There is no doubt that the prosperous workers of the future will have to demonstrate agility in learning. Learning will be a continuous process for anyone who wants to remain valuable as the world changes. So, what is the catch? We all move smoothly out of and into stages of learning and working as smoothly as we move out of shallow sleep to deep sleep. But there is a catch. In fact, there are two catches. People and corporate culture. Neither of these are going to change quickly or anytime soon, and so the transition for those moving from the learning->work culture of the past will be faced with obstacles that we will have to navigate now and in the foreseeable future.
People don’t change very fast or very well. And, this is not for trivial reasons. There are reasons that are both hardwired and socially constructed. The main hardwired reason is the organic conservative functionality of the brain.
This conservatism not a left/right political dichotomy, but conservative as in the avoidance to use energy. Our brains have developed to conserve energy whenever possible. They may be always going, but our brains avoid hard work and prefer to just idle along. This can cause everyday problems when we take cognitive shortcuts when we should be spending analytic energy on a choice or problem. What does this have to do with the transition into the future of work? People don’t really want to learn new things, because it is hard work. They can, but there is resistance because of the conservative nature of the brain. And this conservative nature of the brain becomes more difficult to overcome as people age. It isn’t that we can’t learn but it is that we don’t want to.
Another problem for agile learning is the low levels of metacognitive awareness. Without a high level of personal insight, people look at the world as a static place. Change is happening, but it is happening to other people. Eighty-nine percent of non-educated people refuse to believe that their jobs are at risk to automation (it doesn’t get that much higher for the educated). High-level insight and awareness allows you to look at the world in a more analytical manner. Not that there are not emotional impacts, but metacognition allows us to see through the rose coloured glasses and realize that the consequences of change apply as much to us as individuals as they do to society in general.
When I was studying metacognition as a cognitive scientist a few years ago, one of my colleagues, a clinical expert in gambling addictions, showed a real interest in my work. In our conversations, he said that he thought that the lack of metacognitive awareness was one of the keys to gambling addictions. The gambler can’t imagine that they will suffer the same consequences that other gamblers suffer when he or she places a bet. More recently, I was talking to a friend who researches in psychiatry about this same subject. He believes that this lack of real awareness is likely the root cause of most addictions. The consequences for the actions of a person with an addiction don’t apply to them. Not because they are blind to the world, they are just blind to where they fit in the world. This isn’t any fault of their own; it is simply a lack of metacognitive awareness. Something that can, and should, be taught as people reach their young adulthood – but it isn’t.
What does this have to do with the future of work and learning? If I am unaware that the changes all around me will have any direct consequences for me, then why should I be concerned about the changes? Especially when you receive calm assurance from your organization that all is well. No organization wants to lose productivity by indicating to their employees that massive changes that will directly effect their jobs are just around the corner or just over the horizon. These kind of changes are kept as organizational secrets as long as possible in order to keep productivity as high as possible until the last possible moment. This is not the fault of the organization. An organization’s first loyalty is to the organizations purpose and the purpose of any organization rooted in past models will be to maximize outputs from resources as long as possible and discard assets as soon as they become liabilities to that core purpose. Some of the largest and most powerful organizations in the world have adopted a different model and that is how they have become so powerful in such a short time. However, the number is still small and the number of people employed by them is still relatively small.
A real social problem that plays a part in the seamless movement of a person through learning and working phases is the cost. Learning (education and training) costs money. I was surprised to read that the majority of university graduates over 45 are still burdened with significant student loan debt. How can someone over 45 or 50 realistically re-enter a learning phase in their lives when they haven’t finished paying for the last learning phase. Of course, learning will be a part of working culture, or will it be?
I know, these learning phases will take place within the context of regular employment. Move through a significant learning phase as a part of a working environment just like we do now. Except that it doesn’t really happen – at least not very often.
Corporate culture today, for the most part, does not see an outdated employee as a ‘Human Resource’ any more than they see out-dated machinery or real estate as capital resources. In the corporate culture of today, people are easily discarded. I know that human resource departments will shout out that this is not true, but the reality is very different. When the productive output of a person or group of people is redundant, so are they. The individuals involved in the cuts may find it emotionally difficult, but they are answerable to the core purpose of the organization (usually shareholders) and executives who represent the core purpose. When a person has outlived their usefulness to an organization, they are discarded. This is not just a manual labour or blue collar problem. Over the last 15 years, the jump in the long-term unemployed white collar workers has risen from about 3% of the long-term unemployed to almost 20% of the long-term unemployed. As the automation of cognitive services, which is still in its infancy, explodes, the ranks of the long-term unemployed white collar workers will rise, and I would say that it will rise fast.
Corporations rarely provide employees opportunities to revise their skills while being paid. In fact, the shift from employer supported benefits to individual responsibility for virtually everything has rapidly increased. It is cheaper and easier to let someone with redundant skills go and then hire someone who already has the skills needed for a different job. Why in the world would we think that this is going to change in the future? As long as someone has something of value to offer an organization, they will have a place. As soon as whatever they have to offer the organization is no longer needed, they are discarded.
So, what will be of long-term value to a future company? In a recent McKinsey report, the skills needed for the future will include high-level technical skills, important social skills and cognitive skills. The high-level technical skills will come and go with the changes in technology, just as they have in the past. As the technology changes, the skills valuable to a company change and so will the people who have the out-dated, high-level technical skills. Remember, it is much cheaper to hire someone new who has the needed high-level technical skills than to re-educate someone who lacks these skills at the company’s expense.
The important social skills such as empathy, creativity, judgment, and social intelligence will be as important tomorrow as they are today. Entities need people who have these important social skills now and for the foreseeable future. Good people skills will always be in demand. The number of people with these skills will increase over time, but by how much? This remains to be seen.
The final set of skills, the skills that I usually focus on, are the cognitive enablers. I find myself dividing these enablers into three categories, basic cognitive attributes (sensory inputs), basic cognitive enablers (reading, writing, numeracy, basic problem solving), and higher-order cognitive enablers (critical thinking, complex reasoning, metacognition and a few more). In the past, white-collar workers needed enhanced basic cognitive enablers in order to prosper. These employees need to have good communication skills (reading, writing, speaking) and good problem solving skills. The enhancement of these basic cognitive enablers has been the work of universities, and the learning has been expensive – but worth it. These cognitive enablers do, and will, form the foundation of white collar work, but they will not be enough.
The enhancement of basic cognitive enablers no longer leads directly to prosperity – as the millions of graduates over the past ten or so years can attest to. With 40% of the 20 to 35 year olds unable to find employment sufficient to allow them to acquire places to call home, they live with their parents. The proportion of highly entitled or lazy young adults today is no different than it has been in the past. What has changed is the skill set required to prosper in the cyber-enhanced world we are entering. Universities don’t teach these higher-level cognitive enablers, or they don’t teach them in ways that allow graduates to use them across a range of contexts. They are redundant before they start.
Those with the basic cognitive enablers, along with years of experience, are still of value to companies. However, as much of the work that these workers currently do is automated, these workers will no longer be valuable to a company. Of course, by that time companies will be pouring billions into helping these employees gain the more advanced cognitive enablers so that these employees might maintain their value to an organization – NOT! Why would they suddenly start doing something rarely done before? New people already equipped with the required skills will be ready to move into the available positions of value (maybe). Why pour massive resources trying to upgrade existing assets when new, tailor made, cheaper assets are readily available. In this world, the existing assets are now called liabilities.
This is why I maintain that there will still be a need for a foundation of learning before someone enters the world of work. The foundation will include both the enhancement of basic cognitive enablers as well as the basics of higher order cognitive enablers. This kind of learning is not included in a normal university education – even at the post-graduate level. This is borne out by both research and the recent removal of the empty qualifications that emerge from higher education institutions as a requirement for employment at some of the largest and most successful corporations in the world.
Right now, there is no-place that I am aware of, that equips people with these enablers en-mass. When you ignore the marketing material of current higher educational institutions and look at what is coming out the other end, you can see why there are now mega-corporations saying that there is no longer any need for certification from these institutions in order to work there.
New institutions for learning and new ways to resource these institutions are going to have to be developed in order to provide people with the real skills that they will and do need to be prosperous in the future. If you have a foundation of these higher order cognitive enablers, you will be of value to any employer because of a willingness to engage and an agility that comes with self-awareness, and they will support you as you transition from role to role. Although enhanced basic cognitive enablers are still necessary, they are no longer enough.