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Our children must learn to code but the future lies in being human

by Eric Hazan

It’s one of the flagship reforms of the new school year: our children are going to learn to code, and they will be tested on algorithms or programming. This is a move in the right direction, but it’s not far enough to prepare our children for the digital era and tomorrow’s career paths.

Learning to code has much to recommend it. It is a key stage in acquiring digital literacy. Firstly, it helps people structure their thinking and problem-solving. As Steve Jobs said in the documentary The Lost Interview, “Everyone should know how to program a computer, because it teaches you how to think.” It’s a valid argument, even if, ironically, it seems Jobs himself never wrote software.

Secondly, learning code gives our children the tools to become producers, not just consumers, of technology. It’s also good for our future competitiveness, with France lagging far behind not only the United States, but even behind the UK and Sweden, when it comes to producing the hardware, software and services that constitute the digital economy (as the McKinsey Internet Supply Leadership Index established).

Thirdly, knowing how to code is a sure way to secure an advantage in the job market, at least for now, in these times of mass youth unemployment. The latest OECD report on the digital economy reveals that 42% of French firms looking to recruit someone specializing in information and communications technology (ICT) have difficulty filling positions. Initiatives have been set up to address this skills deficit, such as Ecole 42, while many people opt for the self-training route, as the success of programming MOOCs demonstrates.

But we should be careful not to reduce the debate about future skills to the issue of coding. Coding is not the only aptitude our children will need to display, and it’s not certain it will be a magic ticket to a job in ten or 20 years’ time.

To understand this, we must try to project ourselves into the future of work, which is currently the subject of impassioned debate among academics and economists. One of the trends that will have the most profound influence on the future of work is automation. With the combined progress of robotics and algorithms, machines will be made to perform an increasing number of tasks. But media coverage of this fueled by pioneering companies’ need for publicity sometimes leads to this trend being crudely represented as just “the robots are coming to steal our jobs.” With some exceptions, the reality will be more complex. In most lines of work, some of the tasks, to varying extents, will be amenable to automation. But, with only rare exceptions, no machine will perform all of the tasks assigned to an employee. Machines will not replace human workers; they will change the content of employees’ jobs, leading them to specialize in tasks that are not predictable. A recent McKinsey analysis describes this phenomenon in detail for the US labor market, revealing that on average half (51%) of US employees’ working time is devoted to tasks that could be automated with technologies that already exist. These are mainly tasks of data collection and routine data processing, as well as repetitive physical tasks.

Preparing ourselves our children for the future world of work is therefore about equipping ourselves with the skills that will make us effective in unpredictable tasks, assisted by machines that are far better than we are at all the other types of activities. These unpredictable tasks are extraordinarily varied: managing a team or project; interacting with customers, patients, citizens, and students; deploying cutting-edge expertise. But they almost all have one thing in common: they deal in human relations.

Looking at coding in that light, then, it should be seen more as an initiation into computational thinking than as a passport to employment. Computer programming, after all, is a largely predictable activity. In a recent post, Dan Saffer from Mayfield Robotics tries to imagine its future content. He forecasts that in application design, it will soon be possible to automate the bulk of the coding process, and the value added will shift toward the engineering of user interactions… in other words, human relations. Such an evolution would be fairly similar to what we have seen in website design: the golden age of the web designer, in the 2000s, has given way to the content management system. Today, constructing a website is mainly about creating an experience and concentrating on user experience and content, without having to worry much about html.

If we are going to excel in the field of human relations, which is likely to remain our preserve for at least the near future, then it is our human and relational aptitudes that we need to encourage and develop. These include soft skills such as empathy, listening, agility, the management of stress and emotions. They also include the human sciences, which provide an indispensable framework for thinking about otherness and complexity. This kind of relational intelligence needs to be rooted in culture. What makes these skills useful in a professional context? An example: a machine may soon be able to write software that rates customers for consumer loans, but can it handle the economic, social, and even psychological dimensions that surround a consumer’s act of getting into debt? Not so much. And yet it is precisely this understanding that is needed to offer customers a pleasant experience while making sure they have the capacity to pay back the loan.

That is why I am convinced that “decoding” will be just as important as coding in the future. If machines force us to cultivate our human skills—to become “more human” humans—that will be one of the best things they ever did for us.

Eric Hazan is a senior partner in our Paris office.