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Thinking about the Future of Work to Make Better Decisions about Learning Today

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Thinking about the Future of Work to Make Better Decisions about Learning Today

By looking at historical patterns and identifying signals of change around us today, we can better prepare for the transformations occurring in both work and learning.

Thinking about the Future of Work to Make Better Decisions about Learning Today

If you’ve participated in recent discussions about the future of higher education, inevitably you have heard people argue about the purpose of education. “It should be about preparing students to be good, educated, and engaged citizens,” some argue. “We shouldn’t bend education to suit today’s needs of acquiring specific work skills. These may quickly change, leaving graduates with little to fall back on as demand for their particular skills wanes. Instead, we should equip people with basic critical thinking skills and a desire to learn. A curious mind is a much greater asset than specific content knowledge.”

Others respond: “That is all nice and good, but in an era of rising tuitions and high student debt, it is more important than ever for graduates to be able to earn good incomes, not only to repay their debts but also to lead sustainable lives. To ensure this, we need to more tightly connect education and work preparation.”

Such debates are not new; they’ve been around for decades if not longer. What is new are the ways that both the nature of work and the tools and processes for learning are changing. These fundamental transformations are making distinctions between work, learning, and living ever more artificial. The Institute for the Future (IFTF), in partnership with ACT Foundation, recently published Learning Is Earning in the National Learning Economy—a visual synthesis of future forces that are shaping this transformation. The work shows how the proliferation of online learning resources (free and for pay), the rise of alternative learning and making spaces (from TechShop to General Assembly and makerspaces), and the diffusion of mobile technologies and peer-to-peer communities allow every moment of the day to become a learning moment. At the same time, the way we have come to think about work—that is, 9-to-5 predictable jobs in formal organizations—is less and less a reality for the growing number of working-age adults. So in thinking about the future, we need to understand the forces that are reshaping both work and learning, and we need to make linkages between the two. Instead of debating whether learning is for learning’s sake or as a means for earning a living, we need to think about the forces and signals of transformation and what they mean for higher education today and tomorrow.

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