Digital Skills: Crisis or a Generation in Denial?

Digital Skills: Crisis or a Generation in Denial?

written January 2019 in response to an non-sponsored event

If you know where to look, London is a veritable playground for lectures, talks and debates to stimulate and inspire the overworked mind. It’s a delightful change from the normal sources; phones, newspapers and frustrating dinners with politically opposing family members. The 2019 Annual Lord Mayor’s Gresham Lecture was the choice event for this week and the topic the so called ‘digital skills crisis’.

Let’s start with the facts, what even is the digital skills crisis? If you were born after 1990, chances are you’re a digital native. You grew up with computers, phones and enough tech to frazzle your young mind. When we think of the digital skills crisis we might think about coding, AI and how robots are coming for our jobs. That’s all true but it only part of the story. The other is the fact in their 2016 report on digital readiness, the Science and Technology Committee found that:

  • 12.6 million UK adults (23% of the adult population) lack basic digital skills like finding information online, completing digital forms, or sending messages through digital devices.

  • 5.8 million UK adults have never used the internet because they don’t know how.

  • 45% of charities don’t have a digital strategy to outline their use of technology.

  • There are schools without basic hardware, teachers without the required technical qualifications and jobs without enough skilled applicants.

There’s a huge sector of the population who grew up without technology and are struggling with the digitalisation of not only the workplace but of basic daily tasks like shopping, visiting the doctors and filling in government applications. In addition to this, in the next 10 years it’s estimated that 90% of all jobs will require a certain level of digital skills.

This is not simply a case of UK pensioners struggling to adapt - which is an easy assumption when glancing over this data - but it’s about those in their 50s who might be out of a job in the next 5 years as they don’t have the right skills, and do not have enough money to retire. It’s also a crisis when we look at the cost of technical education. The average computer science salary is £66K per year. The average teaching salary is £29K. How do we get those with the right skills to teach the next generation? Is it only going to be the wealthy that can afford to hire these technical grads for private tuition, akin to Oxbridge admissions processes of yore?

The Lord Mayor went on to address potential solutions, frameworks and organisational strategies to turn this crisis into an opportunity. It was made clear that the burden of responsibility should not fall on the government, on the education system but instead on us as individuals to ensure that we can remain digitally literate as a nation. This is certainly a contestable idea, after all surely government investment to create a umbrella infrastructure is a way to reduce the fragmentation of different initiatives. That being said, a top-down attitude to digital education could result in outdated policies, struggling to stay at pace with global development.

So why did I feel that this lecture was worth writing about? This skills gap is public knowledge. We all know that older people struggle with the internet. We all know that tech is taking over. Well it was actually what came after the lecture that caught my attention.

The Q&A session for any talk is a chance to add value, to set the scene for more in-depth discussion at the networking fuelled drinks reception to follow. On this occasion however, it was where the real root of the problems became apparent. Under 30s in the room were the minority and as you’d expect from an event held in the The Old Library at Guildhall there were a lot of grey haired attendees. Initially, this was a surprise and delight to me as this issue impacts them the most. Then came the questions, or should I say, lack of questions.

First came the man moaning about how terrible CGI movies are, how can we get traditional films back? Another lady distraught at how far behind Estonia we were in terms of digital infrastructure, not as a comment but as a downright insult to our legacy as a leading innovative nation. To summarise, the response from the audience painted a picture of a generation in denial. A generation wanting to turn back the clock. They didn’t want to ask questions, to learn to move forward to make the sacrifice of ego that personal development education requires. Collectively they have the resources to plug this skills gap, but it became clear that the willingness really wasn’t there. The Lord Mayor handled these ‘comments’ with true diplomacy whilst managing to perfectly illustrate the situation these people we’re putting themselves in. To paraphrase, he likened digital change to a 100MPH train and these guys are standing on the track, either you move out the way, wait at a station to hop on for the ride, or you are going to get run over.

If you’re interested in attending any free Gresham Lectures, you can find out more information via their website.

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