The skills needed in the 21st century

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Chapter 1

The skills needed in the 21st century

To thrive in today’s innovation-driven economy, workers need a different mix of skills than in the past. In addition to foundational skills like literacy and numeracy, they need competencies like collaboration, creativity and problem-solving, and character qualities like persistence, curiosity and initiative.

Changes in the labour market have heightened the need for all individuals, and not just a few, to have these skills. In countries around the world, economies run on creativity, innovation and collaboration. Skilled jobs are more and more centred on solving unstructured problems and effectively analysing information. In addition, technology is increasingly substituting for manual labour and being infused into most aspects of life and work. Over the past 50 years, the US economy, as just one of many developed-world examples, has witnessed a steady decline in jobs that involve routine manual and cognitive skills, while experiencing a corresponding increase in jobs that require non-routine analytical and interpersonal skills (see Exhibit 1). Many forces have contributed to these trends, including the accelerating automation and digitization of routine work.

The shift in skill demand has exposed a problem in skill supply: more than a third of global companies reported difficulties filling open positions in 2014, owing to shortages of people with key skills.[1] In another example, across the 24 countries included in the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), an average of 16% of adults had a low proficiency in literacy and an average of 19% had a low proficiency in numeracy.[2] Only an average of 6% of adults demonstrated the highest level of proficiency in “problem-solving in technology-rich environments.”[3]

Exhibit 1: The labour market increasingly demands higher-order skills

Tasks by percentile for the US economy, 1960-2009

Note: The starting point of the chart has been indexed to 1960.
Adapted from Levy, Frank and Richard J. Murnane. “Dancing with robots: Human skills for computerized work.” Third Way NEXT. 2013. Data provided by David Autor at MIT and updated from the original 2003 study by Autor, Levy and Murnane.

To uncover the skills that meet the needs of a 21st-century marketplace, we conducted a meta-analysis of research about 21st-century skills in primary and secondary education. We distilled the research into 16 skills in three broad categories: foundational literacies, competencies and character qualities[4] (see Exhibit 2; see also Appendix 1 for definitions of each skill).

Only an average of 6% of adults demonstrated the highest level of proficiency in “problem-solving in technology-rich environments.”
  • Foundational literacies represent how students apply core skills to everyday tasks. These skills serve as the base upon which students need to build more advanced and equally important competencies and character qualities. This category includes not only the globally assessed skills of literacy and numeracy, but also scientific literacy, ICT literacy,[5] financial literacy and cultural and civic literacy. Acquisition of these skills has been the traditional focus of education around the world. Historically, being able to understand written texts and quantitative relationships was sufficient for entry into the workforce. Now, these skills represent just the starting point on the path towards mastering 21st-century skills.
  • Competencies describe how students approach complex challenges. For example, critical thinking is the ability to identify, analyse and evaluate situations, ideas and information in order to formulate responses to problems. Creativity is the ability to imagine and devise innovative new ways of addressing problems, answering questions or expressing meaning through the application, synthesis or repurposing of knowledge. Communication and collaboration involve working in coordination with others to convey information or tackle problems. Competencies such as these are essential to the 21st-century workforce, where being able to critically evaluate and convey knowledge, as well as work well with a team, has become the norm.
  • Character qualities describe how students approach their changing environment. Amid rapidly changing markets, character qualities such as persistence and adaptability ensure greater resilience and success in the face of obstacles. Curiosity and initiative serve as starting points for discovering new concepts and ideas. Leadership and social and cultural awareness involve constructive interactions with others in socially, ethically and culturally appropriate ways.

Exhibit 2: Students require 16 skills for the 21st century

While all 16 of these skills are important, we have observed little consistency in their definition and measurement. This is especially true for competencies and character qualities. The lack of comparable indicators poses a challenge for policy-makers and educators in measuring progress globally. Another problem is that most indicators focus on foundational literacies, while the development of indicators measuring competencies and character qualities still remains at an early stage. In addition, differences in scores between some competencies and character qualities, such as creativity, initiative and leadership, are likely influenced by cultural factors and as such may be difficult to compare. For seven skills within competencies and character qualities we were unable to make any comparisons due to the absence of comparable data at scale, even for the more developed countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). It is of crucial importance that measures for these skills be developed and tracked in the future. (See Appendix 2 for a discussion of the challenges of measuring performance across countries, as well as Appendix 3 for the sources used in this report for each indicator.)

Much more needs to be done to align indicators, ensure greater global coverage for key skills, establish clear baselines for performance integrated with existing local assessments, standardize the definition and measurement of higher-order skills across cultures and develop assessments directed specifically towards competencies and character qualities.


  1. ^The Talent Shortage Continues: How the Ever Changing Role of HR Can Bridge the Gap.” Manpower Group. 2014.
    Note: Manpower Group interviewed more than 37,000 employers in 42 countries in the first quarter of 2014 and found that on average 36% reported having difficulty filling jobs, the highest proportion in seven years.
  2. ^ “Low proficiency” corresponds to adults performing at level 1 (the lowest proficiency level) or below.
  3. ^OECD Skills Outlook 2013: First Results from the Survey of Adult Skills.” Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC). Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. 2013.
  4. ^ We referenced frameworks from European Skills, Competences, Qualifications and Occupations (ESCO), Partnership for 21st-Century Skills, enGauge, Brookings and Pearson.
  5. ^ ICT stands for information and communications technology.