Lynda Gratton is a professor of management practice at London Business School and director of the school’s Human Resource Strategy in Transforming Companies program. She is co-author of The 100-Year Life: Living and Working in an Age of Longevity (Bloomsbury, 2016). She tweets @Lyndagratton.

Do you hope to live to 100? That could mean that you’ll be working, in some form, until you are 80. The tasks you’ll perform in the later decades of your life will probably be different from those you did in your earlier years. They could transform as frequently as every four years. And the skills and capabilities you’ll need will also be changing.

This scenario will be a reality for many people given current trends in longevity and technological innovation. Both will impact the length of time people can expect to work and the forms their working lives might take. Given these new possibilities, it is no wonder that many people are feeling anxious about the future.

It’s clear that much will have to change — both in how people understand and anticipate the evolving nature of work, and how they then respond.

In a dynamic labor market, where jobs and skill requirements are no longer static, accurate anticipation is key to managing a working life. Anticipation provides people with opportunities to gauge which jobs may be at risk and to identify the tasks and jobs that are being created. Knowing how jobs may morph and expand creates a basis for personal planning and acts as a motivator to learning.

How people respond to these dynamic forces is also crucial. The traditional concept of a “three-stage life,” made up of three distinct periods of full-time education, full-time working, and then full-time retirement, is clearly untenable over a long life. How could a one-shot investment in learning be sufficient for a working life that stretches over 60 years — and that takes place during a time of profound technological disruption? A more future-proofed concept is a “multistage life,” in which learning and education are distributed across the whole of a lifetime.

It is clear that lifelong learning would meet the needs of the trends that are currently well underway. But this concept demands a focus and society-wide commitment that is not yet in place. We need to change that.

Multiple Stakeholders Need to Be Part of the Solution

Part of the challenge of building anticipation and enabling people to engage in lifelong learning is that this is not a single point of intervention. Of course, fundamentally it is the responsibility of each individual to act on the emerging reality that continuous learning is crucial to a productive life. But anticipating jobs and providing access to lifelong learning demands a complex system involving multiple stakeholders: educators that extend the reach of their programs from being front-ended on teenagers and 20-somethings to delivering educational options to students of all ages; governments that commit to helping citizens understand future job markets and the skills they will require, and that realign tax and financial incentives; and corporations that create work environments that support education and enable employees to engage in extended periods of training.

The capability of these multiple stakeholders to deliver lifelong learning is in its infancy. Right now, educational, government, and corporate practices lag behind these emerging needs. Without a sustained and energetic approach, it is clear that the current situation will fail tens of millions of people, leaving them apprehensive about the future and ill-prepared for the economic realities ahead.

We need to build momentum, both by heightening awareness of the barriers to change and by creating awareness of the pilots that are taking place around the world.

Educators Are Experimenting With Online Delivery to New Populations

Historically, educators and the high schools, colleges, and universities they lead have focused relentlessly on the needs of the young, still assuming a three-stage life with most of their students’ education taking place before the age of 25. Few have invested in educating people outside of their traditional populations.

But some are experimenting with pushing the boundaries, making use of technological developments in online learning and boutique delivery. In early 2017, MITx launched the program MicroMasters, offering sequenced courses online that build a job skills competency, currently in the fields of supply chain management and data analysis.

New incumbents include Khan Academy, which offers free online courses in 36 languages, and Coursera, which has a consortium of online classes from schools including Stanford University and Johns Hopkins University that claims 25 million users. LinkedIn, the online network for professionals, acquired the learning platform Lynda.com in 2015, merging job data and learning capability to bring 9,000 digital courses to 450 million people. This partnership alone creates huge possibilities for new data-driven, personalized learning paths.

Online learning still has a long way to go — many students receive little or no personal interaction, and average completion rates are low — but this is an exciting, rapidly disrupting sector.

Governments Are Collecting Valuable Data on Job Trends

Governments can help people anticipate job disruption and creation. Some examples:

  • In France, the government is piloting a series of studies that build opportunities for employees to understand what to expect from the national job market.
  • In Denmark, the national skills anticipation system has used a range of diverse data to build detailed information on labor market trends and skills demand for 850 occupations. This database includes skills forecasting (such as statistical forecasting of educational status and the demand and supply of labor), skills assessments (such as quantitative sectoral assessments on imbalances in the labor market), skills foresights (such as sectoral assessments on future needs in the labor market), and employer surveys.
  • In Singapore, the SkillsFuture initiative asks employers to spell out the changes, industry by industry, that they expect to happen over the next three to five years and to identify the skills they will need. Their answers are used to create “industry transformation maps” designed to guide individuals on where to head.

Governments can also financially support lifelong learning. In Singapore, every citizen above the age of 25 has been given a SG$500 (U.S. $345) credit that can be used to pay for any training courses provided by 500 approved providers, including universities and massive open online courses (MOOCs). Generous subsidies, of up to 90% for Singaporeans ages 40 and over, are available on top of this credit. The program currently has a budget of SG$600m a year, which is scheduled to rise to SG$1 billion within three years.

Corporations Are Beginning to Invest in Training for Newly Emerging Jobs

There is much debate about the role of corporations to support learning. Some contend that in a volatile labor market, education is essentially a government or employee responsibility. This seems to me to be a shortsighted argument. Work is a major place of learning, and there is much that corporations can do to maximize this learning potential.

AT&T, for the last five years, has invested $250 million in supporting learning opportunities for its employees. Forecasting future job profiles has been enabled through the mapping of job categories and competencies and the demonstration of the areas of likely growth and jobs at risk. Employees are able to use this information to select new learning pathways. The company offers up to $8,000 in annual tuition aid per employee for degrees and nanodegrees, with a lifetime cap of $25,000 for undergraduate degrees and $30,000 for graduate degrees. AT&T says that as a result of this investment, 140,000 employees have been actively engaged in acquiring skills for newly created roles.

Westpac — the Australian bank — has taken a platform-based approach with LearningBank, which has been rolled out to 40,000 employees. This is a social learning environment where curated content is distributed and employees cocreate and share their own learning material. People are encouraged to build communities around the areas they are interested in and focus on those tasks which will be particularly valuable in the future.

These experiments point to what could be achieved if they were adapted more broadly and more persistently. There is no doubt that a great deal more has to be done.

I believe this is one of the most pressing challenges we face right now. It requires many stakeholders to work together to create momentum. Only this will ensure that those who face a highly volatile job market and unprecedented job destruction and creation will have the opportunity to build the life skills they need — the skills that will ensure they can continue to live long, productive lives.

1 Comment On: Who’s Building the Infrastructure for Lifelong Learning?

  • Jayakumar.K.M. Nair | September 13, 2017

    Does how long a person live make a difference in building a learning infra structure?

    It is said that it is not important how long you live, but how you leave. There is plenty one can do to create a learning structure. Look into the good old golden time of Indian “Guru-Shisya-Parampara” ( Teacher-disciple-system) where is learning is handed over generation after generation.

    And one should remember that it was an era with no computers, no storage devices and no multi printing facilities and no internet and www. Still all those great findings and teachings are available for us today.

    A few thoughts to share………..?
    J K M Nair, Director and CEO , Training solutions International,
    You can reach me if you google my name jkmnair or jayakumar k m nair and open the linkages.

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