lthough atoms are described as the building blocks of the universe, it is information that governs how everything works. From the theory of gravity to the DNA in our cells, everything appears to have some underlying rules, formula or informational blueprint that produces the predictability of the world around us. Randomness and chance plays a role, but they both eventually give way to order which is why we have been able to create models and maps of the world through structured processes.
Unlocking the rules of this informational universe is something that is part of our makeup. This is best seen with children who have an innate curiosity about their environment. From an early age, they are seen experimenting, exploring and asking questions as they need to collect information about how things work so that they can survive on their own. For the most part, this learning is superficial in nature. But surprisingly, questions about the world such as ‘why is the sky blue’ may seem trivial but pokes at fundamental questions that we have only recently began to understand.
This curiosity is part of us all, but different environments and cultures have have harnessed it in spectacular ways. Civilizations around the world for the most part discovered new information accidently over a period of time – for instance, how the day and night and seasonal cycles affect agriculture. But in some locations such as in Ancient Greece and China, cultures that pushed for conscious, directed and sustained inquiry into the world began to emerge. Philosophy as a framework of making sense of the world became a discipline in itself, and the first significant lifelong learners such as Plato and Confucius emerged.
As learners of old didn’t have the pleasure of the internet or printed books, much of their study involved visiting libraries around the world, acquisitions of rare manuscripts and records and independent inquiry. This constraint on informational flow combined with other pressures such as religious crack down on thought, war and famine meant that advances in human society progressed at a fairly constant pace. In some cases, cultures were completely stagnant as seen with some indigenous cultures. In others, they would regress in time as seen with the dark ages in Europe.
Eventually, some cultures began to flourish and began channeling resources into the pursuit of scholarly excellence. The first example of this in the middle ages as seen with the Islamic Golden Age where scholars were encouraged to translate the world’s knowledge into Arabic. The Islamic Caliphate had a strong desire to amalgamate the scientific knowledge of conquered civilizations and used this knowledge to improve our understanding of mathematics and the sciences.
But it wasn’t until renaissance Europe that the cultural role of learning would become more widespread and impactful. With the dogmatic constraints of the Church being questioned – and a religious renaissance with some religious leaders seeing science and Christianity as compliments – individuals around the continent began to inquire more about the world around them. Overtime, formal methods of inquiry and learning such as the scientific method and the printed press created the ongoing explosion of knowledge generation and its resulting distribution. For the first time, information was becoming more decentralized.
In the past, learning in the academic sense was confined to a scholarly class. There were academies and schools, but they were not available to the masses. Being tutored by a scholar was also a common way for children to be onboarded into the academic world. For the majority however, the most common learning experience was to learn a trade through a family or as an indentured servant. Even during the renaissance and after the invention of the book, structured information that could help one earn a living was concentrated in select groups.
It was only in the last few centuries that public schooling became accessible for the majority of citizens in the west. In particular, the last century has seen the barriers in both class and monetary access break down when it comes to accessing the higher education needed for the modern workforce. Learning had finally gone mainstream, with access to education now increasingly being seen as a human right.
This has been a huge step towards global progress, both in the technical and cultural sense. For the first time in history, individuals around the world despite their upbringing have a greater chance to contribute to different fields and navigate the world in a more sophisticated way.
But as with all evolutions, there are always limits to advances and there is always a step further that can be taken. The current way that education is set up structures learning as a fixed quantity. For instance, individuals complete a set curriculum for a certain amount of years in schools. They then specialize in a particular subject and then hyper specialize in a particular thesis during their university study.
This model has its benefits. It allows education to be commoditized and structured as a product which can be distributed to the masses. This was particularly true before the invention of the internet – to learn you would have to be part of a physical institution in order to physically engage with the information. However, the internet has changed this dynamic and has allowed information to be completely distributed – a child in Kenya can access the same textbooks as a well groomed undergraduate at Oxford University.
Information can be accessed at any time, anywhere at a level of convenience never seen before in history. This new platform combined with an increasingly dynamic and challenging world has given rise to the modern concept of lifelong learning. It is now increasingly noted that it is no longer enough to go through formal education and then put the books down. Learning is now becoming an integral part of work – they can no longer be seen as two distinct entities. There are a few factors that are contributing to the rising importance of lifelong learning such as artificial intelligence, the knowledge economy, purpose and progress.
The concerns of automation displacing jobs are beginning to amplify in our cultural discourse. The unfortunate fact is that this displacement is already occurring and can even be seen in day to day aspects of our lives such as in self service checkout. In a more subtle way, the automation created by general technological efficiency also displaces jobs such as an accounting software that can streamline company taxes, meaning less work for human accountants who now only have to verify that everything is correct.
For a period of time, lifelong learning will act as as essential remedy to this. In order for individuals to future proof their employment prospects, they will have to be in anticipation of the direction of the job market and where their current skill set needs to improve to match that demand. This change will be continuous and rapid – it’s not something that a four year degree can account for as they are usually too slow to adapt to these changes. Computer programming is an example of this, with programmers needing to constantly learn new languages in order to work on different platforms such as Blockchain, VR etc.
In the worst case, some workers may have to transition from low skilled work to high skilled work as seen with the automation of trucking jobs. It is unlikely many of these individuals have the motivation to work in highly cognitive jobs, so they will probably end up reskilling to a type of trade such as plumbing or carpentry. Regardless of the transition, there will be some element of continuous learning needed in order to adapt to moving to a completely new industry.
The knowledge and eventually creative economy we exist in means that our mental abilities command more value than our physical skills. The largest sector for job growth is expected to be in digital jobs such as development, design, data, security. Industries of the future that have a physical component such as the internet of things, bio-tech and solar power also demand a level of technical expertise in disciplines such as electrical engineering, physics and biology.
Many of these industries are continuously evolving and represent the cutting edge of scientific progress. To be successful in these industries requires that one keep on top of the latest developments by regularly reading scientific journals and rubbing shoulders with other scholars in the field. In other words, the line between industry professionals and academics will become increasingly blurred as the threshold in terms of working knowledge, skill sets and ability to innovate become higher.
With the threat of AI displacing even high level jobs and the so called crisis of capitalism, there are new calls for an exploration of purpose in our lives. Spirituality, hedonism and social relationships can all play a role, but there is also something to be said about the pursuit of knowledge and the improvement of the self as a means to find purpose. Lifelong learning can be one aspect of finding purpose in the world as people strive to learn about the world, learn new skills and be their best selves. Through this journey, they may find purpose in self-actualization and expressing their creative and unique human potential in a world where AI can do so much things better.
In the past, the curiosity and creative potential of what we describe as geniuses was limited to a view, but we may see a new renaissance as people continuously invest in learning. The growth of knowledge and contributions to science, technology and culture will likely hit an all time high, potentially leading to a historic golden age.
These three aspects affect us all as individuals but also impact how we lead in business. In the next part, we will take a look at how lifelong learning can help organizations thrive.
Stefan Soellner is an expert in scaling for companies, experienced consultant for business model and product innovation, and coach in the field of innovation management.