There was a time when the calculator was cutting edge and the only way to place a call was to walk over to the wall phone.
For generations of Americans, the good life used to be working one job with one employer for much of your adulthood until retirement.
Today, students are taught they could count on switching careers multiple times as society tries to keep pace with the flood of new gadgets and gizmos.
“We have seen the changes,” said Michele Barrett, director of the Center for Careers and Technology at Carlisle High School. “For some of us, it’s unsettling.”
The blue collar jobs of working a shift on the assembly line have already been taken over by automation and robotics. One study by Oxford University predicts as much as 47 percent of American jobs could be rendered obsolete by the rise of emerging technology.
“We are already seeing changes in industries that surround us right now in Carlisle,” Barrett said. “A lot of the warehouses are becoming more and more automated.”
There was a time not too long ago when men and women had the exclusive run of the floor space and the inventory in storage. But last year Barrett and her faculty toured the Office Depot warehouse outside Newville where small robots retrieve shelving units of products for human pickers to fill orders for shipment.
Aside from automation, educators are concerned about the looming exodus of baby boomers from the skilled labor force to retirement, especially within the next five years.
“We are calling it the Silver Tsunami,” Barrett said. “How are we going to replace them? What’s that going to look like?”
While adults may be unsettled by this rapid pace of change, the students moving through public education grew up with technology and are used to its constant flux.
“That is one of the greatest strengths of this generation,” said Justin Bruhn, administrative director of the Cumberland-Perry Area Vocational Technical School.
“They are the first people to grab onto new technology,” he said. “They are early adapters. They want to see the new and improved model, and that is to their benefit because they are going to seek out how to use it and make themselves that indispensable person in the field.”
The mindset is starting early with computer apps replacing traditional flash cards and other instructional tools past generations relied upon to teach children basic language and math skills, said Karen Quinn, director of curriculum and instruction for Carlisle Area School District.
“Since they were old enough to pick up a stylus, they have grown up with computers,” said Quinn, who is not sure whether students today worry that much about their job prospects in a world of growing automation.
“They are still learning and growing,” Quinn said. “Their brains are adapting.”
While some teenagers enjoy the safety net that goes with being in a well-to-do family, others are from disadvantaged backgrounds where they are going to be expected to go out and get a job.
But studies show the same kind of jobs traditionally held by teenagers are the ones most vulnerable to becoming obsolete due to automation. Those jobs include cashier, retail clerk and waitress/waiter.
Those type of jobs were never meant to provide a family-sustaining wage, Quinn said. “They are supposed to be the second job, the part-time job, the college job or high school job. The people who stay in those jobs for a long time are unskilled workers.”
One downside of the current generation is the tendency by many parents to be so involved and so overly protective that many high school graduates are going to college unprepared for an independent lifestyle, Quinn said. She said there has been feedback from higher education on this trend.
“We have to allow our kids to fail,” Quinn said. By that, she means having a child experience a problem associated with life along with the potential of making a mistake. The parent could advise their son or daughter on one step in the process toward a solution.
A child doesn’t learn anything if he or she could just call their mom or dad and have the parent fix the car or pay the bill, Quinn said. “Sometimes the failure is where we learn the most.”
The same could be said of older workers who become obsolete by not keeping tabs on changes in the job market. All too often, middle-aged Americans get so fixated on the same job they have worked for years and decades they fail to notice changes in the industry or career field until it is too late.
Older workers tend to be more expensive to retrain, said Barrett, adding that the bottom-line for companies becomes how much the older worker can produce.
“Don’t pigeon-hole yourself,” Barrett said. “Be open to retraining opportunities. If an employer wants to send you to be retrained, take advantage of it. Go to it with a smile on your face and a song in your heart because they are saying to you that you are valuable enough to be retrained.”
To Barrett, there is no cause for alarm. “Technology is here to enhance our lives,” Barrett said. “We should embrace it, not fear it and just learn to work with it.”
“What we are trying to teach our students is good advice for all adults,” said Robyn Euker, director of curriculum and instruction for the Big Spring School District. “You have to be a lifelong learner. You have to find your passion. You have to repurpose yourself in a way that the market demands.”