For young people to succeed in the workforce of the future, we need to prepare them for AI now

By Jill Bramble, President & CEO, National 4-H Council Courtney Gregoire, Chief Digital Safety Officer, Microsoft April 19, 2024

Artificial intelligence technologies – specifically generative AI tools – are influencing our lives and our world in profound ways. From enabling new scientific discoveries in fields like genetics and chemistry, to making basic research easier, to helping people in a growing range of jobs work more efficiently, AI is changing how we create, collaborate and communicate with one another. And young people will increasingly become those leading the creation and navigating the consequences of these powerful tools and technologies.

The advent of generative AI also has major implications for the economy and workforce of the future. According to the World Economic Forum, familiarity with AI and big data is already one of the skill sets most sought after by employers. Demand for AI-savvy workers will only increase as these technologies become more advanced and play a bigger role in our daily lives.

Today’s young people are already powerful digital natives who have been introduced to AI and hold some knowledge about its possibilities, according to our new survey. The next generation of leaders adapt to new technological advances with incredible tenacity, and now it is our responsibility as adults to support this fervor. We have six million innovators with the promise and potential to create a future that harnesses powers from AI that we don’t yet grasp.

It is time we supplement this foundational knowledge of AI and expand on how to use it effectively, safely, and responsibly – in the classroom, at home and beyond.

Our survey is the first to examine AI use and understanding among young people (ages 9-17) and shows that young people are optimistic about generative AI’s potential. To help realize this optimism, young people would like adults to help them engage with these tools correctly and confidently.

Here are some key takeaways from the survey:

  • Most young people already have at least a basic understanding of generative AI. Among all youth surveyed, 66% said they know at least some about generative AI; 34% said they know “a great deal” or “a fair amount.”
  • Young people are optimistic about the impact of generative AI on their education and careers. 64% of all respondents agreed that generative AI will help them learn things that they will need to know in their future careers, and 58% said it would help them improve how they learn at school.
  • Young people also have concerns about AI technology, including its potential uses for cheating and privacy issues. 61% of kids agree that AI will make it easier to cheat at school, and 53% expressed concerns that AI could find out private information about them.
  • Young people want adults involved in learning how to use and engage with the AI tools they have used or might use in their lives. An overwhelming number of young people (72%) are seeking support from adults in learning how to use AI tools properly. This includes a majority of both younger children (84% of 9-12 year olds) and teens (63% of 13-17 year olds).

There are several steps we can take to tap into the inherent power of these digital natives and support their understanding of an AI-driven future and economy, even while understanding that the field is evolving and there is so much more we can all learn. Here are a few places to start:

  1. We must meet young people where they are by having open, honest conversations about online safety at ages that reflect the reality of their current use of technology. According to research from the Pew Research Center, children in the United States begin interacting with digital devices at young ages. Our research identified a major gap between older and younger children in terms of their familiarity with AI – high school boys are most likely to express a strong understanding of generative AI (43%), whereas girls in elementary school are least likely (22%). As young people start to experiment with using digital technologies, we need to prepare them how to use these tools, including generative AI, responsibly.
  2. We need to equip parents and teachers with resources to support young people in their journey to understand and use new technology safely and responsibly. This is essential if we want to succeed in laying a strong, early foundation of AI education for our youth particularly as more parents start talking to their kids about AI and as teachers look to incorporate discussions about AI – and AI technology itself – into the classroom.
  3. We must make access to generative AI tools inclusive so that everyone can benefit, and no communities are left behind. For example, while 38% of urban youth and 36% of suburban youth say they know a great deal or fair amount about generative AI, that number drops to 28% among their rural counterparts. This shows the potential for a forthcoming digital divide on AI that is exacerbated by geography. If we want to give all young people a chance to thrive in the years to come, we must ensure that opportunities to learn about and engage with AI are available no matter your geography or background.

Both of our organizations are taking steps to provide support on AI for adults and young people. National 4-H Council is looking to develop educational content about AI through the new CLOVER digital learning platform, local Cooperative Extension 4-H programs, and our connection to 110 universities nationwide. Microsoft recently released a Family Safety Toolkit to support caregivers’ conversations with their children about generative AI, as well as a Classroom Toolkit, providing guidance to educators on creating an immersive and effective learning experience with generative AI for students aged 13-15 years.

As a next phase of our partnership, 4-H will be conducting a series of focus groups with members to dive deeper into the survey results. Our goal with these sessions is to gain a greater understanding of how different communities and ages are using these tools and how we can help them succeed. We will share our findings publicly so that everyone can benefit from the insights.

Preparing young people for the workforce of the future means doing our due diligence as adults to build upon their natural fluency for technology and provide the resources they need to understand generative AI. It’s on all of us to ensure that the youth in our lives are set up to thrive and understand how to leverage these new technologies that are reshaping our world.