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Lifelong Learning Is Critical for 21st-Century Workers

Lifelong Learning Is Critical for 21st-Century Workers

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By Dr. Bjorn Mercer
Program Director, Communication, Philosophy, Religion, World Languages and the Arts, American Public University

As we age, we learn. This might sound simplistic but it is true. As we age, we slowly gain more wisdom. We understand the world and the people around us a little better, and we figure out how to deal with stress caused by others and ourselves.

We also learn a variety of skills, some of which are related to our work and some are not. This can be described as lifelong learning.

Start a management degree at American Public University.

The Essential Components of Lifelong Learning

The Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) lifelong learning Value Rubric explains lifelong learning as “all purposeful learning activity, undertaken on an ongoing basis with the aim of improving knowledge, skills and competence.” The AAC&U Value Rubric has five components to lifelong learning:

  • Curiosity: Being curious, being able to explore a subject and becoming aware of the topic and previously unknown information is the foundation for learning.
  • Initiative: Being able to work, pursue learning opportunities before anyone tells you to. Learning intrinsically is the greatest of motivators.
  • Independence: Being able to explore topics by yourself, outside work, is important to learning.
  • Transfer: Being able to take previous learning and apply it to your current situation in innovative ways.
  • Reflection: Being able to analyze and synthesize previous learning and experiences and purposefully change your present and future.

Why Is Lifelong Learning Important?

So why is lifelong learning important if it just describes living, getting older and learning? As stated in the Value Rubric, lifelong learning is “purposeful learning activity” with the goal of “improving knowledge, skills, and competence.”

Lifelong learning is also widely recognized as an important activity in many fields and in career and professional development. According to a European Computer Driving License (ECDL, recently renamed ICDL in Europe) report on the importance of digital proficiency, lifelong learning is a key component to preparing for the future and career longevity. Lifelong learning “is not merely of benefit to the individual: its flexible nature is crucial to the creative and innovative needs of modern economies.”

This statement might sound lofty, but it calls out one skill and one mindset that all workers need, creativity and innovation. The ECDL report also states, “The increased creativity and innovation offered by a more diversely skilled workforce have a positive impact on the productivity and agility of an organization in the modern knowledge-intensive economy.”

Digital Learning and Competencies Are Extremely Important for Individual Success

No matter how old you are, digital learning and competencies are extremely important for individual success in the contemporary job market. “Individuals are not only expected to keep their specific job-related skills up-to-date, but [they] must now also possess the generic competences that will enable them to adapt to change,” the ECDL report points out.

Adapting to Change

Lifelong learning is important because it is about adapting to change, not because professional development is needed at almost every workplace or learning the guitar is enjoyable as a hobby.

Adapting to change allows you to adjust your actions, your ways of thinking, and everything else in between. An article in the Harvard Business Review, Accelerating the Pace and Impact of Digital Transformation, using data from a 2016 HBR analytics survey, concluded: “The skills most in demand — the ability to adapt to change — ­underscore the growing focus on competitive capabilities and the barriers businesses face using technology to strengthen their competitive strength.” In this report, the most important skills were:

  • Ability to adapt to change
  • Customer-focused problem solving
  • Ability to communicate and collaborate
  • Technical knowledge and capabilities with specific technologies
  • Knowledge of transformation methods such as Lean

Lean transformation is the process of introducing changes in an organization with the goal of maximizing the flow of value produced for the customer. As a result of this process, wasteful activities are identified, removed or optimized.

The “ability to adapt to change” was the most important skill with “customer-focused problem solving” a close second. Interestingly, the “ability to adapt to change” was viewed as four times more important than “technical knowledge and capabilities with specific technologies.”

Having a 21st-Century Mindset

Lifelong learning, a necessity for the 21st-century worker, acknowledges that not all training and learning will occur in school or at work. The learning we do throughout our lives will help us be successful, adapt to change and, hopefully, provide us with a more fulfilled life.

Start a management degree at American Public University.

About the Author

Dr. Bjorn Mercer is a Program Director at American Public University. He holds a bachelor’s degree in music from Missouri State University, a master’s and doctorate in music from the University of Arizona, and an M.B.A. from the University of Phoenix. He writes about leadership, management and why the humanities and liberal arts are critical to career success. Dr. Mercer also writes children’s music.

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