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  • Writer's pictureBrett Schilke

What are the skills we really need for the future?

Escape the hype cycles. Take a deep breath. Proceed.

If you’re a young person preparing to enter the workforce today or in the near future, chances are you are familiar with a very specific kind of anxiety-bordering-on-terror.

Coming of age in a society positively swimming in blow-by-blow accounts of challenges and upheaval, you face two forceful and often competing narratives:

One (often from parents, school, and society) telling you that if you don’t get just the right set of skills, you will fail in this world; and

Another (from the media and social environment) telling you it’s your responsibility to fix the host of problems raging around you. 🗑️ 🔥

It seems sometimes that every new and well-intentioned framework or theory in education only serves to add to this. Every new hype cycle brings a whiplash-inducing change in the skills you now need to master.

👉 Higher expectations.

👉🏽 More doomsday predictions for the workforce.

👉🏿 Even more focus on changing the world through your work.

What if we tried something a little bit different?

What if we took a step back, breathed a collective breath of fresh air, and focused on a calmer, gentler, more humane set of skills to help us all feel ready for the future?

🤬 F* is for Future

As a place to start, let’s ask a simple question: what the f* is the future?

Future this, future that. It’s everywhere. But a lot of the time, when we talk about “the future,” we’re actually talking about the present. It’s just that humans get really squigglysquirmy when we try to acknowledge that we are, in fact, unprepared for the world we are already living in.

To reframe this (and perhaps state it more poetically) we can say that the “future” is just a series of todays.

So how can we build our skills in critically examining the present, and understanding the consequences of our actions on the todays to come?

📈 Seeing Clearly: Metatrends

One of the most important elements of building this understanding is the skill of identifying and analyzing metatrends, or (in plain English) identifying the biggest confluence of changes driving transformation in the world around us.

Distinct from just understanding “trends” or “megatrends,” metatrends come into play when multiple forces converge to drive more fundamental and wide-ranging disruption.

For example, you could consider:

  • The warming trend of the planet (a trend);

  • Climate change (a megatrend); and

  • The planetary biodiversity crisis (a metatrend, made up of climate change, human-driven species extinction, excessive use of antibiotics, and the introduction of forever chemicals into our environment).

These metatrends don’t live in the future; they are present today. And learning to identify and analyze them helps us understand risks and opportunities that we can take action on today.

⚙️ Looking Backward: Systems Thinking

To better understand these trends, we can build the skill of looking backward to understand root causes. We have a tendency to focus our efforts in problem solving on the “visible” parts of trends: the easily manipulable numbers, laws, measures, constants, and behaviors.

But the most effective change comes through understanding the deeply embedded mindsets and mechanisms that lead to the problems we see.


🛠️ Free Tool: The Iceberg Model is an excellent way to break down trends, and although it’s a long read, Donella Meadows’ Leverage Points is a great primer on the best approaches to changing systems.


🔭 Looking Forward: Future Forecasting

To complete our understanding of today, we need a solid understanding of the possible and probable futures we are moving toward.

Considering the downstream consequences of today’s actions helps us think about the systemic nature of our lives and societies, and enables us to better prevent outcomes we don’t want and enhance the ones that we do.


🛠️ Free Tool: Use this future forecasting activity to dig into big trends and events and think about their impact on the future.


🤩 What do you value?

So much of the conversation about skills, especially for young people, is focused on vocational and employability skills. But the notion that one chooses a job, gets skills, and is set for life simply doesn’t exist anymore.

The future is going to throw us for loops, likely with more frequency than ever before. Through those inevitable changes, we need a throughline; a guide to help us reimagine ourselves, reskill ourselves, and feel at home doing it.

What if, instead of being focused on job skills, we build a skill of being in touch with the contributions we want to make in the world and the humans we want to be?

🪞Finding your Throughline

It’s not a new idea that adaptability is key to resilience. However, what is new for young people today is that their adaptability will be tested more frequently and more quickly than the generations before them.

So how can we help young people find a durable, flexible sense of identity that can evolve throughout life and carry them through change?

Instead of asking “what do you want to be?” (which suggests we choose a job and become it), we can ask “what do you want to enable in the world?” or “how do you want to contribute?” By identifying the contributions we find valuable in the world around us, we can better understand the ways we can find fulfillment ourselves.

With this in mind, we can apply future forecasting skills to ourselves, to understand how trends or developments in technology might change the ways in which we can make the contributions we find valuable. And in this way, we’ll better prepare ourselves for tomorrow.


🛠️ Free Tool: To think about what you want to do, try this activity focusing on building a resilient and adaptable identity.


🥰 Knowing Your Values

If finding your throughline helps you understand what you might want to do, then knowing your values helps you understand how you want to do it.

The thing is, we live in a world of junk values. The culture around us seems bent on growth, attention, consumption, influence, and fame. We rarely take the time to reflect and identify the way our own values show up in our lives and our work.

Building the skill of identifying and enacting your values can help bring calm and patience to the process of navigating change. A core tenet of many therapy practices, values clarification helps us identify the gaps between where we are and where we want to be. And it can serve as a decision-making algorithm of sorts when facing big questions and challenges in life.

It’s not just about a job or a career. It’s about doing something we value, in a way that is aligned with our values.


🛠️ Free Tool: Think about how you want to show up in the world by using this Values Clarification Exercise.


🫵🏽 The Skill for All of Us: Real Talk

Finally, with a clear concept of the future and a clear sense of how we want to show up, how do we begin to reshape our reality? How do we begin to shift our todays?

We can begin by breaking free of the narratives and influences that manipulate our emotions and perspectives, and start having real, brave, honest conversations that acknowledge a wide spectrum of realities. Our challenge is to hold multiple truths in hand at the same time, and to find hope and community by crafting visions of a better future together.

And ultimately, it’s on all of us - not just young people - to develop these skills and capabilities.

Every time we say we want young people to be changemakers or equipped for “transformative futures” (to quote the UN’s theme for World Youth Skills Day), what we’re not saying is that we want our next generation to fix all the problems that today’s leaders don’t have the will to address.

We have an opportunity to shift this narrative. To sharpen our skills for looking critically and honestly at today, for reflecting deeply on our past and our future, and for connecting with values that help us be present and thoughtful throughout times of change.

What if the skill we asked young people to master wasn’t part of a buzzword acronym or a set of ever-changing standards, but just simply to show up in the world in a valuable and fulfilling way each day?

Perhaps, if we did that, the rest might just take care of itself.


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