The prospect of “intelligent machines” destroying jobs and displacing millions of workers has become a topic of great public concern in recent years. PwC estimates that up to 30 percent of today’s jobs in Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development member countries could be automated by the mid-2030s, and many other consultancies and government studies confirm a similar outlook. The sheer pace at which this technological disruption is transforming labor markets means that workers will change jobs (or even careers) several times during their life. But what’s less clear is what new jobs will spring up in the future, and if there will be enough to replace the ones that are lost.
Faced with these uncertainties, we can no longer rely on the current model of loading up on knowledge and skills at schools and universities and expecting them to last a lifetime. Instead, it’s imperative that we embrace lifelong learning in order to retool ourselves for new employment opportunities as previous jobs grow obsolete.
But even though the clamor for lifelong learning is growing, there’s been little in the way of a meaningful policy response. In most countries, the problem is that investment in adult education is heavily concentrated on 18- to 24-year-olds attending universities and technical colleges. For example, in the United States, annual government spending on students in non-college adult education represents 0.7 percent of spending on students studying at university. And according to the independent “Inquiry into the Future for Lifelong Learning,” in the United Kingdom, 86 percent of the annual £55 billion investment in adult education by government, employers and individuals is focused on the 18 to 24 age cohort. The U.K. government funds £26 billion of the total adult education investment, but only £1.5 billion of it is spent on workers 25 years of age and above.
Taking lifelong learning from rhetoric to reality will require significant investment. So far, a few initiatives have been launched in various countries. For example, the SkillsFuture Credit pilot program in Singapore offers direct subsidies of $500 to citizens over the age of 25 to take a program from a preapproved list of 18,000 courses. In 2016, the program was used by more than 126,000 residents of Singapore and the government is considering expanding investment in the program. In France, personal training accounts enable workers age 16 or over to acquire rights to up to 24 hours of training per year in an account that remains valid throughout their career.
Although Singapore and France have taken steps in the right direction, a much more radical reallocation of resources seems warranted. A proposal that may come closer to matching the scale of the challenge has recently been put forward by the U.K.’s Liberal Democratic Party. Under their plan, every U.K. citizen over 18 would gain access to a personal education and skills account. The government would make three contributions of £3,000 each to PESAs at ages 25, 40 and 55, which amounts to a six-fold increase in its current £1.5 billion spending on training for those over 25. Workers and their employers would also be able to make tax-free contributions, with the government adding 20 percent on top. The funds could be used to pay for education and training courses delivered through accredited providers, and workers would also receive career guidance sessions to help meet a career goal.
And where might could the funds for substantive lifelong learning programs come from? In countries like the U.S. and the U.K., there seems to be an obvious opportunity to reallocate spending from traditional university programs whose costs have skyrocketed. In the U.S., annual tuition fees at public universities rose from an average of $3,190 in 1987 to $9,970 in 2017 (indexed to 2017 prices), saddling students with excessive debt and placing a large toll on the public purse. If we are to get serious about lifelong learning, universities and technical colleges will need to reinvent themselves.
A combination of schemes like PESAs and reforms to adult learning programs would catapult students into the workforce with much less debt and provide a flexible means to finance the many career transitions that lie ahead.