Leading the Learning Revolution

The Expert's Guide to Capitalizing on the Exploding Lifelong Education Market

 Leading the Learning Revolution

Author: Jeff Cobb
Pub Date: January 2013
Print Edition: $29.95
Print ISBN: 9780814432259
Page Count: 240
Format: Hardback
e-Book ISBN: 9780814432266

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I’VE CHOSEN TO FOCUS this book on lifelong learning partly because that

is my background—it is a market in which I have worked for well over

a decade—but also because I think it has received surprisingly little attention

in all of the excited and often heated discussion about education in

the past several years. I take the term “lifelong learning” literally—it

means learning that occurs throughout the life of an individual—but for

the purposes of this book, I will focus on what I think of as “the other

fifty years.” So much of the broader public discussion about education

focuses on the K–12 sector and higher education. But the reality for most

people is that they will exit these systems with at least another fifty years

ahead of them. To say there is a significant—and growing—need for

learning during these years would be a vast understatement, and yet you

rarely hear politicians, trade and professional association CEOs, college

and university presidents, or other potential learning leaders articulate a

compelling vision for how we should serve this huge market.

It is clear, however, that this market is changing—indeed, already has

changed significantly—and part of what inspired me to write this book

is the efforts I have seen by entrepreneurial thinkers over the past several

years to fill in the gaps left by traditional approaches to continuing education

and professional development. In this chapter, I examine five

forces that I think are driving these gaps and discuss their impact on the

business of lifelong learning. By their nature, the five forces are:

1. Economic

2. Educational

3. Technological

4. Neuropsychological

5. Generational

I believe these forces ensure that the market for lifelong learning will

continue to grow dramatically and dynamically in the coming years.


The study of economics has offered many important lessons over the

past two hundred years, but the one I find most important to education

providers as we make our way into the twenty-first century is this: The

nature of work changes with increasing speed as economies mature. To

not recognize and actively address this fact is to wind up in a situation

in which there is a significant gap between what businesses need and

what the labor pool can provide. Indeed, that is where we find ourselves,

both in the United States and many other developed economies,

as I write this book.

A September 2011 article in the Economist argued that even as unemployment

surges, businesses are having a difficult time finding people with

the types and levels of talent they need for open positions. “[A] minority,”

the article suggests, “is benefitting from an intensifying war for talent. That

minority is well placed to demand interesting and fulfilling work and set its

own terms and conditions.”1 This minority, of course, is very well educated

and highly capable of adapting to changing circumstances.

In retrospect, we have been evolving toward this point at an accelerating

rate for centuries. In the early 1800s—a mere two hundred years

ago—the vast majority of the U.S. population lived and worked on

small farms or ran businesses that served the needs of farmers. The

nature of work, even given a range of technical innovations, was not terribly

different from what it had been for thousands of years before.

Plant, harvest, process, sell, or do things to support these activities.

Only a hundred years later the majority of the population lived in cities,

and manufacturing had become the engine of our economy. The

demands of this economy—both to do the work of manufacturing and

to provide a food supply to support large numbers of people who no

longer worked on farms—meant that a wide range of entirely new jobs

were created and that the nature of the old jobs had to change significantly.

As manufacturing grew and farming evolved, both became

increasingly less labor intensive and more specialized in the types of

labor involved. Just as important, with the spread of public and higher

education and continuing advances in technology, there was a dramatic

increase in the pace at which new types of jobs emerged, became

increasingly specialized, and then either disappeared or adapted to yet

more change.

Skip forward another hundred years, and both rural and industrial

life are distant memories for most of us. For decades we have lived in

what the prescient Peter Drucker dubbed a “knowledge economy,” one

driven by service- and information-based businesses. But just decades

later, even Drucker’s term no longer seems quite on the mark. “Knowledge”

sounds too finite: Master a body of knowledge and you are on

your way. There are professions where that still works, at least as a point

of entry, but as any recent college graduate can attest, those professions

and those points of entry are becoming harder and harder to find. We

now live in what is not so much a “knowledge” economy but rather a

“figure it out on a daily basis” economy. Or, more formally, a learning


Many of us, even those who remain in the same jobs, see the nature

of our work change from year to year, and sometimes much faster.

Technology is one key driver of this continuous change; globalization is

another. Most of us are now all too familiar with the idea that a software

program or a lower-paid worker in another country may be able to do

our work as well or better than we can. This knowledge, in and of itself,

creates a perpetual uncertainty in the labor market. And most of us recognize

that we are unlikely to remain in any one job for our entire

careers or even for long stretches of time, as was the norm for previous


Indeed, the Bureau of Labor Statistics of the U.S. Department of

Labor indicates that the “average person born in the later years of the

baby boom held 10.8 jobs from age 18 to age 42.”2 There is little, if any,

reason to believe that this number will decline—unless, of course, the

drop is driven by the grim fact that so many in the younger generations

will be starting work later given the current lack of entry-level job

openings. In addition to shifting jobs, many of us may also shift careers

at least once during our working years. Either situation creates significant

new learning demands.

Increasingly, for individuals, there are two options. One is to stick to

the path of traditional employment, but to be as fully prepared as possible

for the less secure environment that this path now offers. This is a

particular challenge in professions in which the work lends itself to being

codified and systematized, as is the case in a growing number of midlevel,

white-collar positions. The process of off-shoring or computerizing

any job that requires straightforward information processing—from

insurance claims to bookkeeping to routine legal tasks—is already well

under way. Assuming that robotics finally makes the leap that seems

inevitable, the situation will become only more challenging. As technology

futurist Kevin Kelly puts it, “Productivity is for machines. If you

can measure it, robots should do it.”3

While creativity, critical thinking, and leadership are often cited as

aptitudes needed for combating this trend and securing coveted “hightalent”

jobs, I’d argue that these are not enough. These aptitudes, valuable

as they are, require continual replenishment through learning.

Individuals who hope to survive, much less thrive, in traditional employ-

ment in the learning economy must actively pursue educational opportunities

that maintain their value to their employers. In many cases, if not

most, this will mean seeking opportunities that fall outside of whatever

education and training the employer offers.

The other option is to throw off the reins of traditional employment

and set out on your own. This is no silver bullet, of course: Individuals

who choose this path need all of the same aptitudes and the drive to learn

that their more traditional peers need, but they must also have the

courage and the discipline to be self-reliant. Whether by choice or force

of circumstance, an increasing number of individuals are, in fact, choosing

this path. A 2011 series in the Atlantic points to a surge in freelance

workers and goes so far as to call it “the industrial revolution of our

time.” Sara Horowitz, the series’ author and founder of the nonprofit

Freelancers Union, describes what she calls the “freelance economy,” in

which “over 42 million Americans are working independently—as freelancers,

part-timers, consultants, contractors, and the self-employed.”

Horowitz goes on to argue:

We haven’t seen a shift in the workforce this significant in almost

100 years when we transitioned from an agricultural to an industrial

economy. Now, employees are leaving the traditional workplace

and opting to piece together a professional life on their

own. As of 2005, one-third of our workforce participated in this

“freelance economy.” Data show that number has only increased

over the past six years. Entrepreneurial activity in 2009 was at its

highest level in 14 years, online freelance job postings skyrocketed

in 2010, and companies are increasingly outsourcing work.

While the economy has unwillingly pushed some people into

independent work, many have chosen it because of greater flexibility

that lets them skip the dreary office environment and focus

on more personally fulfilling projects.

Because workers in this freelance sector of the economy are not

employed by typical companies, Horowitz argues, they fall outside of

many of the protections that were put in place by the New Deal, a

legislative agenda that was driven through by Franklin Roosevelt as an

implicit acknowledgment of the dramatic shift in work from the farm to

the factory. These workers, whether solo practitioners or operating

within small business, also do not have corporate human resources and

training departments.

Given economic realities at the time I am writing this book, there is

little indication that the situation will change for traditional employees,

and there is every indication that the ranks of freelancers will grow. In

their promotional efforts as well as in the types of content and learning

experiences they offer, smart educational providers have a tremendous

opportunity to find innovative ways to target and support one or both of

these audiences.

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