-old prepare for his “controlled tests”. I couldn't help but feel a twinge of anxiety. How could I teach something I haven't encountered in 25 years? To my surprise, I discovered that nothing had changed. Not a single aspect. A quarter of a century later, my child is facing the same test I did.

The worst part? These kids - barely a decade old - are crawled into an auditorium, and forced to believe that their worth is determined by the percentage of knowledge they hold on an (often) redundant topic.

This leads me to our topic for today: Are we failing future generations by neglecting the development of soft skills in education? 

How much influence does a parent really have? 

It’s hard to admit, but as a parent, our influence on our children’s lives is actually quite limited. The lucky ones are guaranteed to share a home with their children for at least 18 years. The sad truth is that the influence of the parents stops long before they graduate.

According to a 2012 study, we have 12 years. Not long, is it? This little revelation asks us to rethink how we see skill development. As kids hit their teens, it's not just about parents; it's about the entire village - external factors, schools, friends, love interests, the whole shebang.

So while it’s easy to cast blame on the upbringing, soft skills aren’t only learned at home. In fact, it’s pretty vital that they’re included in formal education.

Gen Z’s soft skills gap

Gen Z, the architects of our future, are armed with degrees that showcase their academic prowess. But amidst this arsenal, a soft skills gap has emerged. It's not that Gen Z lacks ambition or intellect; it's a consequence of an educational shift emphasizing exams over the melody of communication, teamwork, and problem-solving.

According to a  survey diving into the minds of 2,000 young guns (18 to 24 years old) in the UK and the US, a whopping 85% of these bright minds believe social skills are the secret to climbing the corporate ladder. You know, the art of influence, persuasion, and even socialization. Social anxiety is the new office nemesis, with nine out of 10 graduates ducking in-person events, and nearly a quarter playing the silent game in team meetings. The crazy part? 40% of these graduates believe that they don’t possess these skills, nor have they received any “training” on them either.

Education holds a front-row seat, doesn't it? We spend a solid chunk of our existence navigating the corridors of classrooms, scribbling notes, and absorbing the wisdom (or occasional algebraic mysteries) shared by our teachers. It's a marathon, really—18 years or more of textbooks, exams, and friendships forged in the crucible of communal learning.

If education is our training ground for life, then shouldn't it be the forge where we shape not just our academic intellect but also the social savvy that powers our everyday encounters? Imagine if, along with periodic tables, we learned the periodic art of conversation, collaboration, and resilience.

These formative years in the classroom hold immense potential. It's not just about acing exams; it's about acing life. Soft skills shouldn't be an afterthought, a skill set picked up haphazardly in the maze of adulthood. They should be woven into the very fabric of our education system, creating a generation not just armed with knowledge but equipped with the interpersonal finesse to navigate the complexities of the world beyond the classroom.

Now, this is not to say that soft skills have never been taught at an education level - rather that it’s time that educators relook the manner in which they teach these skills. 

Rethinking the way that we teach these skills 

According to  Ghassan Aouad, chancellor of Abu Dhabi University, the current cohort of students aren't just seeking knowledge; they're navigating a unique blend of challenges—from financial constraints to the looming specter of climate change. The pandemic only intensified this, birthing what some label as the "entitlement generation."

These students aren't just asking; they expect everything to be provided. It's a shift that demands a transformation in the approach of educators. Their aspirations are different, desiring to secure a job in the first year of university, then leisurely completing their degree over an extended period—a stark contrast to the past.

The challenge extends beyond timelines. Even high-achieving students may face hurdles entering the job market if they lack essential soft skills. It's a paradigm shift from the past when a degree was a passport to employment, irrespective of soft skills. Hamad Obhabi, Vice-Chancellor for Financial and Administrative Affairs at Abu Dhabi University, adds another layer to the discussion. There exists a gap between students' affinity for technology and their ability to channel it into something meaningful. This, he suggests, is a matter that needs urgent attention.

Emphasizing soft skills, particularly communication and the art of self-presentation, is crucial. But this must be balanced with the enduring value of hard skills—the technical foundation that remains a lasting asset in the professional landscape. the need for adaptation is clear. It's not just about teaching soft skills but integrating them with the timeless importance of hard skills. The goal is to prepare students not just for today but for the challenges of tomorrow. It's about creating a well-rounded education that equips students with both the contemporary skills needed for today's world and the foundational expertise that lasts. In this educational approach, we find a balanced preparation for the dynamic future that lies ahead.

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