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Learning to Learn

Alvin Toffler — American writer and futurist— is usually cited as the originator of the quote: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

Toffler however, was paraphrasing psychologist Herbert Gerjuoy’s thoughts. Gerjuoy wrote, “Tomorrow’s illiterate will not be the [wo]man who can’t read; he will be the [wo]man who has not learned how to learn.”

No Going Back

Either way, the message is a powerful reminder that the nature of work has changed, and that enterprises in all sectors need to rethink their training (and retraining) activities if they are to prepare their employees for the future and avoid the negative economic and societal impact of layoffs and workforce alienation.

In my view, it is equally important to avoid false protectionist promises that jobs in sector that have already been impacted by technological and economic changes can be brought back. The underlying causes of the loss of jobs in Western manufacturing, coal mining, steel making and elsewhere are just too powerful. As King Canute discovered, you can’t turn back the tide.

Consider the following: The notion of a ‘job for life’ – common among my parents’ generation – is no longer valid.  Younger ‘baby boomers’ (those born between 1957 and 1964) in the US have changed jobs almost 12 times in their working life, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. And the pace is accelerating.

Over the last 20 years, the number of companies people worked for in the five years after they graduated has nearly doubled. People who graduated between 1986 and 1990 averaged more than 1.6 jobs, and people who graduated between 2006 and 2010 averaged nearly 2.85 jobs. Millennials change their jobs on average every two years or less.

Meanwhile a growing percentage of employees now work on a contingent basis, helped by mobility and near universal connectivity. Nearly 40 percent of US workers are now classified as temporary or contract workers, a figure that continues to grow driven in part by new and disruptive business models and platforms such as Uber, Angie’s List and TaskRabbit.

Technology is automating work at an unprecedented rate, as artificial intelligence, sensors, and robotics become mainstream. According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, 50% of all jobs currently performed by humans will be eliminated by 2030.

Similarly, a report prepared last year by Citi and the Oxford Martin School explored the varying impact that automation of jobs will have on countries and cities around the world, in the near future and the coming decades.

Technology at Work v2.0: The Future Is Not What It Used to Be’  found that 47 per cent of US jobs were at risk of automation over the next two decades.

As Jenny Dearborn, SAP’s Chief Learning Officer, notes, the first jobs to disappear will be those paying $20 an hour or less including checkout registry jobs in retail and call center jobs. In addition, up to 9M driving jobs in the US could be lost as fully autonomous driverless cars and trucks become mainstream.

White Collar Jobs Aren’t Immune

It would however be a mistake to think that higher paying and/or white collar jobs are exempt from the threat of technology substitution. AI and Machine Learning will impact cognitive jobs and ultimately take over many of the mundane, data-heavy tasks that white-collar workers currently undertake, while automation and robotics will replace most manual jobs.

The impact of automation may be even more disruptive for developing countries, because of lower levels of consumer demand and limited social safety nets. With automation and developments in 3D printing likely to drive companies to move manufacturing closer to home, developing countries risk ‘premature de-industrialization’.

Harnessing new World Bank data, the authors of the Oxford Martin School study that the risks of job automation range from 55% in Uzbekistan to 85% in Ethiopia, with a substantial share of jobs being at high risk of automation in major emerging economies including China and India (77% and 69% respectively).

No matter the sector, job type or geography, the reality is that in the not too distant future, everything that can be automated will be automated. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that there will be a massive reduction in employment opportunities. As in previous technology-led transformations, automation could free-up people to do more interesting and more valuable jobs.

Nevertheless, the changes to work that are underway now are likely to involve a fundamental rethink of the notion of ‘jobs’ and employment including a further shift away from full time employment towards ‘project’ work, and a much more flexible attitude from educational institutions, companies and individuals towards learning.

New Strategies Needed for a Longer, Better Working Life

For the best part of the last 100 years, most people’s lives have been divided into three roughly equal parts – learning, working and retirement. In future, however people will live longer and have multiple careers during their working lives.

Consider this. Someone born in the last 10 years can expect to live to be 102 and to have a working life spanning 60 years. That working life is likely to be punctuated with intense periods of retraining as employees adapt to accelerating technological changes and the shifting skill requirements of employees.

Education institutions will need to teach their students HOW to learn and think, rather than WHAT to Learn. Employers in turn will need not only to increase the amount of time employees spend each week on learning (currently around 24 minutes a week), but also to assist displaced employees to ‘forget’ old and outdated knowledge and learn new things.

Retraining workers to undertake new tasks – including those created by digital transformation – will become a top priority for governments and enterprises and will be essential if societies are to avoid the populist rhetoric, protectionism and potential disruptions associated with large scale unemployment and alienation.

Technology companies also have an important role to play in addressing these challenges in conjunction with their partners by facilitating lifelong learning and retraining programs, and helping their customers address some of the challenges identified by the United Nations Sustainability goals, including facilitating decent paid work and economic growth. A key element in that achieving those objectives will be helping people learn how to learn.

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