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21st Century Skills


Dad - what do you think are the most important skills I will need for a successful and happy life in the 21st century?


Dad's response

No one knows what skills people will need in the 21st century to succeed or even to survive reasonable well. The future is open and anything can happen. If you were born in Europe in 1950 very few people could predict that you would eventually need computer skills in the 1970s and 1980s to make a fortune in "Silicon Valley" or at least to get a good job. Since the Industrial Revolution technology has been changing our lives at ever faster pace. Skills that only few people could master a few decades ago are now common place, while others have become totally useless. Today, many people (in the developed world) know how to drive a car, but few can ride a horse - 100 years ago it was the other way round. I can think of many skills that seem to be rather useful today that may become completely useless in a few years due to technological progress and other changes. Here are a few examples:

Skills that will perhaps be useless


Few things are more useful for a knowledge worker today than to be able to type fast and efficient on a keyboard. Whoever needs to write reports, news stories, research papers, movie scripts or books can greatly benefit from that skill. But what if speech recognition finally works? What if computers will efficiently and correctly understand common language? Typing may become rather useless.


For people of the 20th century it is hard to imagine that reading might become a useless skill. But I would argue that reading - particularly the reading of long and ambitious texts, such as textbooks or literary novels - could become a minority skill in the 21st century. One cannot ignore the fact that more and more people just watch TV, movies, computer games, short videos and other digital content - instead of reading books, newspapers and magazines. We also have completely new forms of (hyper-linked) text. Websites, such as WikipediA, are organized into short, searchable articles with dozens or hundreds of links. Many people use Google to find a short answer to a very specific question - rather than spend time to systematically read a whole book about the subject.

In the future we will perhaps also have smart computers that will listen and talk to us in natural language and explain to us verbally and with animations and videos everything we want to know - using the vast amount of information on the Internet and in remote data bases. For long periods in human history people did not learn by reading books - but through (verbal) communication with other people. Perhaps the 21st century will again become a more interactive world - a world where we primarily learn through natural interaction with (human-like) computers.

Computer skills?

At the beginning of the 21st century technical skills related to Personal Computers were very important. Until recently job applicants at the professional level were expected to be familiar with e-mail tools, text processing (MS Word), table calculation (MS Excel) simple database development (MS Access) and presentation software (PowerPoint). But we are in the middle of technological revolution. Now many jobs require familiarity with social media and certain tools for communication (WhatUp, Skype), on-line conferencing, web publication and marketing. Many of the basic computer skills will probably be replaced by smart software. Computers will become embedded in many tools and devices and they will learn what they should do without our intervention. Algorithms will automatically analyze "big data", find interesting patterns and recommend market and investment strategies. Thus, ordinary computer skills and the know-how for basic data analyses might become worthless. 

Driving a car?

Today, the ability to drive a car is still rather useful. It increases your mobility, helps you in many jobs, and it can be great fun to hit the road und just drive for pleasure. But what will happen, if Google, Mercedes, BMW, or some other company, will develop a completely autonomous car that drives itself. All you will have to do is "talk to it" and tell it where you want to go. No steering wheel, no break, no gas pedal. There is also the trend that more and more people will live in cities, where driving a car is no great fun even today. What if city planners and engineers will finally manage to develop fast and comfortable public transport that will cover all corners of the emerging urban agglomerations? Holding a driving license may be as useless tomorrow as being a expert horse coach driver today.




Brene Brown (2010)
The Gift of Imperfection. Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are.

Richard Guare / Peg Dawson (2012)
Smart but Scattered Teens. The "Executive Skills" Program for Helping Teens Reach Their Potential.
The Guilford Press

Carmine Gallo (2009)
The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs. How to Be Insanely Great in Front of Any Audience.

Carol Dweck (2007)
Mindset. The New Psychology of Success.
Ballantine Books

Sharon C. Burton / Nelda J. Shelton (2010)
Office Procedures for the 21st Century -
8th Edition
Prentice Hall

In Association with


While it is impossible to predict specific 21st century skills, it might be possible to imagine certain basic traits or attitudes that could be useful. Here are a few examples:

Skills that will perhaps be useful


I believe, we can be rather certain of one 21st century trend: The world will change rapidly. This change could come in many different forms. Most likely it will be the development of new technologies which will affect the ways we live and work. But it could also be social, political, economic and - most likely - environmental change of unprecedented magnitude. An essential skill people will need in such unstable times is flexibility - particularly intellectual flexibility. People of the 21st century will most likely need to learn for their whole life. Those who can adjust to change will be successful. Flexibility is something you can train. Here is how:


Widen your (political, social, cultural) horizon! Switch between TV News Channels! In the US watch MSNBC, CNN, BBC, Al Jazeera and Fox. Don't stick to the same old channel just because it fits your political orientation. Make it a habit to watch shows (from time to time) that are most contradictory to your own political and social views. After a while you will notice that your political views become more nuanced and reflected. Below is a link with prime news outlets covering a wide range of political orientation - from liberal to conservative and from populist to élite. 

Worldwide News: Leading newspapers and news websites


Improve your geographical knowledge. Don't just be "proud to be American" (or German, or French) - learn to distinguish Austria and Australia! The world of the 21st century is not just your small town or city or country. The world of the 21st century is global. To be successful in the 21st century you will probably have to learn where Whuan is, or what language people speak in Myanmar.


Travel and live abroad! Knowing your geography is a good start, but you can most effectively widen your horizon by actually travelling to foreign countries. It would be even better, if you could study or work in a foreign environment for some time. Whoever has lived abroad for a few years will tell you that their views, attitudes and knowledge have changed considerably due to this experience.


Learn about many different subjects! The second half of the 20th century was dominated by narrow-minded one-track specialists, who knew everything about their specific line of work or field of interest - but almost nothing about anything else. "Geeks" were running some of the most powerful companies and amassed the biggest fortunes in human history. Visionary politicians were often replaced by technocrats, populists or party bureaucrats. I think the 21st century will be different. Successful people will mostly have a broader vision.

Tolerance & Conviction

I am sure that people in the 21st century will be confronted with much greater diversity than ever before. Most countries will have a significant percentage of foreigners - migrants, refugees or temporary migrant workers. Populations will be racially, ethnically and religiously more heterogeneous. The "clash of civilizations" will most likely result in mutual penetration - creating a volatile or even explosive cultural mixture, where all people will be confronted with social behavior, political views, sexual orientations and cultural traditions of others, which they often dislike, reject or even hate. Those, who can get along and work with people of very different background will have an advantage. That does not mean you should adopt an laissez-faire attitude  - just the contrary! You need to have your own firm and reflected convictions, moral standards and cultural traditions to tolerate (or even appreciate) those of others.

English Language Skills

If you are a native speaker of English you are lucky - hundreds of millions non-English speakers are trying to learn your language. For instance, everyone with half a brain in China is now learning English - there are already more English speakers in China than in the US! If you count the people speaking the various Indian dialects of English (Hinglish and others) the great majority of all people on earth will be speaking English in the 21st century.

Learning a foreign language is not just a matter of increasing your practical skills. It is the best method to understand a foreign culture. If you are from Europe, Asia, Africa or Latin America you have no choice: English is the language of science, technology and business. If you want to be part of the "Modern World" you have to learn this language!

Independence Skills

The 20th century was a period in human history when great empires (and many small satellite sates) explored the possibility of state communism. The former Soviet Union and Mao's China established economies and societies that were based on centralized command-control systems, state-owned enterprises, mostly public ownership of land and strict control of intellectual life. While there were many variants in those systems over the years and between countries the basic idea was that the state (which was often identical to the Communist Party) took care and exercised control of each individual - from the cradle to the grave. This system has failed. It ignored a fundamental human trait - the desire to take life into one's own hand. All people want to be free to make their own choices, pursue their own plans, and enjoy their own success. They don't want to be told what to grow on their fields, what to study, where to live, what products to produce, to which markets to sell or what movies to watch.

This independent spirit will probably flourish even more widely in the 21st century, when large populations in China, India and Africa will become even more integrated in the global economy. If you want to succeed in this century you should learn some entrepreneurial skills - not necessarily to start a company, but primarily to develop yourself. It will become more and more important to take initiative, risk something, and work persistently towards a goal. Socialist "nanny states" that give you free education, provide you with a job, take care of your health and pay your pension will disappear. In the 21st century more people will want to (or will have to) take care of themselves.



Erick Brynjofsson / Andrew McAfee (2014)
The Second Machine Age. Work, Progress, and Presperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies.
W.W. Norton

Chris Anderson (2012)
Makers. The New Industrial Revolution.
Crown Business

Theodore Dalrymple (2007)
Our Culture, What's Left of It.
The Mandarins and the Masses.
Ivan R. Dee

Theodore Dalrymple (2003)
Life at the Bottom. The Worldview That Makes the Underclass.
Ivan R. Dee

In Association with


Work-Life Balance

Life in the 21st century will be tough. You will have more opportunities, but also more demands and challenges. More people, from many different backgrounds, will compete with you - socially, economically, politically. Labor markets will become global. The top universities in the United States already select their students among the world's best; companies recruit their top managers from a global pool. But the competition will not only heat up at the top. America's and Europe's factory workers have already felt the competition from China and other Asian countries.

The Protestant work ethic of the United States and the United Kingdom is increasingly dominating the economic and social world. Benjamin Franklin's motto: "time is money" could become the leading ideology in the 21st century. The philosophical dogma that laziness or even recreation is morally wrong has already been used to legitimize extremely tough work conditions in the US and the UK, where people essentially work the year round - with minimal vacation and long working days (as compared to Europe).

In the 21st century many people will increasingly live to work - rather than work to live. If you want to survive this pressure you must learn how to ignore, avoid and resist the unreasonable work pressure of the 21st century. (By the way - work productivity can be higher with shorter working days!) Particularly women will "exploit themselves", torn between career and family, if they don't succeed in reducing unreasonably long working hours in their jobs.

Presentation Skills

Greater individual independence and opportunities, but also greater economic pressure, will require people in the 21st century to present themselves as good as possible.

Especially in a college-level career chances are high that you will have to give presentations in your job sooner or later! Verbal presentation skills are essential for knowledge workers if they want to avoid getting stuck somewhere in a back office.

Simple rules for effective PowerPoint presentations


Additional Resources

23 million Twitter users are fed by robots (CNN, 12 August 2014)

"... 23 million, or 8.5% of its active users, get tweets "without any discernible additional user-initiated action." In other words, their feeds are updating without them having to interact with Twitter." (CNN)
Is this the beginning of the new "machine age"?


Copyright © 2014, 2015 by Gerhard K. Heilig. All rights reserved.

Updated: 3 February 2015