The ability to adapt to changing circumstances is likely to be the standout skill of the 21st century. Although adaptation has been a key survival skill since the appearance of humans on earth, never has it carried such weight as it does now.
People have always had to be prepared for change, but with some exceptions (war, famine, pestilence), they have had time to put those preparations into effect. Agrarian societies developed values of work, prudence, and persistence that allowed them to weather almost anything, and the ones who were unable to adapt did not survive.
What allowed the survivors to succeed was the development of useful skills and the passing of those skills to their children. The more general ability of adaptation, although always required, remained in the background. Generation after generation lived with minor skill differences, and only from time to time did momentous events test people’s underlying abilities to adapt to fundamental change.
Over the long haul, though, adaptation has always been important. If you are an expert at making arrows, and the demand for arrows wanes, you will find yourself out of work, unless you can adapt your skill to producing a new product. Generalizing arrow making into woodworking, you might begin to fashion crossbows, musket stocks, or wagon seats. In this scenario, arrow producers become extinct, and woodworkers survive. Woodworking remains a winning idea until something else intervenes and woodworkers are forced yet again to redefine themselves.
Today, a great need exists for the development of adaptation skills. The Internet, improved communications, and the globalization of commerce are changing our lives, and unfortunately, no one is able to accurately predict the direction or rate of the change. We live and work in other countries while maintaining constant contact with our homes; we access information faster than ever before; medical advances improve and lengthen our lives, and technology assists oppressed peoples in overthrowing dictatorships that have been entrenched for decades.
At the same time, those who have not been able to board the new-world train are finding it harder than ever to keep up. Workers who lose their jobs and seek similar employment elsewhere find those positions defunct. People can no longer wait for good times to return to resume the practice of their erstwhile crafts. Rather, they must retrain themselves in hopes of participating in a future economy the nature and direction of which no one really understands.
Change has always been part of life, and on occasion, humans have had to roll with the punches. Throughout much of history, though, generations lived and died while following the life model of their parents and grandparents, and they confidently passed that same model along to their children.
Modern-day parents, in contrast, are not prepared to deliver success-producing skill sets to their progeny. The new life model has them confounded, and they have lost touch with the principles that foster prosperity in a changing world. Now, parents must have money to buy for their children the knowledge they will need to survive, and no one really knows how long that knowledge will retain its value in the workplace.
Students are inefficiently expending resources in the scramble for knowledge and skills, largely because no one knows what to study or how to train. Those who adapt poorly will struggle in the globalized world, and those who are unable to adapt at all will be relegated to lifestyles that most of us consider unacceptable.
The requirement for amped-up adaptation skills is regressive. The price of higher education has skyrocketed, and poor people are effectively excluded from developing adaptation skills. The welfare checks they will one day be obliged to accept will provide them with bare-bones food and shelter, and the less-fortunate ones who live in societies that are unable to support them will fare even worse.
In the United States, the problem runs deep. Our primary and secondary schools have dumbed down their requirements so that everyone passes, and our colleges and universities have for years essentially been selling degrees. “Come to our program,” they announce, “and you can obtain an MBA or PhD in the same time as would a full-time student, but you can keep your job.” In this fashion, schools earn easy cash, and professors who teach only a course or two per semester spend their time taking sabbaticals and working on pet projects rather than imparting to young people the skills they will need to compete with the best and brightest students from India, China, and the European Union.
In this globalized world, the notion of adaptation translates into studying and training to develop skills that will last no longer than a decade or so, with the ever-present awareness that during that time, the individual must plan, study, and train to acquire whatever abilities will be necessary during the following ten-year period.
Certainly, we must teach reading, writing, and arithmetic to the highest levels that students can reach, but we must also awaken in our people a strong sense that the only way to survive and thrive is through a never-ending process of active preparation for the next step, whatever that may be.