/ 26 January 2024

SA’s youth and the Fourth Industrial Revolution

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An open mindset towards continuous learning is essential says Ke Yu, Associate Professor at the University of Johannesburg.

Adaptability is an essential strategy for success in a tech-driven world

The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) is transforming economies and workplaces globally, bringing both opportunities and challenges through the implementation of advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), automation, robotics and more. As South Africa navigates this transition, equipping the youth with the right skills and mindset is imperative. This is according to Ke Yu, who is an Associate Professor of Education and Leadership Management at the University of Johannesburg.  

She says before one can start preparing for 4IR, one must first understand what it entails: “Often, when people use the term 4IR their discussions are actually about the Third Industrial Revolution, which encompasses the internet, emails, smartphones and sometimes social media.”

A key feature of 4IR is the integration of systems and devices, a scope that extends beyond just computers and social media to a whole interconnected network of smart technologies — from smartphones communicating with smart fridges and smartwatches to self-driving cars and full-body augmented reality experiences. 

Opportunities abound

While the field is device-driven, it is also data-driven. The vast amount of data generated by devices and sent to the cloud presents an enormous opportunity for young people who are considering a tech-focused career path. 

From jobs handling and analysing data like software development, network management and app development to roles like cloud specialists, cloud architects, and those managing cloud infrastructure, the job market is alive with new possibilities. Additionally, the integration of data extends to existing fields like engineering, 3D printing, biotech and nanotechnology. Cybersecurity is a significant aspect of data protection, leading to a demand for specialists in this field. 

In the realm of medicine, AI is playing a substantial role, particularly in diagnostics, where it has shown remarkable accuracy. This also holds for neuroscience: “The next few years are anticipated to witness significant advancements as researchers delve deeper into understanding the complexities of the human brain, exploring the intricacies of consciousness, the functions of different brain parts, and how interactions within the brain shape thoughts. An emergence of bio-related elements is notable and has seen explosive growth as AI is being used to conduct experiments, design solutions, and diagnose and address complex problems. The synergy between AI, bioscience and neuroscience will shape the future of work,” says Yu. 

Skills for the future 

While not everyone will become software developers or data analysts, it is anticipated that more people will need to acquire the skills to interpret data, discern trustworthy sources, and leverage information to enhance their interactions and decision-making processes. 

Current trends show the promise of the fields that interact with people while drawing extensively from data to enhance their capabilities and assist customers. Yu says doctors are a good example of this, because “while the medical field requires a substantial educational background, technology has shifted some responsibilities to AI systems”.   

This transformation allows doctors to concentrate more on patient interactions, asking questions and spending quality time with individuals. “The use of AI doesn’t replace human touch; rather, it enhances the human-centric aspect of the profession,” she says. 

In the imagined future of retail, a salesperson in a supermarket can instantly tap into the information about a customer’s preferences, past purchases and habits. “This information serves to enrich the salesperson’s engagement with the customer and, therefore, the customer’s shopping experience.”

The impact of 4IR on inequality and employment remains complex: “On one end, there will be a growing demand for high-end, technology-intensive roles. On the other end, the demand for lower-end manual jobs, especially those involving direct interaction with people, will not cease. Interestingly, the jobs most at risk are the middle-class white-collar jobs.”

Human element is still important 

Because of this, a sole focus on technology alone would be insufficient: “Despite the technical focus of 4IR, there’s an increased need for individuals who excel in dealing with people, interactions and relationships. As technology advances, the roles involving human connections become even more critical, as AI or technology cannot fully cater to these aspects.” 

This shift has been seen even in fields like science and engineering. Increasingly, people skills, communication, collaboration, and emotional intelligence have all risen to be top 21st century skills. This also encompasses creativity, which is closely tied to adaptability. “Finding new solutions often requires a creative mindset, not necessarily in the traditional artistic sense, but in generating innovative ideas and asking insightful questions,” Yu explains. 

This is especially important because the future is uncertain, she says. “While we know a lot of the future jobs will be technology-centric, the exact nature of these jobs remains unclear. Memorisation of facts won’t suffice in a dynamic world where information is readily accessible, and instead learners must know how to utilise knowledge effectively, evaluate the accuracy of the information, and adapt quickly. For this to happen, an open mindset toward continuous learning is essential.” Those unwilling or unable to continually adapt will likely battle to stay employed. 

While traditionally, individuals could expect to change careers around five times throughout their professional lives, research indicates that this generation is likely to experience at least double that. “The evolving nature of industries and technology may make career changes a more common and accepted part of this generation’s professional journey, which is why flexibility, adaptability and grit are so important.” 

Top tips for the future of work 

Yu emphasises that technology is not just for boys! It is important to dispel the myth that maths and science are the only basis of tech. She cites research finding that coding correlates more closely with language aptitude, which “makes sense, since programming is essentially mastering a language”. 

Students shouldn’t let perceived weaknesses hinder their pursuit of technology: “Intelligence isn’t the sole determining factor — what stands out is the willingness, effort, self-motivation and self-drive. It’s not about how smart you are right now; it’s about how much work you are willing to put into it and how open you are to learning.” 

A broad spectrum of knowledge is an asset, as this wider range allows individuals to identify connections and links, fostering a holistic understanding, while specialising too early in a narrow field might limit one’s ability to explore diverse perspectives. 

Yu suggests leaning into emerging tech-trends while studying to leverage the wealth of online resources: “One of the challenges in both higher education and schools is the limitation imposed by large classrooms, hindering personalised tutoring. However, with technologies that use generative AI like ChatGPT, there is a considerable opportunity for individuals to ask questions as if from a personal tutor.”

AI tutors and other online tools 

Technologies like ChatGPT can explain complex concepts in simple language, enhancing understanding. “While GPT has its flaws, its ability to break down topics to a basic level has proven invaluable, and the interactive nature of GPT allows individuals to ask questions, seek clarification, and engage in a conversation-like learning experience.” 

One favourite prompt she likes for ChatGPT queries is “explain xxx to me like a 10-year-old”. 

Yu says this kind of interaction fosters a deeper and more authentic learning experience, empowering individuals to take control of their education. “Podcasts have also gained prominence in the past few years, serving as another valuable source for staying updated on knowledge spaces, ongoing studies, and emerging discoveries,” she explains, adding that the narrow, highly specialised nature of podcasts provide in-depth insights that may not be available through conventional media. 

The availability of such resources, combined with other online platforms like Khan Academy and specialised YouTube channels — for example, those for chemistry or biology — provides students with an extensive array of expert-led lessons and clear explanations across various subjects, complementing what they can gain from conventional classrooms. 

To fully tap into the potential that technologies like this hold, however, South Africa must bridge the digital divide plaguing education. With exponential technological growth, South Africa’s ability to develop youth with the adaptability and grit to thrive in 4IR will define its progress, and Yu urges universities to support disadvantaged students in acquiring technological skills and becoming self-driven learners. 

The transformational times ahead would be super exciting for those ready for it. In addition, as the formative years of high school are the critical period for youngsters to find long-lasting friendships, choosing who to hang out with is critical. The future will change, but school friends might be forever.