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LONG LIFE LEARNING: PREPARING FOR JOBS THAT DON'T EVEN EXIST YET

Takeaways from the book

Listen to this Q&A in which Michelle answers questions about her latest book, Long Life Learning.

EXCERPT FROM CHAPTER ONE

A 100-Year Work Life

People’s life plans used to be more straightforward. We were supposed to pack in some education early on in our life, with the expectation that we would work and build a career—maybe even raise a family—and then retire. Learn, earn, rest. 

Futurists and experts on aging and longevity are now suggesting that we can expect to live longer and that human life spans will extend decades longer than we had anticipated. The authors of The 100-Year Life explain: “For most of the last two hundred years there has been a steady increase in life expectancy. More precisely, the best data currently available suggests that since 1840 there has been an increase in life expectancy of three months for every year. That’s two to three years of life added for every decade. . . . And perhaps more importantly, there is no sign that the trend is levelling off" (1).


With advances in health care, medicine, and disease control as well as improvements in general living conditions, we have “found a way to slow down the process of bodily decay that was given to us by nature,” writes aging specialist Johannes Koettl, “a truly remarkable development that no other species has achieved before” (2). The Global AgeWatch Index Report anticipates that by 2100, the number of people aged 80 and over will increase more than sevenfold, from 125 million to 944 million (3). Some are even suggesting that the first people to live to be 150 years old have already been born (4).


Let’s think about that for a moment: 150 years. 


The simple extension of our life span suddenly forces us to consider the dramatic lengthening of our work lives. Will the careers of the future last 60, 80, or 100 years? 


This is a very different kind of future of work. 


Twelve Jobs in a Lifetime

Already, workers who are 55 and older are staying in the workforce at historically high rates, well into their late 60s and even 70s (5). And job transitions have become an established part of life. In the United States alone, 10,000 baby boomers will turn 65 every day from now until 2030 (6), and many of them will have experienced at least 12 job changes by the time they retire (7). 


With this new time horizon, it becomes hard to imagine a straight line from education to work and, finally, retirement. Gone are the days of retiring at age 65 and living on a guaranteed pension from one or a few employers that defined a person’s career. Rather, the number of job transitions will only increase with time, as people confront longer and more turbulent work lives. 


The notion of a 100-year work life is arresting and quickly snaps our education system into sharp relief by upending so many of our working assumptions. Our default mental model has been that education is largely a one-and-done experience situated on the front end of our development through young adulthood. This perception is further reinforced by societal expectations and financial policies that suggest that higher education is for young adults (8).

Cast in this new light, however, two, four, or six years of college front-loaded at the beginning of a 100-year work life suddenly seem deeply inadequate. Technology’s transformation of nearly every facet of our economy means that we will all need to develop new skills and knowledge at a pace—and on a scale—never before seen. Advancements will continue to give rise to entirely new kinds of jobs and careers, ones that we cannot even begin to name. 


It’s already been happening. In 2014, LinkedIn’s top jobs were ones that hadn’t existed five years earlier—roles like iOS/Android developer, UI/UX designer, cloud manager, big data architect, and social media intern (9). How many more as-yet unknown jobs will we hold in a 100-year work life?


The Future of Work = The Future of Learning

We are all going to have to prepare for jobs that don’t even exist yet. Enter the concept of long-life learning. Through the lens of human longevity, the future of work becomes inextricably tied to the future of learning. In a 100-year work life, we may find ourselves in a state of continuous pivots—20 to 30 job transitions might become the new normal. Ongoing skill development will become a way of life. 


No matter our current station, we will all become working learners, always flexing between working and learning, or juggling both at the same time—looping continuously in and out of learning and work and navigating more job transitions than we ever dreamed possible. 


Moreover, we see how we are not artificially separated from the future of learning and work, as if it was some sort of alternate reality—for other people, not me, at least not now. But this is not a future from which we are somehow removed. The concept of long-life learning makes our mandate so much clearer: Education and training will be more important than ever, because those future workers are all of us


Where Are the On- and Off-Ramps?

The challenge is that we can’t access many on- or off-ramps in and out of learning and work today. Educators, policymakers, and funders give a lot of lip service to the concept of lifelong learning, but this talk rarely translates into action. In fact, resources and funding are often geared toward the traditional 18- to 24-year-old college-going population and less often to working adults, the growing majority of learners. There is little investment in the systems, architecture, and infrastructure needed to facilitate seamless movements in and out of learning and work.

The current system of higher education is not forgiving. Today, close to 70 percent of high school graduates go on to college, but they do not always complete their degrees (10). Instead, they “stop out.” They take the one and only off-ramp available, are subsequently labeled “college dropouts,” and are then often punished further with some student loan debt (11). In total, 36 million people in the United States made it into college; they just didn’t make it through or out of college (12). 

For most adults, taking time off work to attend classes at a local, brick-and-mortar community college or four-year institution will not be the answer. A one-, two-, or four-year college program may be a bridge too far in terms of both the time to credential and the full cost of attendance, including the lost wages associated with attending school instead of working more hours. 

We must therefore begin prototyping more flexible reskilling and upskilling pathways for the future. We will have to change our approach and put some teeth into the concept of lifelong learning, an idea that has been good in theory (decades old!) but slow to catch fire. We agree with the concept but have not been moved to change our behavior and invest in the much-needed infrastructure for continuous development and advancement. 

But once we understand that we are the ones who will be affected—that the future of workers is about us—the fourth wall, or the imaginary wall between those people and us, breaks down. We will all have to harness the power of education over and over again throughout a longer work life. And we will need more on-demand pathways that tie education to economic relevance—more seamless ways to loop in and out of learning and work: learn, earn, learn, earn, learn, earn. 

 

Notes

1 Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott, The 100-Year Life: Living and Working in an Age of Longevity (London: Bloomsbury Information, 2016), 16.

2 Johannes Koettl, The Physiological Limits of Life: Will Humans One Day Live to the Age of 150 Years? (Washington, DC: Brookings, December 14, 2015), https://www.brookings.edu/blog/future-development/2015/12/14/the-physiological-limits-of-life-will-humans-one-day-live-to-the-age-of-150-years

3 Linda Poon, “How Should We Prepare for a Rapidly Aging Global Population?” CityLab, September 8, 2015, https://www.citylab.com/equity/2015/09/what-a-rapidly-aging-global-population-means-for-the-world/403051/.

4 There’s even something called ammortality, arguably the next big and sexy market opportunity. It’s a term that investment analysts use to describe the market of innovations in delaying death. Some view it as one of the most lucrative investment opportunities of the future. Bank of America Merrill Lynch analysts expect the market of ammortality, which includes genomics, big data, and wellness, to be worth at least $600 billion. Thomas Franck, “Human Lifespan Could Soon Pass 100 Years Thanks to Medical Tech, Says BofA,” CNBC, May 8, 2019, https://www.cnbc.com/2019/05/08/techs-next-big-disruption-could-be-delaying-death.html;

Ammortality is just one instantiation of a myriad of projections out there that scientific and technological advancements are soon going to be able to prolong life well beyond 100 years. David Sinclair is an Australian geneticist and professor at Harvard Medical School who is attempting to stop the aging process. He believes that “it will be possible one day to be immortal.” Derek Thompson, “Can We Extend Human Lifespans to 150?” Crazy/Genius, Podcast audio, September 13, 2018;

Sinclair describes the aging process with this metaphor: “[I]f DNA is the digital information on a compact disc, then aging is due to scratches. We are searching for the polish.” “The Sinclair Lab Research,” Harvard Medical School, https://genetics.med.harvard.edu/sinclair/research.php; That polish, as he describes it, consists of the molecules that stop the decline of nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD+) levels in our bodies. 

Sinclair believes that he is very much onto a way of increasing the body’s creation of NAD+. He knows because he has been using his own body as a testing site. When he was 47, he took a test to measure his biomarkers. At that time, he had the biological profile of someone who was 58 years old. For three months, he regularly ingested a few molecules— resveratrol and something called SRT1720—to increase mitochondrial function. The next time he measured biomarkers, the age of his DNA reflected that of someone who was 31.4 years old. He has been taking a few molecules for the last ten years, as has his wife, his brother, and his 70-year-old father. His father testifies that the pain in his extremities has gone away and his energy has rebounded; he no longer groans when he gets out of bed. Assured that the method is working, Sinclair concludes, “I don’t see any reason why a child that’s born today couldn’t make it to 150.” Derek Thompson, “Can Science Cure Aging?” The Atlantic, September 13, 2018, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2018/09/can-science-cure-aging/570121

5 Craig Copeland, “Labor Force Participation Rates by Age and Gender and the Age and Gender Composition of the U.S. Civilian Labor Force and Adult Population,” EBRI Issue Brief, no. 449, May 18, 2018, https://www.ebri.org/docs/default-source/ebri-issue-brief/ebri_ib_449_lfp-8may18.pdf.

6 Paul Taylor, The Next America (Washington: DC, Pew Research, 2014), https://www.pewresearch.org/next-america/#Who-Are-the-Millennials.

7 Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Number of Jobs, Labor Market Experience, and Earnings Growth Among Americans at 50,” Economic News Release, August 24, 2017, https://www.bls.gov/news.release/archives/nlsoy_08242017.htm.

8 Out of the $246 billion the federal government issues in student aid, the lion’s share goes to those enrolled in undergraduate degree programs. “In 2018–19, undergraduate students received 76% ($186.9 billion) of total student aid, including 96% of all federal grants and 58% of federal loans. They received 86% of total grant aid from all sources and 62% of all loans, including nonfederal loans. The remainder of the aid funded graduate students.” Sandy Baum, Jennifer Ma, Matea Pender, and C. J. Libassi, Trends in Student Aid 2019 (New York: College Board, 2019), https://research.collegeboard.org/pdf/trends-student-aid-2019-full-report.pdf

9 Sohan Murthy, “Top 10 Job Titles That Didn’t Exist 5 Years Ago [Infographic],” LinkedIn Talent Blog, LinkedIn, January 6, 2014, https://business.linkedin.com/talent-solutions/blog/2014/01/top-10-job-titles-that-didnt-exist-5-years-ago-infographic.

10 Bureau of Labor Statistics, “69.7 Percent of 2016 high School Graduates Enrolled in College in October 2016,” TED: The Economics Daily, U.S. Department of Labor, May 22, 2017, https://www.bls.gov/opub/ted/2017/69-point-7-percent-of-2016-high-school-graduates-enrolled-in-college-in-october-2016.htm?view_full; not all, of course, complete their college educations.

11 Christina Chang Wei and Laura Horn, “Federal Student Loan Debt Burden of Noncompleters,” Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, April 2013, https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2013/2013155.pdf

12 Doug Shapiro et al., Some College No Degree: A National View of Students with Some College Enrollment, but No Completion (Herndon, VA: National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, 2014), https://nscresearchcenter.org/wp-content/uploads/NSC_Signature_Report_7.pdf.