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The 16 foundational skills your kids (and you) will need for the future

Updated: Nov 3, 2020

Did you know that the set of skills that your kids need to be successful when they are adults are different than the skills needed today, and they are not what most schools focus on? Technology is changing at a rapid pace, which will affect how we work in the future and how we interact as a society. Computers will take on many of the tasks that humans once did, making many of the skills that are still being taught to kids obsolete. In addition, social media and the constant online culture is changing the way we interact with others, learn about our world, and view our own self-worth. These technologies will only continue to advance, so our kids will need to learn how to cope with them to live healthy, resilient and productive lives professionally and personally.

So what are these new technologies and how will they shape our world?

The World Economic Forum dubbed this new class of technologies the 4th Industrial Revolution, which includes artificial intelligence, the internet of things, nano & bio-technologies, platform technologies and more. Artificial intelligence (AI) may be the biggest disrupter of what skills we need in the near-future. With the ability to learn patterns in numerical, picture & video, and audio data, AI is already disrupting more traditional industries, like manufacturing and retail. Increasingly, however, AI is also disrupting high skill-professions like the legal profession, (by sifting through loads of statutes and case data); the medical field (by more accurately diagnosing common ailments and recommending treatment); and the accounting field (by automating financial statements and indicators). While this does not mean that these industries will disappear, it means that the tasks that lawyers, doctors and accounts do in the future will dramatically change.

To leverage AI, the internet of things involves using the internet to connect, monitor and control all sorts of physical objects, ranging from your fitbit (which monitors you!) to your home cooling system (think the Nest) to soil sensors in a field of wheat. Once paired with AI, the internet of things creates mountains of data, which is needed to train AI for new functions and applications. Farther out, but not too far if Elon Musk has anything to do with it, wearable and bio-technologies connected to our brains will allow us to access random facts and to merge our knowledge and reasoning with artificial intelligence. "Your brain connected to the internet with a USB port in it," as Musk would put it.

In addition to these technologies that are changing how information is gathered, analyzed and accessed, platform technologies, such as Uber and Facebook, are changing how we work and interact. While taxi cab driving has been taken over by freelancers with the likes of Uber-like platforms, this trend will spread to other industries, including high-skilled industries, meaning more people will have to manage multiple projects and various stakeholders. Meanwhile, our colleagues and partners will be increasingly diverse as hyper-connectivity means companies can hire the best talent, irrespective of geography. Lastly, as is already the case, we are increasingly exposed to and intertwined with people of other socio-economic, racial and cultural backgrounds, which affects how we view ourselves and how we interact as an increasingly extended society. These shifts to our work and society all contribute to changes in the foundational skills that we will need to be successful in the future.

What are foundational skills and why should we focus on them?

Simply put, foundational skills are skills that build a foundation for more applied and advanced skills. Foundational skills are applicable to nearly all situations and professions. They are skills that everyone, no matter whether they are employed or not, whether they work in science or in the humanities, can benefit from. Foundational skills do not include skills that are specific to industries or job functions so you will not see skills like coding, and definitely will not see specific skills like coding in Python as these are considered applied skills, not foundational skills.

It is important for young kids to learn foundational skills while they are young for two reasons. First, their brains are being wired at an early age, and this is one of the best times for them to learn these foundational skills. Foundational skills can be learned when they are older, but they may be harder to learn and may not be learned as naturally. Second, we should focus on foundational skills rather than applied skills because applied skills are always changing and it will be difficult to know at this point what applied skills a child will need when they eventually enter the workforce. Applied skills will also depend on what industry or job the child will eventually take up.

What foundational skills will be less valued in the future?

Before we discuss the foundational skills that will become increasingly relevant, it is equally important to know what skills will be less important. These include:

  • Reading, writing & arithmetic: Computers are increasingly creating content and interacting directly within one another. As a result, reading comprehension and foundational writing skills while not obsolete, will be less important. Likewise, arithmetic is already, and will continue to be done by machines.

  • Memory: As we continue to collect more data and remain constantly online, technology will do the job of remembering random global facts (like the capital of Belarus) or personal facts (like a friend’s birthday or promising to provide an update to a client by November 17th).

  • Managing people directly: As freelancing and partnerships increase and organizational structures become more complex, we will directly manage people less. Rather, we will work with more loose connections that we cannot direct or order. As a result, direct management skills will be less important, but skills that allow us to influence people that we do not directly manage will be more important. Some of these skills are discussed further below.

  • Physical strength and dexterity: As 3D printing and robotics increasingly spread, we will have less needs for physical skills. This includes everything from manufacturing to I.T. repair to performing surgeries.

The 16 skills needed for the future

As computers take over more of the tasks that humans have historically done, this does not mean that humans will no longer be needed to run our businesses, organizations and societies. It does not mean that computers will take our jobs, but rather new technologies will create more jobs than it eliminates. In fact, the future of our work and society will depend on collaboration between humans and our technologies. This means that the people and societies that will be the most successful will be the ones that build the skills that allow us to better leverage technologies or the skills that computers will not be good at. Generally, based on research from the World Economic Forum, the World Bank, and others, our future-skills framework identifies three categories of skills that will be needed for the future: critical thinking, social, and self management skills.

Critical Thinking Skills

While artificial intelligence is great at analyzing loads of data to find trends and possible outcomes, in situations where there is little data or no precedent, or situations that are ambiguous, humans will have to step up. The foundational skills needed to do this includes:

1. Solving ambiguous problems

In real life and work, we face problems that are ambiguous without clear paths forward. They often deal with people, though not always. This could include figuring out how to build a win-win partnership with another company, what three goals should a new project team pursue, or how to determine what health advice is best for you. This skill involves the ability to accurately define the problem, break down the problem into smaller sub-problems, structure a process to solve the problem, and build frameworks to evaluate potential solutions. In an age where so much information is available, it also requires the ability to filter out the information that is irrelevant or misleading.

2. Decision making

Though computers will collect and crunch our data, humans will need to oversee and often make decisions related to that data. They also need to make decisions when information is incomplete or unavailable. This skill involves thinking through what type of information we might not have and whether it can be found or generated, as well as how any decision may affect different stakeholders, future decisions and relationships.

3. Creativity & curiosity - Innovation will continue to be important to create new products and ideas. This applies to both large, world-changing inventions as well as localized or at-home decisions. This involves the ability to identify and think beyond perceived mental barriers, viewing issues from various perspectives, and remaining curious about the world to discover unexpected connections and opportunities.

4. Interdisciplinary thinking

As technology and algorithms continue to delve into highly specialized functions, individuals that can connect the dots across disciplines will be valued. This means staying informed on advancements in different fields, being able to understand how they relate to each other, and identifying when insights from other sectors or disciplines can add value to the current situation.

5. Number sense

Though computers will take on more data analysis, humans will have to interpret their results. In addition, to be efficient, they will need to know when they should turn to advanced algorithms and when making estimates and informed guesses will suffice. This skill involves being able to quickly estimate the results of a proposed budget change, knowing when outputs from an algorithm are not in line with real-world outcomes, or intuitively knowing which inputs to a projection model are likely incorrect based on the output.

Social Skills

While the relationship of directly managing people may be declining, we will still need to work with and lead others to jointly achieve our goals and more effectively get results. Even as technology becomes more powerful, it will be humans who determine how and where to use these powerful technologies, so working with others will remain an important skill set. Doing this effectively will require:

6. Managing emotions in others

As we continue to work and live with others, we will need the ability to identify others’ emotions, understand how they affect any given situation, and learn how to effectively use our actions to affect their emotions to help the given situation. This could be inspiring others or defusing frustrations or shame.

7. Empathy & compassion

To effectively build partnerships, teams, friendships and communities, we will have to understand other people’s contexts to address their needs and their reality. To do this, we need to be able to effectively place ourselves in the shoes of a diverse range of people, to understand their values and how they are affected by their environments, societies and circumstances. Practicing kindness with ourselves and others, holding onto a common humanity particularly in difficult times has been found to be important. Compassion and mindfulness experts, Dr Kristen Neff and Shauna Shapiro note that such attitudes are essential for emotional wellbeing, learning from mistakes and building creativity.

8. Persuasion & communications

To build coalitions and to achieve our individual and group goals, we will need to be able to clearly communicate our aims and convince others to care about them. Communication includes effectively speaking, but also other forms of communication including body language and persuasively using other communication mediums including writing and visual communications.

9. Collaboration

We will continue to need to work with others to achieve individual and joint goals. Collaboration requires the ability to actively and intentionally find mutually beneficial solutions, effectively divide work while accounting for everyone’s strengths, and manage team morale and energy.

10. Conflict-resolution

When disagreements arise, we will need to effectively resolve the problem. This involves many of the abilities already addressed including empathy, compassion, managing emotions and collaboration, but also includes the ability to identify the core points of contention and, when appropriate, requires a comfort with having uncomfortable conversations to address problems, rather than avoiding them.

11. Teaching / coaching others

In order to build teams and strengthen social cohesion, we will need to effectively teach and support others to acquire new skills and perspectives. This requires the ability to identify how different people learn, identify growth opportunities for them, and may also involve connecting on an emotional level with them.

Self-Management Skills

To maintain high levels of performance, build healthy societies and stay happy, individuals will increasingly need to focus on managing themselves, both in terms of their work and their emotional health. This means an increased focus on:

12. Grit / Growth Mindset

Humans will always face obstacles. Those who value practice and hard work and who approach life with the humility to continuously learn and improve themselves are likely to be more successful professionally and personally.

13. Managing emotions in self

To maintain motivation and high performance, we must learn to recognize our emotions, develop personal strategies for regulating those emotions when necessary, and have the ability to channel our emotions toward productive purposes, whether personal or professional.


As technologies rapidly change and as work becomes more interdisciplinary, we need to quickly learn and apply new topics and ideas. This requires the ability to actively engage in learning by questioning what we hear, constructing our own mental models of understanding, and applying theories to our own circumstances. In addition, as the internet is flooded with opinions and varying perspectives, it also requires the ability to determine what information is accurate, irrelevant or just plain wrong.

15. Gratitude / mindfulness

In a digital age where we are always marketed to and where we can constantly compare ourselves to others, we must remain grateful to build happiness and minimize depression. This requires practice to appreciate every-day moments and interactions and furthermore to respond to challenges with grace.

16. Identifying a purpose

To sustain motivation and happiness, we must connect our lives and actions to a larger purpose. This requires the ability to recognize the stories going on around us (e.g. reduction of poverty in our neighborhoods, the generational advancement of our family, or global social equality), and identify how our lives and actions contribute to those stories.

With a solid understanding of what the future will look like and what skills will be valued, we can start to align what we are teaching our kids to prepare for the future. Much of what is taught in traditional school is focused on the past. In fact, the structure of education, including subjects, student-teacher relationships, and coursework, was designed hundreds of years ago. We will explore this, and how we help our kids build these skills, in upcoming articles.

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1 Comment

So very true, every bit of this article. This solidifies even more my belief in Elon Musk's Ad Astra school were kids are taught with the mind of both foundational and applied future skills needed. With the current Four Industrial Revolution happening, we NEED to change/review our kids school curriculums. Gratitude to the author.

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