Technological progress is transforming societies, economies and people’s lives as never before. The way we work, learn, communicate and consume is being turned upside-down by digitalisation. As artificial intelligence and machine learning begin to reveal their potential, the new wave of change seems set to roll on for decades.

Citizens, firms and countries that can harness digitalisation stand to benefit hugely, as it enriches lives, boosts productivity and makes learning easier. But those that do not have the capacity to tap into its power risk being left far behind. Digitalisation’s promise conceals a threat – that it could widen existing inequalities and create new ones, as some jobs disappear and some skills become outmoded.

This edition of the OECD Skills Outlook shows that by enabling people to acquire the necessary broad mix of skills, countries can ensure today’s technological revolution improves lives for all. Drawing on the Survey of Adult Skills, a product of the OECD Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), this report identifies the gaps that digitalisation threatens to widen and the best ways to bridge those gaps – in the workplace, the classroom, at home, within countries and between countries.

In the workplace, digital technology is contributing to a new wave of automation. Robots are taking on more and more routine tasks, displacing workers from some jobs. At the same time, workers in other jobs can call on ever more sophisticated technology to help them perform their tasks better. In this landscape, it is urgent for countries to focus on building the skills of workers whose jobs are at high risk of automation.

To thrive in a digital workplace, workers need a broad mix of skills – strong cognitive and socio-emotional skills, as well as digital skills. The digital revolution makes the same kind of skills mix necessary in all walks of life. Without basic skills, citizens are locked out of the benefits the Internet can offer, or limited to its most elementary uses. Policies need to offer everyone ways to get the most out of the new technology. This is particularly true for regions that are already lagging behind. This report addresses squarely the risk that digitalisation could exacerbate geographical inequalities within countries.

The continuum of skills required by digitalisation underlines the need for every country to foster lifelong learning. This means breaking down inequalities in learning opportunities, adapting school curricula to changing skills requirements – including digital skills – and giving teachers the best training possible. It also means building adult education and training systems that respond to the labour market.

To achieve these goals and make the most of digitalisation, it is crucial that countries put in place a comprehensive package that co-ordinates policies on education, the labour market, tax, housing, social protection, and research and innovation. Policies on skills and training must form the cornerstone of such a package and are essential to ensure the digital transformation contributes to inclusive growth. In our rapidly digitalising world, skills make the difference between staying ahead of the wave and falling behind.

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