To succeed in today’s fast-changing labor market, workers are expected to be agile lifelong learners, comfortable with continuous adaptation, and willing to move across industries. But addressing skills obsolescence requires overcoming high psychological and intellectual barriers.
MILAN – As new technologies continue to upend industries and take over tasks once performed by humans, workers worldwide fear for their futures. But what will really prevent humans from competing effectively in the labor market is not the robots themselves, but rather our own minds, with all their psychological biases and cognitive limitations.
In today’s fast-changing labor market, the most in-demand occupations– such as data scientists, app developers, or cloud computing specialists – did not even exist five or ten years ago. It is estimated that 65% of children entering primary school today will end up in jobs that do not yet exist.
Succeeding in such a labor market requires workers to be agile lifelong learners, comfortable with continuous adaptation and willing to move across industries. If one profession becomes obsolete – a change that can happen virtually overnight – workers need to be able to shift nimbly into another.Lifelong learning is supposed to provide the intellectual flexibility and professional adaptability needed to seize opportunities in new and dynamic sectors as they emerge, as well as the resilience to handle shocks in declining industries. Training centers, the logic goes, simply need to identify the competencies that companies will look for in the future and design courses accordingly.Yet, in the eurozone, only about 10% of the labor force undertook some type of formal or informal training in 2017, and the share declined sharply with age. If lifelong learning is the key to competing in the labor market, why are people so reluctant to pursue it?
The truth is that reversing the process of skills obsolescence requires overcoming psychological and intellectual barriers that are too often ignored. According to behavioral economics, human beings are biased toward the status quo: we overestimate the potential losses of a deviation from our baseline, and underestimate the potential benefits.
Lifelong learning is viewed as extremely costly in terms of time, money, and effort, and the returns are regarded as highly uncertain, especially amid technological disruption. Such views may be reinforced by the feelings of depression and hopelessness that often arise when workers lose their jobs or face career crossroads.If the need to “start over” after years in a certain job or field is demoralizing, after decades it can seem like an insurmountable challenge. And, in fact, embarking on such a change late in life runs against our natural patterns of development.Human beings experience a decline in cognitive performance relatively early in life, with fluid intellectual abilities – associated with working memory, abstract reasoning, and the processing of novel knowledge – beginning to decline around age 20. After middle age, these abilities deteriorate substantially, making the acquisition of new skills increasingly challenging. Only our crystalized cognitive abilities, related to communication and management skills, improve later in life.This reflects centuries of evolution. In almost any society, age is associated with wisdom, experience, and growing social status. Youth was the time for learning the fundamentals of the profession that one would practice throughout adulthood. Once in that job, a worker would refine their skills as they gained experience, but they would probably not have to learn new competencies from scratch.Today’s training programs are ineffective partly because they usually target fluid intellectual abilities.
For companies, the conclusion seems to be that retraining a workforce is too challenging, so when new skills are needed, it is better to pursue alternatives like automation, offshoring, and crowdsourcing. In its 2015 Economic Report of the President, the US Council of Economic Advisers found that the share of US workers receiving either paid-for or on-the-job training fell steadily from 1996 to 2008....MORE