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Lifelong Learning - an Economic Necessity?

17 August 2020

Author: Lote Larmane

Many of us grew up in a world where our career paths seemed to have been clearly carved out for us. We were taught to get as much formal education as we can early in life and then reap the rewards. After all it is what our parents and grandparents did and it worked out for them. 

There is still a great deal of truth to this assumption – each additional year of schooling will increase your hourly earnings by 8-13% and the unemployment rates are consistently lower for those better trained and educated. Still, while a university degree remains a prerequisite for most best paying jobs, it alone is unlikely to impress employers or guarantee you a fulfilling lifelong career.

Enter lifelong learning. It is by no means a new concept as people throughout history have had to learn new things and adapt to changing circumstances. Indeed, it is our ability to learn throughout our lives that has separated us from other animals and given us an evolutionary edge. Nowadays lifelong learning will not only help you make the most out of your working life, but also give you a competitive edge over others. 

The changes we see today, however, are so rapid and profound that any previous generation would balk at the challenge of keeping up. Technological development is the prime mover and the changing work patterns that it brings are already wreaking havoc with employment in high and low-income countries alike. A recent Oxford Economics study estimates that 20 million manufacturing jobs across the world will be lost to robots by 2030. Another, somewhat older yet more influential Oxford paper, estimates that up to 47% of all jobs in the US are in a high risk group for automation (meaning that they could be automated in the next decade or two). 

All this goes to show that continued education is no longer an extra reserved for the highly enthusiastic or bored but an economic imperative for both an employee who wants to remain in demand and an employer who is eager to maintain the competitiveness of their business. 

Some of you may not be convinced by the economic case and are bent on plowing forward without any additional education for the remainder of your professional lives. However, you should also consider the health benefits lifelong learning can bring – improved memory, halted cognitive decline, and lowered stress levels are but few things to mention. Continued education is not only likely to improve your quality of life, but also your longevity as one oft-cited study attests.

And if that wasn’t enough to convince you, rest assured – your friends, colleagues, and family will appreciate a better-read you. You are amazing just the way you are, of course, but understanding more about the world and contributing more to conversations will be noticed in your social circle.

How to start off?

You will hear a great deal about what are the professions of the future and what technical skills you have to develop to succeed in the 21st century. It is true that skills in IT and design will be in high demand in decades to come. So will professions that require empathy, human touch, and creativity.

However, telling you what specific skill set you should develop is pretty futile for the simple reason that motivations differ and the world itself is changing too rapidly. The simple fact of the matter is that due to rapid development and changing market trends professions that make sense in 2020 may not even be around in 2040 or they may require a whole different skill-set then the one I would suggest now. 

Most of us look into continued education not as a means to completely reinvent ourselves, but to improve our knowledge and adapt ourselves to changing circumstances. For those truly wishing to start afresh – IT skills (coding, analytics, system architecture etc.) are probably the way to go for the time being. For everyone else, I suggest answering three simple questions:

  • What do I want to learn?
  • How will this new skill help me/my business/my career?
  • How am I going to go about learning it?

The second question is the most important one as it will allow you to understand your motivation and determine the costs and benefits of your choice. For example, if you have a shop on Etsy with a bunch of products but limited success at sales, there could be a ton of things to learn. You could develop new design skills, learn more about online advertising, or explore search engine optimization. The essential thing is to understand which of these skills you most lack and which could bring the greatest benefit to your personal growth and the growth of your business. If, on the other hand, everything is going swimmingly in your business, invest your time and resources in a more long-term endeavor – anything from studying a new language to woodworking. If you genuinely want to improve yourself, you can’t really go wrong. It’s all just the matter of determining what will bring the biggest bang for the buck (financially or emotionally).

Where to look for opportunities?

The good thing about lifelong learning these days is that where there is demand, there is supply. Chances are that you have already encountered some of these service providers online. Virtually every educational YouTube channel these days has been sponsored at one point or another by Skill Share, Brilliant, Coursera, or any other online learning platforms that offer fantastic classes on a variety of topics. In addition to the online service providers, there are countless other businesses and universities that offer both online and real time classes. Language schools and online learning communities are also a valuable tool.

It is also worth pointing out that more and more employers have grasped the value of continued education and often organize classes for their employees to teach them new skills and increase their productivity. Don’t be shy and take advantage of these opportunities! If your employer is not already doing this, suggest and encourage this practice. Who knows – your initiative may be noticed and appreciated.

Two things to keep in mind if you decide to start down an independent path towards self-improvement. First, studying is always nice but it is practice that makes perfect. If you commit to learning a new skill, language, or software, don’t forget to make a habit of practicing and polishing your skills so that they do not go to waste. Second, certificates or diplomas are not a given. While getting a certificate may seem like a trivial thing for those on a path to genuine self-improvement, they still serve as a proof of the time you spent learning a skill and the level of your achievement. Remember – if you don’t have a document to show for it or any practical work to prove your claims, a potential employer really has nothing to go by. So either put your skills to good use so that your work speaks for itself or pursue a course at an accredited institution that can provide reliable certificates of achievement.

Be an avid learner

If there is one thing you take away from this article – make it this subsection. Lifelong education didn’t get its name from nowhere. It doesn’t mean that you’ll take a class at the age of 50 and all your problems will be magically solved. No. You have to constantly and continuously work on improving yourself. So even though the demands of the market may change, I can promise you that working on the following six skills will make you ready for the 21st century.

  • Learnability. No doubt about it - being able to learn and enjoying the process is an asset unlike any other. In a century of constant change this ability is indispensable. If you already have this skill - great! Hone and maintain it. If you are struggling with it, find an interesting book and read it. Maybe look up some online classes. Start with baby steps and get back into your explorer shoes.
  • Adaptability. The faster the world evolves, the more problems and challenges will appear. What’s more - these new challenges may require hitherto unknown solutions. Start getting used to changing circumstances and responding to these using unconventional means.
  • Communication. No matter how much things change, communication will stay. You will not only need to sell your products, ideas, or services in the global market, but also be able to explain and defend your arguments and prepare high quality content or documents. Good communication skills will also be vital for effective collaboration.
  • Creativity. Be the one who asks why? Be the one who comes up with new ideas and solutions. Trust me - it will set you apart in a world of algorithms and swathes of unemployed menial workers.
  • Leadership. Leaders are not just founders or CEOs. Leaders are sewn into the fabric of every company these days. Being able to lead, motivate, empower, and teach others will serve you well.
  • Problem solving. This to some extent falls under some of the previous categories, but it is worth singling it out. Employers appreciate those who take the initiative, go beyond what is expected of them, and tackle the hard problems.

Lifelong learning will be an indispensable characteristic of the 21st century. Almost all of us will have to refresh our skills one way or another during our professional careers. For now, don’t worry about learning the right things – it is almost certain that there is no bulletproof skill that will save you in perpetuity. Just remember to be open to the idea of self-improvement and try dusting off the aforementioned skills. Is there a class or a book that can help you with these? Absolutely! So why not start your journey of lifelong education by diving in!

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Commit to it! BePrime!