The educational and economic necessity of lifelong learning

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Not so long ago, your career may have looked something like this: study a specific skill at a traditional institution, get a job corresponding to your profile at a company, and grow your knowledge at that company over the course of your career. Sometimes, an expected change may have happened and you might have switched to another company. But the number of places you would work at—not including small jobs during your studies—would rarely exceed three.

Things are different today. In one generation, the average job tenure has gone from ten years to less than three years. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that “among workers ages 60 to 64, 54% had been employed for at least 10 years with their current employer in January 2020, compared with 10% of those ages 30 to 34.”

Lifelong learning statistics

In addition, many people opt for non-traditional careers, opting for freelancing or entrepreneurship instead. For many, lifelong learning has become a necessity to adapt to this fast-paced environment.

“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. (…) In many occupations workers on company payrolls face the prospect that their existing skills will become obsolete, yet it is often not obvious how they can gain new ones,” writes Andrew Palmer for a special report in The Economist.

Given that lifelong learning seems to be a necessity rather than an option, how can we become effective lifelong learners? And how can we make the process enjoyable?

The benefits of lifelong learning

The most obvious benefits of lifelong learning are educational, supporting people’s needs, goals, and interests over the course of their life. In that sense, lifelong learning is nothing new. Learning a new instrument, a new language, a new skill whether it’s drawing, cooking, or writing have never been limited to childhood education.

In addition to these educational benefits, modern lifelong learning also offers many economic incentives.

  • Adapt to an ever changing market. Nowadays, marketers are expected to know how to use no-code tools, product managers to know about UX, and entrepreneurs… To know a little bit about everything. Some jobs are getting automated, while others are being created. App developer, SEO specialist, podcast producer… Are all jobs that didn’t exist not so long ago. Being a lifelong learner means you will be able to adapt when the market changes, whether your job becomes less needed, or shifts in nature.
  • Spot new opportunities. Creativity is combinational in nature. By exposing ourselves to more knowledge across various fields, we are increasing our chances to discover a need or a gap to be filled. Knowledge is truly power when it comes to coming up with new ideas. It rarely goes well when startup founders try to come up with a random product without knowing much about the market, the users, and the technological constraints. 
  • Explore different career paths. Developing adjacent skills is a great way to widen your career perspective. Again, it is very unlikely you will be staying in the same job for the entirety of your career. Instead of just changing companies to perform the same work, why not try something new? Lifelong learning is a way to make the journey more interesting by opening new—sometimes unexpected—doors during your career.

In general, being a lifelong learner will make your profile more attractive to potential employers, and your skills set more powerful as a freelancer or an entrepreneur. Designers who can code, marketers who know about psychology, and content creators who know about project management are more likely to achieve their goals.

Last, but not least, lifelong learning can be a genuine opportunity for joy through intellectual challenge, making new friends, and cultivating your curiosity.

An expanded approach to lifelong learning

Older research used a narrow definition of lifelong learning, focused on professional development programmes offered by corporate training centers and continuing education at universities. But lifelong learning extends beyond formal adult education.

  • Online courses. One of the most obvious ways lifelong learning has changed in the past years is the explosion of online courses—from independent educators and established institutions alike. Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and Oxford are all offering online courses, but so are more than 50,000 instructors teaching on Udemy. Celebrities have turned into teachers as well on platforms such as Masterclass. Gone are the years where access to lifelong learning required a library card or deep pockets to acquire material. Lifelong learners have access to educational material from the best sources at their fingertips.
  • Knowledge work. The main capital of knowledge workers is, of course, their knowledge. To think for a living requires problem-solving, idea generation, and up-to-date skills. As such, it’s no surprise knowledge workers need to keep on learning throughout their life. Instead of formal training, they often use self-directed learning to acquire the knowledge they need to perform their current work and stay ahead of the curve.
  • Personal learning environments. Instead of relying on pre-formatted curriculums, many adults are choosing to design their own personal learning environments. Whether by using a note-taking app, buying an e-reader, or joining learning communities, these self-directed students are crafting a custom space with the tools and content they need to optimise their learning experience.

There are also emerging technologies helping adults learn during the whole course of their lives, such as adaptive systems that offer a tailored learning experience based on the needs of the adult student, or VR/AR based learning environments.

How to become an effective lifelong learner

While there are many universities offering continuing education, lifelong learning often requires to switch from a pedagogical (instructor-driven) to an andragogical (adult-driven) approach. Here are some steps you can take to build a learning habit throughout your life.

  1. Decide on your current learning goal. Your learning goals don’t have to be set in stone, but it’s usually helpful to focus on one or two goals at a time, especially if you’re not currently a full-time student and have other commitments in your life. Don’t be afraid of making it ambitious—you are making a commitment to learn, not to reach an imaginary finish line! In addition, your learning goals can be professional or personal. Whatever makes you feel curious makes for a great learning goal.
  2. Map out your learning constraints. Once you have decided on a learning goal, you can start doing some research. What is available out there? Maybe you will find that your learning topic is quite niche, and there is only one online course covering it. Maybe it’s a popular topic, and you will have lots of options to choose from. What’s your budget? How much time can you commit? These are all important learning constraints which will determine how you design your learning environment.
  3. Design your personal learning environment. You should now have a better idea of what is available to you in terms of content, budget, and time. Time to commit! Choose a course, a book, a tutor or any other way to work towards your learning goal. You can even combine different options based on your needs and challenges. Pick the tools you will be using, such as a note-taking app or a tablet. Depending on which strategy you picked to study your topic, you may need to get specific tools—an instrument, some ustensiles, some gear. It may be worth reading a couple of articles or watch a few videos to decide on what to buy, or flip through the summary of your books and courses to see if it includes some recommendations. Don’t spend too much time on designing your learning environment, as the most important step is to get started, and you will be able to tweak your set up in the future.
  4. Practice metacognition. Once you have started learning, don’t just keep on repeating the same routine or using the same strategies. Practice metacognition to understand where improvements could be made. Journaling is a great way to reflect. You can use the Plus Minus Next method to perform a quick weekly review. Over time, the way you learn and your personal learning environment will incrementally get better. Bonus points if you learn in public by sharing your thoughts and challenges with the world.
  5. Make it enjoyable. Don’t forget to have fun! Because you don’t have a fixed curriculum, you can mix and match different mediums to keep it interesting. It can also be more motivating to learn with others. Consider study groups, learning communities, or studying with a friend. And if after a while you really don’t enjoy a topic or find it irrelevant, good news: no teacher will force you to keep going. It’s absolutely fine to let go of a learning goal when it’s not a good fit anymore. You can just pick a new one. Just make sure you don’t switch goals every week.

Lifelong learning is not just about educational goals—it has become an economic necessity. Luckily for us, it can be fun to keep on expanding our skill set, generate new ideas, and sometimes even meeting new people. Lifelong learning can be a catalyst for many opportunities. Whether you want to expand your career options or cultivate your curiosity, investing in personal knowledge is never a bad choice.