Evolution Shift
A Future Look at Today
March 28th, 2013

The Other Education Crisis

Guest Columnist:  Jeff Cobb

Did you know that 65 percent of the U.S. workforce of 2020 – a date to which so much planning about the future tends to be pegged – is already outside the reach of our elementary and secondary education schools?

Did you also know that for the slice of that 65 percent lucky enough to earn a college degree, the shelf life of that degree is only about five years?

There is a lot of passionate debate these days – and rightly so – about improving our K-12 and higher education systems, but even as these debates rage, the vast majority of our workforce now and in the coming decade will be minimally impacted by whatever changes we make.

What then, are the prospects for this group leading the way forward in the fast-paced, complex world in which we now live? Unless we move rapidly to provide the necessary support for lifelong learning, I’d argue they don’t look very good.

Life in the Learning Economy

Readers of EvolutionShift no doubt appreciate that we no longer live in what Peter Drucker presciently called a “knowledge economy.” With the sheer speed, scope, and scale of global change these days, the shelf life of knowledge is decreasing rapidly. We now live in a learning economy, an environment in which we must learn and re-learn on a daily basis to thrive.

The challenges for workers in this context are daunting. Most of us exit the system of formal education in our early-to-mid twenties and enter what I call “the other 50 years” that long stretch of life in which we are largely on our own to determine how we will continue to learn and grow.

During this period, we switch jobs more than 10 times on average, and many of us switch careers multiple times – sometimes because we want to, often because we have no choice.

During this period, an increasing number of us – currently 42 million in the U.S., or one third of the workforce – will find ourselves working as freelancers.  There will be no corporate training departments or human resource people to support us.

The options for ongoing education and learning during this “other fifty years” are increasingly fragmented and confusing: a patchwork of trade and professional associations, college and university extension programs, community learning centers, free online courses of every type and quality level imaginable, info product pitches from self-appointed “gurus,” and a flood of videos, tweets, posts, and likes.

None of this would be an issue, of course, if the K-12 and higher education systems already mentioned had prepared us to be highly effective lifelong learners. But, for the most part, they haven’t. And so, we’re left to figure things out largely on our own in the learning economy.

So What’s the Solution?

As with any complex problem, there are no easy fixes, but there are clear steps we can take to improve our support system for lifelong learning.

A key initial step is to improve government investment in this sector education substantially. As a recent report from the McGraw-Hill Foundation argues, adult education has traditionally been the “the poor step-child of the education system,” receiving less than 10 percent of the amount that goes to K-12 and less than 5 percent of the amount that goes to higher ed.

Along with additional funding, we need to see much more visible and active participation in the discussion about adult learning from the people who should be leading the way. I’d like to see leaders of trade and professional associations, for example, be much more vocal and visible in addressing the issue. These are, after all, organizations that are tax-exempt because they are supposed to be serving the public good.

We need to recognize, also, that much of our learning now happens through non-traditional channels like MOOCs, YouTube, social networks, and any number of Webinars and online courses offered by entrepreneurial subject matter experts.  The value – along with the cost – of traditional degrees has become inflated. Employers, in particular, need to move quickly to embrace alternate forms of credentialing like certificates and badges (see, for example, the Mozilla Open Badges project).

Finally, there is no denying an element of personal responsibility in this new era of learning. As I have argued in 10 Ways to Be a Better Learner and elsewhere, we all need to develop our skills as lifelong learners if we expect to thrive in the learning economy.

None of this, of course, means that we should not focus on transforming our systems of K-12 and higher education. But with the limited impact these systems will have on the workforce of the coming decade, the time to invest dramatically in adult lifelong learning is now.


A frequent speaker to business audiences and a vocal advocate of lifelong learning, Jeff Cobb (http://www.jeffthomascobb.com) has nearly two decades of experience in the world of learning technology and innovation. His most recent book, Leading the Learning Revolution (www.learningrevolution.net/book/) was published by AMACOM in January 2013.

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