Loran Scholars Foundation

Friday, February 3, 2017

Bonsoir.  Quel plaisir d’être avec vous ce soir.  It is an honour to be with so many of the people who are part of the Loran Scholars Foundation and its extraordinary mission.

McGill University is privileged to be a partner of the Loran Scholars Foundation.  Since the program’s inception in 1988, we have welcomed more than 100 Loran Scholars to our campus.  We are proud to play a role in helping talented young people learn, take meaningful risks, collaborate, and inspire others.  You are a true inspiration to us.

My academic background is crystallography, one of the first big data sciences.  And, yes, I love data. I love numbers and all they tell us. So let me share a few numbers with you.

100: The age we expect millennials to reach.  One hundred years.  Life is long, and it is getting longer.  Most people who were born in 1900 did not live past the age of 50.  Fifty years old!  What a contrast to today.  At the World Economic Forum in Davos a few weeks ago, I participated in a session entitled “Preparing for a 100 year life.”  It is predicted that learning, working and leisure activities will be increasingly blended and intertwined throughout this long life.  I believe it, being surrounded by people who, like myself, have had the privilege of working in an area they are passionate about, and who are engaged in learning every moment of their lives.

Back to the numbers.  Two to one: That is the projected ratio of working age Canadians to senior citizens in 2050.  As a point of reference, today that ratio is around four-and-a-half to one.  The good news, of course, is that there should be plenty of jobs to choose from.  

But, when one out of every three adults is of retirement age, we may have problems finding enough workers.  And those who do work will have to be highly productive to maintain our standards of living in this increasingly aging society.

Putting these numbers together give us a picture of the future ahead for you.  You are likely to live a long life, and have a long working life.  You will be presented with many exciting challenges, and you will be constantly in learning mode.

I have a question for you.  It sounds easy, but it is not: What will your future jobs look like?

The world is changing at a very fast pace.  Our radars are giving us the right signals: The incredible disruptions of what is called the Fourth Industrial Revolution mean that a large number of jobs will disappear or change.  

Lower skilled jobs are being affected first, making it difficult for many less-educated people to increase their economic well-being.  But higher skilled jobs will be at risk as well.  We are already starting to see the advent of artificial intelligence systems that can replace us in many data analytics tasks.

We still do not know how many jobs will disappear due to technology; estimates range from nine to 47 per cent.  Nor do we know when they will disappear, but something we know with a bit more certainty is that a large percentage of core job skills will be completely different by 2020.

Yes, 2020.  Think about that.  A sea change in core job skills in the time it will take current first-year undergraduate students to finish their degree.

I have heard many university leaders argue that preparing students for jobs is not the mission of a university.  And I have heard many business leaders complain that graduates fresh out of our universities are not job ready.  I myself tend to agree with Harvard’s President, Professor Drew Faust, who in a 2010 speech said, “Too narrow a focus on the present can come at the expense of the past and future, of the long view that has always been higher learning's special concern.  How can we create minds capable of innovation if they are unable to imagine a world different from the one in which we live now?”

Indeed, how can we offer you a learning experience that will give you the insight and foresight needed to re-imagine our world?

But I also believe that we cannot ignore the immediate challenges that our world is facing in the short term. Our graduates need to be active shapers of our future world.

In other words, I think that we need to offer a learning experience in our universities that prepares students for both the short- and long-term, to be both job ready and future ready.

You, students at our universities today, are demanding this kind of learning experience.  You want to be challenged in our classrooms with professors who will help you explore and discover new knowledge, coach you through deep dives, sharpen your analytical skills, widen your cultural awareness and nurture your creativity.

In fact, you are reinventing your learning experiences.  On our campus at McGill, and on campuses across the country, you are launching all sorts of initiatives, from entrepreneurship hubs to cultural activities and social innovation initiatives.  You are participating in the life of the community, locally and globally.

You are seeking mentorship, because you are smart enough to know that—no matter how bright you are—you have much to learn from people with more experience.  And you want to start using what you learn in the classroom right away.

We may well anticipate a future in which smart robots and AI systems will be better workers than humans for many tasks.  But rather than fear such a future, we should embrace it, because it will leave us the time and space we need to do what we do best: and that is being humans.  Artificial intelligence will allow us to focus on developing our humanity, with all the attributes that distinguish us from machines: ingenuity, creativity, leadership, talent, generosity and compassion.

Most human beings dream of living a life that is meaningful and of making a contribution to the world.  I am predicting that you will have a long life and I am convinced that you will be making the types of contributions that our world so desperately needs.

I know you can do it, because you are already doing it.  Today’s Loran Scholars are part of a special generation.  I have a lot of names for you:

“The Start-up Generation.  “The Walk-the-talk Generation.”  “The Plugged-in, globally connected Generation.”  “The Why-not? Generation.”

I have also called you “the Broadband Generation” because, unlike any generation before you, your messages are spreading at an incredible speed across the planet.

You are asking for inclusive, and environmentally sustainable, economic growth.  You are demanding a world where diversity is welcomed and celebrated.  You want us to care not only about the wellness of our own local community but of communities across the world.

Let me end by sharing the wise words of one of the most admired philosophers and thinkers of our age: McGill philosophy professor emeritus Charles Taylor.

In a recent interview in the New Yorker, Professor Taylor talked about the fate of democracy in our world today.  “Democracy is teleological,” he said. “It’s a collective effort with a noble goal: inclusion.”

Professor Taylor has taught us that inclusion takes many forms, and as citizens of a democratic society, we have much to be proud of: an increase in life expectancy, great advances in civil rights, in immigration policy, and in suffrage.  He also warns us that we do not live in a Utopia, and we must be vigilant, should these hallmarks of inclusion be challenged.  Democracy is a work-in-progress.

“In some ways,” says Professor Taylor, “democracy is a fiction that we’re trying to realize.”

This year in Davos, Klaus Schwab, the executive chairman of the WEF, told us that in our world today and in the midst of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, we need a radar and a compass.  I believe that the words of Professor Taylor are a good place to find your compass.

I also believe that with both a good radar and compass, your generation can pilot us in the right direction.  You have the ears of the world.  You have influence.  Use your voice and your actions to shape a better future for the planet.  You can transform the aspiration of democracy from fiction to reality.  We are all counting on your generation to pilot us in the right direction and to guide us to our True North.

Merci beaucoup.

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