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Lifelong Learning for the 150-Year-Old Worker

  • 4 Min Read

And More Insights From the Executive Summit at Fusion 2022

We’ve been writing about lifelong learning for some time now. In fact, in our latest D2L white paper, we looked at barriers that get in the way of both upskilling at scale and support for lifelong learning.

But what if workers live to be 150 years old—or older? Wouldn’t that put a whole different spin on the notion of “lifelong” learning?

That was the bombshell Dr. Michelle R. Weise dropped at the start of the D2L Executive Summit at Fusion 2022—and it got leaders in the room talking excitedly long after the conclusion of the event and well into the warm Boston night.

Weise broke it down for us this way.

Human life spans are increasing at a rate of three years every year, thanks to advances in medicine and medical technology. This means that babies born today could reasonably expect to live to a staggering 150 years old. Retiring at 60 would be impractical, because people likely won’t be able to amass the savings they need to support themselves for the next 70 years. In other words, said Weise, we’re looking at future careers that could be as long as 60 years. In fact, we’re already seeing workers staying in the workforce well into their 60s and 70s.

Our world simply wasn’t built to support such a long career span. Our systems of economic mobility (higher education, work-based training, retirement supports) were instead built for a rapidly growing population with shorter life spans and defined-length careers. Weise pointed out that higher education institutions aren’t keeping up with that change, and we need to shift from supporting learners with one deep area of expertise to a model that supports the multiple deep areas of expertise that people will need over the course of a much longer working life.

But that was just the first of many challenging ideas we heard at this year’s Executive Summit.

Because at the very same time that workers are living longer and needing to refresh their skill sets and knowledge more often, enrollments in higher education in the U.S. are dropping fast. Since 2003, the number of higher education institutions in the U.S. has fallen from about 4,700 to somewhere around 4,300, thanks to demographic pressure. A COVID-19 baby bust will undoubtedly create a future downward slope in enrollments, leading to a further decline in the number of institutions and a consolidation of offerings.

To improve learning access for all learners and buck the trend of enrollment decline, institutions need to do a better job of reaching working learners—and employers need to improve their support for continual employee learning. The result should be a system transformed from today’s “learn, earn, rest” model to one of “learn, earn, learn, earn” simultaneously throughout one’s career span. To do so, we also need to work to remove the three biggest deterrents to education for the future longlife learners: housing insecurity, child care costs and health care costs. There can be no “future of work and learning” at a meaningful scale without addressing these pressing, practical and human concerns.

Improving alignment and partnership between employers and institutions of higher learning was the resounding solution we heard about during the day, though we also heard that no single approach can be replicated across institutions and places.

Participants in the Industry/Higher Ed panel at the Executive Summit concluded that too often the relationship between industry and higher ed has been transactional, not a true partnership. Paul Trudel, senior vice president, people and culture, at EllisDon, pointed out that industry needs to be able to tap into the different expertise of multiple institutions to address training needs rather than expecting to find the solution to all its needs in one institution.

On the institutional side, Dr. Gervan Fearon, president of George Brown College, suggested that institutions should also continuously evaluate the return on investment of any partnership and ensure that there is always value to a partnership.

At the end of a fantastic day of learning and discussion, one thing was clear: The changes that have long been forecast have arrived. The age of the lifelong learner is here. Institutions and industries need to consider how they will serve people living, working, learning and thriving for a century-and-a-half life span, and creating accessible systems for the ageless learner is essential to ensuring people stay

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