Put another way, computers have grown very good at doing things that require plugging in formulas or simply following directions. Humans are still much better at talking to one another to figure out where problems lie and strategize how to solve them.
There are still a lot of jobs in the economy that require those human skills. But wealthy kids have a huge advantage in getting those jobs, thanks to their schooling — Pew research shows the lowest-achieving wealthy child is more likely to finish college than the highest-achieving poor child — and, maybe more importantly, their home environments.
“With the constant need to acquire and work with new information,” Levy and Murnane write, “literacy requires not only the ability to sound out words phonetically, but also the background knowledge and vocabulary to make sense of newly encountered words and concepts.” On this, studies show wealthier children have a big edge, hearing their parents speak nearly four times as many words in their infancy than the children of welfare recipients do. More affluent parents send their children to preschool and science camp and all sorts of other enrichment activities that supplement their basic educations.
When it comes to the skills most prized in the future job market, Murnane said in an interview, “kids from affluent families get a lot of that at home, and poor kids don’t.”
Educators and policymakers will need to find ways to fill that gap, the economists say, or they risk exacerbating America’s already wide — and damaging — economic inequality. They say countries such as Denmark, Norway and the United Kingdom are meeting the challenge more effectively, as evidenced by their lower income-inequality ratios and higher degrees of economic mobility.
Other economists say the policy problem goes well beyond education. Many liberal labor economists, for example, contend that decreased worker bargaining power over the past decades explains the inequality trends more than educational failures.
Bridging the educational divide, to help lower-income students succeed in the robot-proof workforce, is a huge undertaking, Murnane and Levy concede. Murnane called it a decades-long challenge — but one that, ironically, could gain urgency among policymakers if the pace of technological advancement accelerates and more people find their jobs jeopardized by automation.
“One of the things that operates right now is there are a chunk of people who are doing just fine, because they’re not threatened by technology,” Murnane said. “Once you see more and more people threatened, that really changes the political calculation.”