For most people born after the mid to late seventies, having access to a computer at some point during their school life was the norm. The later you were born, the more computer time you likely acquired before heading out into the big wide world of work. This might not have turned you into a computer genius, but it would have given you an important fundamental understanding of how they work – a familiarity that removes the fear of breaking something if you click the wrong button.
This wasn’t the case for baby boomers (those born from 1946 to 1964) and also some of the earlier members of generation X (people born from 1965 to 1980). For those who went through childhood without computers, their first encounter with a computer would have likely been in the workplace.
Without off-the-job training, this poses a significant challenge. Using a computer for the first time at home or at school means you get to learn by making mistakes in a safe environment. If you do something wrong, it doesn’t matter.
The same isn’t the case when you learn it on-the-job. Here, your time is limited. You have the additional pressure of not wanting to stand out from the crowd, and this is made worse if the crowd all seem to have mastered the skill already. What’s more, if you make a mistake, the effects can be costly.
Although later generations have all been exposed to computers and, more recently, smartphones from a younger age, boomers have been steadily catching up. The pandemic was also a massive catalyst for device adoption.
Market research firm GWI have shown that: “while boomers are now more or less on par with other generations for smartphone ownership, Q2 2020 saw them pass another significant milestone; the first time they considered mobiles more important than PC / laptops”.
The playing field for the working-age generations may not yet be completely level, but a bulldozer has arrived that will change that. For the first time since the mass-adoption of computers and the smartphones that followed, there’s a new technology that resets everyone’s skills back to zero – artificial intelligence (AI).
Very few people can currently say they’re an AI expert. Indeed, at its current rate of progress, it takes a lot of work to stay on top of it. Yet two things are true: it’s not going to go away; and it will revolutionise the workplace. For her article in the Guardian in May ’23, Phillipa Kelly wrote: “for better or worse, a growing number of industries are likely to be permanently and structurally altered by the march of AI.”
The ability to effectively use AI is going to be required of almost all of us at some point in the not-too-distant future. While this certainly levels the playing field, it demands two things: a willingness to learn from the individual; and support to those who require it.
This poses another question – are organisations ready to train their workforces in AI? If they were to do this, it would require a huge investment and a U-turn on recent trends. The House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts released data in December 2022 showing that “average expenditure on workforce training per employee [has fallen] from £1,710 in 2011 to £1,530 in 2019”. And this doesn’t take inflation into account. The same report went on to state that “the 2021 employer skills survey found that 52% of the total workforce had received some training during the year, which is the lowest proportion since the first survey in 2011”.
Without investment into AI training, history will repeat itself. It will be the same as when computers were first introduced into the workplace, only now we’re all in the position that boomers found themselves in. Generation alpha (those born between 2013 and 2025) will almost certainly be taught AI at some point during their school lives. They’ll start entering the workplace from around 2029 so, when they do, they’ll already be AI literate.
No business can afford to wait until 2029 and risk their competitors gaining the upper hand. Furthermore, anybody who thinks they can afford to tread water while the world around them changes risks being replaced by somebody who has already gained AI skills.
Whether the answer is training within the workplace, outside the workplace, or a bit of both, is another debate. What’s clear though is that although the playing field has been levelled, it won’t ever stay that way for long. Now’s the time to capitalise.
Mark is one of Popcorn’s co-founders and directors. Since 2002 he’s developed and delivered hundreds of courses, both online and face to face. He’s worked both as part of an internal L&D function and as an external consultant. His actions have generated many millions of pounds worth of revenue for the organisations he’s worked with.