U.S. Adults Flunk Reading And Math And Being Smart At Stuff

Do you want a worker with the skills necessary to succeed at the job. American workers don’t have them.

U.S. Adults Flunk Reading And Math And Being Smart At Stuff
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They may already be out of school, but U.S. adults both young and old are apparently way behind other countries in skills that are critical to success in the workforce—especially in math and technology, which will only become more important in years to come.


That’s one finding from a new study that was released yesterday by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a grouping of 34 nations consisting of the world’s leading economies.

The assessment, a first conducted by the OECD, is far more comprehensive than similar cross-country skills assessments, especially in the area of math and tech. The study organizers gave a series of tests in literacy, math, and “problem-solving in technology-rich environments” in 19 countries (and an additional 4 only did literacy and math) to a total of 166,000 adults over the age of 16.

Below you can see a chart showing how each country fared in the test of problem-solving skills, which included using computers and other digital tools to find and evaluate information, communicate, and perform practical tasks. It shows by country in rank order, the percentage of people who scored at least a 2 or 3 on the test (where a score of 3 is the highest). The United States fared near the bottom, with only 31% of people scoring at least a two, which was below the OECD average of 34% and far below the leader, Sweden, at 44%.

The U.S. did similarly poorly in numeracy skills, coming in third to last among nations surveyed, as the chart below–displaying average scores by country–shows. In that assessment, Japan, Finland, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Norway rank highest, and the U.S. only beat out Italy and Spain.

In literacy, the U.S. only performed slightly below the average for all nations surveyed.

These are not good signs for the U.S. in terms of its future competitiveness, especially given that U.S. adults tend to have relatively high levels of education relative to most countries. However, the results were obviously not evenly distributed among the U.S. adults surveyed (you can read a U.S.-specific breakdown of the survey here). Disturbingly, the U.S. was most behind in the category of the youngest adults. And while people with higher levels of education tended to score on par with most other countries, the bottom lagged much further behind. Socioeconomic background was also much more strongly correlated to levels of skills than in most other nations.


These large disparities not only between the U.S. and other countries but within the U.S. population have huge implications, as the report notes. “Governments need a clear picture not only of how labour markets and economies are changing, but of the extent to which their citizens are equipping themselves with the skills demanded in the 21st century, since people with low skills proficiency face a much greater risk of economic disadvantage, a higher likelihood of unemployment, and poor health,” it says.

Other measures, such as national test scores in school, have previously showed how the U.S. is slipping, but this is the first and most comprehensive measure of the adult population of skills.

Anthony P. Carnevale, director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, told the New York Times: “The first question these kinds of studies raise is, ‘If we’re so dumb, why are we so rich? … Our economic advantage has been having high skill levels at the top, being big, being more flexible than the other economies, and being able to attract other countries’ most skilled labor. But that advantage is slipping.”

About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire.