Trend Article

Lifelong Learning Will Be the New Normal—But Are We Ready?

As we live longer and workplace requirements expand, continued learning and retraining are becoming essential

April 13, 2020 By: Michelle R. Weise Read time:

In this Issue:

  • Spring 2020
  • Notes From the President: The Learning Curve
  • Crunch: Lifelong Learning
  • Foreword: Learning Is a Science
  • Neuroscience in the Classroom
  • Prepare the Next Generation for Their Future
  • Lifelong Learning
  • Americans and Lifetime Learning
  • Personal Learning
  • Machines Are Learning
  • Five Questions: How the Brain Learns
  • Voices: Learning Requires...
  • View All Other Issues
Lifelong Learning Will Be the New Normal—But Are We Ready?

Mounting evidence suggests that we can expect to live longer. The authors of The 100-Year Life explain: “For most of the last two hundred years there has been a steady increase in life expectancy. More precisely, the best data currently available suggests that since 1840 there has been an increase in life expectancy of three months for every year. That’s two to three years of life added for every decade. … And perhaps more importantly, there is no sign that the trend is levelling off.”

With advances in health care, medicine, and disease control as well as improvements in general living conditions, we have somehow, as one aging specialist has said, “found a way to slow down the process of bodily decay that was given to us by nature, a truly remarkable development that no other species has achieved before.” The Global AgeWatch Index Report anticipates that by 2100, the number of people ages 80 and over will increase more than sevenfold, from 125 million to 944 million.

With a 100-year life, is it possible that our work lives will extend, too? Will the careers of the future last 60, 70, or 80 years? Already, workers who are 55 and older are staying in the workforce at historically high rates, well into their late 60s and even 70s.

How do we square projections of longer lives with those predicting massive job obsolescence? Even conservative estimates indicate that much of the work humans do today will be automated in the coming decade. At the same time, technological advancements will continue to give rise to entirely new kinds of jobs and careers.

Job transitions are already an established part of life. In the U.S. alone, 10,000 Baby Boomers will turn 65 every day from now until 2030, and many of them will have experienced at least 12 job changes by the time they retire. Those numbers will only increase with time, as people confront longer and more turbulent work lives. Gone are the days of retiring at age 65 and living on a guaranteed pension from one or a few employers that defined a person’s career.

Technology’s transformation of nearly every facet of our economy means that we all must learn new skills and acquire knowledge at a pace—and on a scale—never before seen. But which skills?

Policymakers, educators, and employers have been vigorously debating how best to prepare Americans for our potentially automated future. Some believe that the “hard” skills of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) are most critical to the future, while others believe that the uniquely “human” skills of the liberal arts are the ones that will endure in the face of automation. But this debate presents a false choice between the liberal arts and applied learning. It’s not an either/or proposition but both/and: The most valuable workers now and in the future will be those who can combine technical knowledge with human skills and adapt to the changing needs of the workplace.

Data Points

10,000 Baby Boomers will turn 65 every day from now until 2030. TWEET

Data Points

Many of them will have experienced at least 12 job changes by the time they retire.

Data Points

87 percent of employees acknowledge the need for new skills throughout their careers. TWEET

Data Points

73 percent of employees report having some caregiving responsibility. TWEET

Companies are looking for intellectual dexterity just as much as technical expertise. A Strada Education Network analysis of more than 36 million job postings, resumes, and social profiles shows that in the first half of 2018, the skills in highest demand were leadership, research, communications, writing, and problem-solving. Paired with technical knowledge, these uniquely human skills will endure in the face of increased automation in the future of work.

And these traits, especially in a robotized future, define us as human beings. Human skills will be critical to coordinating more closely with machines in a complementary way—a combination of skills like programming + communication, artificial intelligence (AI) + emotional intelligence, or logic + ethics.

Journalism and writing careers, for example, exemplify the need for both/and. A job seeker cannot simply count on being a good writer to get hired because journalism has morphed to include what have typically been seen as information technology skills. Real-time labor market information illustrates the dramatic increase in demand for skills and analytics capabilities such as search engine optimization, JavaScript, CSS, HTML, and Google Analytics.

Students majoring in writing or journalism must understand that, while learning communication skills, they must also cultivate business and marketing abilities, including brand work, content development, market research, and even advertising. Those considering technical writing should be able to communicate software specifications fluently and may need to learn project management.

Skills matter a great deal, but the right combination of human + skills also depends greatly on the learners and the stage in which they find themselves as they seek to pivot between jobs or access new learning. For those about to make the first transition from college to work, we can see how stronger advising and career services are necessary earlier in the learning experience to guide them to the kinds of technical skills they’ll need to acquire. Developing many of these human+ skills must begin early on—not right before graduation—with the active help of educators and other learning providers.

© 2020 The Pew Charitable Trusts

But there is no longer a single transition from schooling to work. As we try to make sense of a longer, more turbulent work life, we must anticipate that learning will have to be episodic and frequent. Workers will cycle through learning to acquire new skills or move between career fields—way beyond the two, four, or six years of higher education on the front end of our current work lives.

Adult workers can already sense that things are different now. The Pew Research Center found that 87 percent of adults in the workforce acknowledge that it will be essential or important for them to get training and develop new skills throughout their careers to keep up with changes in the workplace. Future workers will need to “virtuously combine technical and interpersonal tasks” repeatedly throughout their working lives, notes David H. Autor, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and make learning and continual skill development a way of life. Think back to the 1990s, when the concept of a T-shaped person entered the lexicon. The T-shape describes an individual’s combination of breadth of knowledge with depth of technical expertise.

But, in a world in which our work lives become longer and more unpredictable, this figure will change shape and turn jagged as an individual moves through life and acquires knowledge along the way.

Unfortunately, today’s workplaces often aren’t flexible enough to accommodate this growth.

Time off for new learning is rarely viewed as a boon to employers, so workers are often reluctant to take a break from working. Hiring managers will question: Why is there a gap in this resume? As a result, most workers try to squeeze in night or online classes on top of all of their other responsibilities. The opportunity costs, or forgone wages in pursuit of education, are simply too high.

© 2020 The Pew Charitable Trusts

Most working adults expect to receive training from employers, but few actually do. Peter Capelli, a professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, puts it bluntly: “What employers really want are workers they don’t have to train,” he writes. “Companies simply haven’t invested much in training their workers.” He notes that in 1979, young workers got an average of 2.5 weeks of training a year, but by 1995, that amount was just under 11 hours, with workplace safety as the most common topic—not building new skills.

Employers want workers who bring human skills into particular career fields and supplement them with technical skills that reflect current industry standards. But they largely look to outside candidates instead of skilling up from within.

Most working learners recognize the power of combining tech fluency with human skills on their own as their careers progress. But to keep up with the rapid pace of change, employers must redesign their practices to give workers access to learning.

The most valuable workers now and in the future will be those who can combine technical knowledge with human skills and adapt to the changing needs of the workplace.

The challenge is that few companies actually know the talent and capabilities of their workers. Employers tend to rely on degrees and credentials—things that transcribe, formalize, and codify our learning as comprehensible packages—while most of their employees’ life- and work-based knowledge remains invisible and unrecognized.

A longer work life will mean that companies must engage differently with workers than ever before. Employers will face fluctuations in their talent pools as more workers take on more caregiving activities. Harvard Business School professor Joe Fuller says that as many as 73 percent of employees report having some caregiving responsibility, and that 1 out of 3 leave paid work to attend to family members. These societal demands will only increase as our graying population grows.

At the same time, we will have more workers over the age of 50—a pool of deeply experienced human capital. How will employers harness this variability in abilities across the life span and consciously build age-diverse teams that strategically balance the strengths (and mitigate the weaknesses) of different-aged workers?

The Takeaway

We need a new learning ecosystem that addresses the evolving demands for new knowledge and training throughout our longer work lives.

Michelle R. Weise is chief innovation officer at Strada Education Network

The Future of Learning: ‘Superagers’ and Lifelong Learning

Americans and Lifetime Learning in the Knowledge Age How to Prepare the Next Generation for Their Future—Not Our Past