By DAVID MYTON

“If you aren’t feeling anxious and uncertain yet, then you are in denial.”

By the time Jeffrey Bleich spoke these words during his keynote address to the recent Universities Australia conference in Canberra the audience was paying rapt attention.

Some people had considered skipping the former US ambassador to Australia’s speech. As one senior academic told me: “I thought, ‘what can an ex-ambassador have to say about higher education?’ But I am glad I went. It was thought-provoking and totally relevant to the issues we face.”

What Bleich didn’t do was to take a narrow instrumentalist approach as to how universities could adapt to and meet the challenges of the present and future.

Instead, with a keen sensitivity, he explored the political, social and technological challenges of our age, located them within the unraveling of the contemporary political and economic consensus, and delved into the social relegation and distress experienced by globalisation’s losers – often people who have never set foot in a university.

His insightful examination of the Brexit vote and Trump election had none of the scorn sadly too common in much discourse about voter behavior.

He spoke of how new technologies and global trends were driving “shock and uncertainty”, adding that we are witnessing “an historic moment that requires an historic response”.

The unfolding digital revolution every year brings some massive new disruption, he said, from big data to machine learning to the ‘singularity’ –  “where our species itself is altered by technology …”

This dramatic acceleration of technology affects not only the workers who see their jobs disappearing and fear these new technologies, it also inspires fear in retirees and dependents just as much.

“Gene therapies may make it typical for people to live healthy active lives past the age of 100. That should be a cause for celebration …But it’s also frightening. How will society support a generation that lives 20 years longer than they’d planned, that runs out of retirement savings. And if they live healthy lives to age 100, they will need to fill more of those years with work – their work lives may need to last 60-70 years. But as technology accelerates, their training may barely be sufficient to last them 10 years.

“How will that work? How do we educate and re-train people for six careers over a lifetime? And what sorts of jobs will those be? How will we give people purpose when machines can do everything that is dull, dangerous, or determinable? Even if you could find work for people and retrain them every 10 years, what sort of economic model can sustain this?”

At one stage he spoke of the many benefits of self-driving cars, then added:

“But that’s not how you look at it if you are a 47-year-old truck driver or bus driver or cab-driver or you drive a fork lift and have a high school education, are carrying a lot of debt, and have a family to take care of. All you see is some elites in San Francisco trying to kill your job and destroy your family.”

He spoke of universities not as a thing unto themselves, academic islands in the stream, but as part of their societies and central to navigating the future – including the world of work.

Our industrial economies were originally designed to train people to work from ages 25 to 55 in one career and generally not live past 65, he said, adding:

“This no longer works. If the students we are training today are going to live to be 120 years old, and their careers are likely to span 90 years, but their training will only make them competitive for 10 years, then we have a problem.

“We need to rethink our educational model. We will need to increasingly train young people not just in a skill, but in how to learn, and for skills that cut across multiple disciplines.”

Bleich said universities may become “a life-long subscription service, with frequent re-trainings” … “How will that work? How do we educate and re-train people for six careers over a lifetime? And what sorts of jobs will those be?”

Our best minds need to try to answer what he called “the greatest question of the Digital Age”:

“How will we give people purpose when machines can do everything that is dull, dangerous, or determinable? What economic model works where most of the things in life can be produced sustainably at low cost through robotics? How do we develop a bright vision of the future and give them hope …

“The question for our universities is to help us see the future and prepare future generations to succeed in it.”

You can read the speech in full here.