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Lifelong Learning is a Life Skill not a Buzz Word

Working in education, I have seen my share of buzz words (and concepts) come and go. Often they are rebrandings of past, failed initiatives or great ideas that simply don’t work among the established cogs of the modern educational machine. However, one “buzzword” that I believe has been unfairly branded as such is “lifelong learning.” Lifelong learning is “the “ongoing, voluntary, and self-motivated pursuit of knowledge for either personal or professional reasons.” In other words, it’s a self-driven desire to continue to learn and grown in all areas of our lives well after we leave a classroom. I have attended numerous educational conferences and events that highlight the need for educators to inspire “lifelong learning” in their students. In the world of educational buzzwords, it’s easy to roll one’s eyes and get back to the classroom. However, what I have learned in my world of education and technology is that lifelong learning is not the latest flash in the pan. Rather, it is now a necessary life and career skill.

In the past, job changes were few and far between and career changes (barring going back to school for a degree) were practically unheard of. Now, with automation and technology putting more people out of work and a shifting landscape in the economy, job-hopping and career shifts are becoming more prevalent. Forbes highlights that job hopping (moving to a new job every 2-4 years) is becoming a career necessity, often leading to higher salaries, more opportunity for advancement, and a better “cultural fit” at your place of employment.

But besides the fact that job hopping can lead to better opportunity, the reality is that job hopping and career shifts is not just an “acceptable practice” but becoming a necessary one, thus the need for self motivated learning. In his almost dystopian non-fiction work Rise of Robots, Martin Ford argues convincingly that automation and technology will not only be displacing factory workers and manual laborers, but traditionally “safe” jobs that require high levels of (often expensive) education–think lawyers, doctors, and even writers. If the trends that Ford highlights continue, unemployment and (more commonly) under-employment by even the highly educated will persist and grow. The Economist made a similar argument, stating that the solution to these trends is continued education throughout the life of one’s career (whether it stays within a single trajectory or takes a radical shift):

A college degree at the start of a working career does not answer the need for the continuous acquisition of new skills, especially as career spans are lengthening. Vocational training is good at giving people job-specific skills, but those, too, will need to be updated over and over again during a career lasting decades.

In their article “School and the Economy,” economists Murnane and Levy argued that the answer to helping students (and adults) be prepared for the new, shifting economy is to emphasize softer skills: expert thinking and complex communication, primarily “…the ability to solve new problems that cannot be solved by applying rules. (If the problem could be solved by rules, a computer could do it.)”

Lifelong learning empowers individuals to adapt to a variety of new jobs and career paths in the unforeseeable future. Levy and Murnane have a less apocalyptic view of future employment. While they argue that many traditional careers will shrink and even disappear, they view this shifting landscape as one that will open up new avenues and jobs. However, preparing for those jobs requires greater emotional and intellectual agility; a desire and passion to learn new skills and information.

Whatever the future holds for careers, lifelong learning is now a critical component for success. Your current job or position may downsize or all together disappear. New opportunities may be a better fit for your skill set and passions. Whatever the the future holds, being prepared and skilled at adapting to it through continuous learning is vital for success.

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