Changing the narrative: why we should focus on long life learning rather than lifelong learning

Author of Long Life Learning, Michelle R Weise, is on a mission to change the future of education, envisioning a shift from lifelong learning to long life learning. Ellen Buchan and David Woods-Hale caught up with her to learn more

According to the Institute for the Future, as many as 85% of the jobs that will exist in 2030 haven’t yet been invented, so how do we prepare for these jobs when we don’t even know what they are?  

Michelle R Weise, author of Long Life Learning: Preparing for Jobs that Don’t Even Exist Yet, is on a mission to change the future of education from being divided and siloed, into an ecosystem which is user friendly for job seekers. 

This interview with Weise seeks to investigate how to build a workforce of people who can thrive in these future jobs. 

Why did you decide to write this book? 

One of the impulses for writing the book, was to say: ‘Ok, this concept of lifelong learning is not new – in fact it’s decades old – but it has been very slow to catch fire’. 

The most helpful model was hearing lots of different experts on ageing and longevity, as well as futurists, talk about a longer life and potentially a longer working life. 

We are seeing people stay in the labour market for longer. The concept of a 100-year life, or a 150-year life, suddenly makes our systems look deeply inadequate. If we get a college degree, it seems unlikely that two or four extra years of learning is really going to last us a 60- or 80-year work life. 

That is where the concept began. Instead of being paralysed by inertia about lifelong learning, we flip this model on its head and think about long life learning: what is this going to mean and how is it going to change our behaviour? 

Is preparing for the future about taking courses or having an agile mindset? 

Having an agile mindset is key to success in the future. Sometimes, it’s going to mean that we need to broaden our human skills. There are a lot of prognostications out there that we will have to bring our human skills to bear, and we will have to leverage this competitive advantage that we have, as humans, over the artificial intelligence (AI), computers, or robots whose work we are coordinating and complementing. 

It’s not just that we can be generalists, it’s sometimes going to mean understanding enough about AI to make the right sorts of intervention,s or understanding data science sufficiently to be able to acquire that next job. 

It’s both the human skills such as communication, collaboration, teamwork, systems thinking, agility, and resilience plus having enough tech skills to be dangerous. 

How has Covid-19 impacted the need for long life learning? 

It’s funny, because almost up until the final draft of my book, Covid had not occurred.

What was interesting was this laser focus in the book on people who were not thriving in the labour market. I think, when we tend to focus on the future of work, it’s helpful to move away from the statistics; I was really focused on the 41 million people in the US who were already being left behind by the present of work, people who maybe only had a high-school degree and who were not earning a living wage through their work.

When I had to revise my book because of the pandemic, it really brought front and centre all the deep inequity and the lack of opportunity that existed.  

The pandemic revealed how inordinately stuck our systems were. We couldn’t help large numbers of people move out of their jobs in the retail and hospitality industries when they were completely decimated and shift them into jobs which were open and in demand.

There is an opportunity to take advantage of this unique moment that brought the future to us and made it clear how much work we need to do by pulling down some of the barriers that exist for millions of people. Part of that is to move towards a skills-based hiring environment that allows people to prove they can do the job, instead of relying on blunt proxies for talent such as degrees or credentials. 

Do you feel MBA programmes are equipping people for a long life learning career? 

The question we need to keep front and centre is ‘how do we build and cultivate the best problem solvers for the future?’. That must be something we keep as a shared agenda when we break down the artificial silos of how we create problems to solve for our learners, because whatever we pursue – whether it’s an MBA or a degree in biology or anthropology – no problems exist in a vacuum. The crossing of silos and boundaries exists in any problem we encounter in our work today.

If you look at the kinds of opportunity that exist today, not only do we need those traditional negotiation skills, or the traditional courses we provide in a Business School, it’s about business transformation skills and how we enable the future leaders of our organisations to manage change.

So how do we prepare leaders to meet organisations in the midst of all that volatility? It requires organisational change management – transformation skills – and we don’t deliberately build those into our curricula. It’s fascinating that, at least in the US, most Business Schools don’t teach sales or business development. The jobs of the future will always entail some form of sales. 

How do we remain aligned with the demands of the labour market? I think core to all of this is ensuring that we are infusing curricula with real-world problems and getting people in the mentality of building a mindset of being able to exercise judgement in ambiguous circumstances.

In the book, you call for a different type of learning ecosystem. What does this look like to you?

To build a better future, instead of thinking about multiple systems running in parallel, we need to think about taking an ecosystem approach. 

This came out of the qualitative research we did with people who were part of that US population of 41 million people not thriving in the labour market. We were trying to understand the barriers they faced that prevented mobility, movement, and advancement. We kept hearing the same issues emerge around the inability to access the right career navigation or support services, or to find the right educational pathways that were not a two or four-year degree, or a one-year certificate. 

Five principles emerged: the new kind of learning system must be more navigable, supportive, targeted, integrated, and transparent. We can all think of different sorts of solution, or interesting innovators and organisations that work on career navigation or target more precise opportunities, such as boot camps.

The idea is that it’s not just about one solution, but instead about bringing together lots of different organisations and resources – existing and new solutions – to make this centre around the job seeker, so that they know exactly where to turn and how to navigate their next job change. 

Whose role is it to ensure the workforce is equipped with skills for the future?

It’s on all of us, and that’s the driving motivation behind this ecosystem-based approach. In many cases, there’s a blame game going on where employers criticise higher education for not producing the candidates they need, and higher education blames employers for disinvesting in the education of new workers. Individuals often bear the brunt of this, having to navigate it on their own, especially as they mature in their working lives. 

It is not sufficient for us to continue in this manner, where the bulk of reskilling and upskilling is pushed onto us, as individuals. We need to figure out the skills gaps that we have and where to turn to get the precise education that fills those gaps. We’re just kind of praying and hoping that a future employer will know how to make sense of this new learning.

Our learners need to understand better who they can trust and ways of sorting through the different options – and that’s where venture capital innovators and social entrepreneurs have a role to play in helping all of us to make sense of this burgeoning ecosystem.

It’s not one or the other; it’s not about blowing up something that exists today, it’s about really shifting the orientation around all of us as people and job seekers, because as we think about a longer work life (and the 20 or 30 job changes that we might have to anticipate for the future) we are all going to bump into the same challenges that those who are struggling today are already bumping into. 

It’s this idea of all being stuck in a web of mutuality – which is a term Dr Martin Luther King Jr came up with. If we cut into the curb for the people who are struggling the most, we open opportunities for everyone. It’s this concept of the curb-cut effects – when you focus on the people who really have the most constraints today, that means that all of us are going to be able to take advantage of the new ecosystem we are building. 

So, my answer is that it’s the role of each and every one of us to ensure that the workforce is equipped with the right skills for the future.

Michelle R Weise is the author of Long Life Learning: Preparing for Jobs that Don’t Even Exist Yet (Wiley, 2021). She is a former Fulbright Scholar and graduate of Harvard and Stanford.

This article originally appeared in Ambition – the magazine of the Association of MBAs.


You may also like...

Business Impact: 10 top finance tips for entrepreneurs

10 top finance tips for entrepreneurs

Establishing strong financial habits from the beginning of your entrepreneurial journey is essential for sustainable, long-term success. Bianca Miller-Cole and Byron Cole offer 10 tips to help you get on the right track from day one

Read More »
Translate »