The skills citizens will need in the future of work

We know that digital and artificial intelligence (AI) technologies are transforming the world of work and that today’s workforce will need to learn new skills and learn to continually adapt as new occupations emerge.

We also know that the Covid-19 crisis has accelerated this transformation. We are less clear, however, about the specific skills tomorrow’s workers will require.

Research by the McKinsey Global Institute has looked at the kind of jobs that will be lost, as well as those that will be created, as automation, AI, and robotics take hold. And it has inferred the type of high-level skills that will become increasingly important as a result. The need for manual and physical skills, as well as basic cognitive ones, will decline, but demand for technological, social and emotional, and higher cognitive skills will grow.

Governments are keen to help their citizens develop in these areas, but it is hard to devise curricula and the best learning strategies without being more precise about the skills needed. It is difficult to teach what is not well defined. We, therefore, conducted research that we hope will help definitions take shape and could contribute to future-proof citizens’ skills for the world of work.

The research identified a set of 56 foundational skills that will benefit all citizens and showed that higher proficiency in them is already associated with a higher likelihood of employment, higher incomes and job satisfaction.

Defining foundation skills

Some work will, of course, be specialised. But in a labour market that is more automated, digital and dynamic, all citizens will benefit from having a set of foundational skills that help them fulfill the following three criteria, no matter the sector in which they work or their occupation:

– Add value beyond what can be done by automated systems and intelligent machines

– Operate in a digital environment
– Continually adapt to new ways of working and new occupations

We used academic research and McKinsey’s experience in adult training to define what these foundational skills might be. We started from four broad skill categories—cognitive, digital, interpersonal and self-leadership—then identified 13 separate skill groups belonging to those categories. Communication and mental flexibility are two skill groups that belong to the cognitive category, for example, while teamwork effectiveness belongs to the interpersonal category.

Looking for still more precision, we identified 56 distinct elements of talent (Deltas) that fall within these skills groups. We call them Deltas, rather than skills, because they are a mix of skills and attitudes. ‘Adaptability’ and ‘coping with uncertainty’ are attitudes, for example.

Delta Proficiency and outcomes 

From here, we conducted two further pieces of research. First, we sought to gauge the level of proficiency in the 56 Deltas among today’s workers compared with the level we believe will be required to future-proof citizens’ ability to work. Second, we sought to gauge whether proficiency in these Deltas was already associated with certain work-related outcomes.

To ascertain proficiency levels, we defined a desirable level of proficiency in each of the 56 Deltas, then devised a psychometric questionnaire to assess respondents’ proficiency against this bar.

Eighteen thousand people from 15 countries completed the online questionnaire and were given a score on a scale of 0 to 100 for each Delta.

The results showed respondents’ proficiency was lowest in two skill groups in the digital category — software use and development and understanding digital systems.

Proficiency in the skill groups for communication and planning and ways of working—both in the cognitive category — was also lower than average.

We also examined whether proficiency was linked to education. Overall, survey participants with a university degree had higher average

Delta proficiency scores than those without, suggesting—perhaps not surprisingly—that participants with higher levels of education are better prepared for changes in the workplace.

However, a higher level of education is not associated with higher proficiency in all Deltas. The association holds true for many Deltas in the cognitive and digital categories.

For some Deltas, more education was associated with lower proficiency, ‘humility’ being an example.


We went on to test whether proficiency in the Deltas was already helping people in the world of work; the results showed that survey respondents with higher Delta proficiencies were, on average, more likely to be those that were employed, with higher incomes, and higher job satisfaction.

Different Deltas were more strongly associated with these three work-related outcomes, however.

Holding all variables constant—including demographic variables and proficiency in all other elements—we found employment was most strongly associated with proficiency in several Deltas within the self-leadership category, namely ‘adaptability’, ‘coping with uncertainty’, ‘synthesising messages’, and ‘achievement orientation’.

High incomes were most strongly associated with proficiency in the four skill groups where overall proficiency levels were lowest among respondents—namely understanding digital systems, software use and development, planning and ways of working, and communication.

Digital proficiency seems to be particularly associated with higher incomes: a respondent with higher digital proficiency across all digital Deltas was 41 per cent more likely to earn a top-quintile income than respondents with lower digital proficiency.

The equivalent comparison was 30 per cent for cognitive Deltas, 24 per cent for self-leadership Deltas and 14 per cent for interpersonal Deltas. That said, the four Deltas most strongly associated with high incomes were ‘work-plan development’ and ‘asking the right questions’, both in the cognitive category; ‘self-confidence’, a self-leadership Delta; and ‘organisational awareness’, an interpersonal Delta.

How Deltas could help shape education and adult training

Our findings help define the particular skills citizens are likely to require in the future world of work and suggest how proficiency in them can influence work-related outcomes, namely employment, income and job satisfaction.

This, in turn, suggests three actions governments may wish to take.

– Reform education systems

Our research suggests governments could consider reviewing and updating curricula to focus more strongly on the Deltas. Given the weak correlation between proficiency in self-leadership and interpersonal Deltas and higher levels of education, a strong curricula focus on these soft skills may be appropriate.

– Reform adult-training systems

The majority of respondents we surveyed—like the majority of people in society at large—were no longer in national education systems. Raising proficiency in the Deltas would, therefore, require continuous adult training. The fact that proficiency in digital Deltas was lower among older survey respondents who had left the national educational system illustrates this point.

– Ensure affordability of education

Just as the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century drove an expansion of access to education, today’s technological revolution should drive further expansion to ensure universal, high-quality, affordable access to education from early childhood to retirement and to ensure that curricula include the Deltas that will future-proof citizens’ skills in the world of work.

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