Why we must plan lifelong learning for a generation that will live past 100

Should lifelong learning become the new norm?

Should lifelong learning become the new norm? Image: Photo by ThisisEngineering RAEng on Unsplash

Ravi Kumar S.
Chief Executive Officer, Cognizant
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting
  • As life expectancy grows, it makes sense to go on a journey of lifelong learning.
  • We need a new lifelong learning model better suited to centenary life spans, where people might be in the labour market for an added 20 to 40 years.
  • In an untraditional approach to skilling, we plan to build a consortium of industry leaders, educational institutions and philanthropic organizations to go beyond training to create pathways to employment.

Demographers expect half of today’s kindergarteners to live to be 100 or more, at least in economically advanced nations. As the parent of a two- and a three-year-old, this forecast caught my attention. Imagine a quarter of a century added to your lifespan. What would a substantial increase in the quantity of life mean for the quality of life? And, if you have young children, how would you begin to prepare them to thrive over such a long journey?

The world already has about 270 million people aged 75 and older who are alive but may not be truly thriving. A meaningful life requires more than good health and financial security, as essential as they are. People also need a reason to get out of bed each morning — a sustained sense of purpose, relevance, contribution and connection with others.

Although many elements come together to create a meaningful life, few people give much thought to these things until they’re near or at retirement. Why not think about these factors closer to the start of life, when lifelong habits and developmental potential begin to form? And, given work’s centrality to human beings for millennia, why not rethink and redesign the trajectory of working life and the ways people learn and are taught?

A new educational model for lifelong learning

In what seems a legacy of the Industrial Revolution, most people’s lives are divided into three stages: roughly two decades of education, four decades of employment and one to two decades of retirement. We need a new model better-suited to centenary life spans during which people might be in the labour market for an added 20 to 40 years — and not simply for economic reasons, but because their relationship to work has changed.

Imagine moving between periods of learning, earning, taking a sabbatical to acquire new skills, shifting to a new occupation and switching between gig work, caregiving, mentoring, volunteering and relaxing. Your employability would be determined more by the skills you’ve accumulated and your ability to keep learning and less by your academic credentials. As we’ve seen, a switch to hiring candidates based on their skills, rather than on their education or work experience is already taking root at companies such as Walmart, Google and Steelcase.

It follows that the boundary between work and personal life will blur further and perhaps disappear. People may join the labour force earlier in their lives, but work fewer hours a week and fully embrace lifelong learning to keep upgrading their knowledge, aware that everything we know about the world keeps changing. If that happens, perhaps the word 'retirement' will need to be retired.

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Addressing inequity in education through lifelong learning

Now, this may seem fanciful given that some three-quarters of a billion young people and adults still lack basic literacy skills, according to UNESCO. But as social entrepreneurs like the late Leila Janah once observed, the brain power of the poorest people in the world is “the biggest untapped resource” in the global economy. A child of Indian immigrants, Janah called the disparity in access to opportunity to work “the greatest ethical battle of our time.” Putting her vision into practice, she started Sama in 2008 in Nairobi, as a nonprofit with the “mission of giving work, not aid” by hiring people in impoverished areas, training them in AI data annotation and providing the technology to plug their skills into the global digital economy, where they could earn living wages.

No question, inequity in education is widespread and damaging to society. For those who begin their lives in lower-income families, the increasing cost of education is an obstacle to their economic mobility, a form of structural inequality.

So, how might we begin to create a broadly accessible and individualized form of lifelong learning that would help enable greater adaptability and employability?

Harnessing GenAI for lifelong learning

Since the ability to learn is evenly distributed across the world, generative AI (GenAI), as it continues to advance its cognitive performance, could help most people enhance their potential. I believe this because generative AI offers the promise of personalized learning that can adapt to the way people prefer to learn. GenAI shows signs of making education more engaging and more accessible by providing remote access to training for those in underserved communities.

Models of this capability exist today. One of the best known is 'Khanmigo,' the AI personal tutor developed by Khan Academy. Its founder and CEO, Sal Khan, says this free tutor can help teachers write detailed lesson plans and serve as a coach to engage students in a variety of activities. For example, with an AI tutor “students can debate any topic they like, and the AI can take the other side. Students can have conversations with historical figures or figures from literature.” Rather than tell students the answers, Khanmigo, says Kahn, helps nudge them to figure things out for themselves.

Over time, genAI should be able to move learners from simply remembering to understanding. How? The same way a dedicated hyper-attentive teacher would focus on a single student: being approachable, giving prompt feedback, adjusting the pace and complexity of instruction to the student’s progress, setting goals and more. GenAI can help students become researchers, synthesizers and decision-makers as they continue to develop the cultural intelligence, creativity, problem-finding and non-algorithmic thinking that AI and related technologies are unlikely to reproduce. In short, GenAI will help us know more about knowing.

Continually refreshing skills through lifelong learning

As Stanford University professor Eric Brynjolfsson has written: “Our technologies are racing ahead but our skills and organizations are lagging behind.” At Cognizant, we are responding to the growing anxiety created by an increasingly digital economy in which skills need to be continually refreshed. That’s why earlier this year, we launched our Synapse initiative to empower more than one million individuals globally with in-demand technology skills such as GenAI to enable their employment. In an untraditional approach to skilling, we plan to build a consortium of industry leaders, educational institutions and philanthropic organizations to go beyond training to create pathways to employment.

I believe the more GenAI advances, the more it will create opportunities for humans to do what they do uniquely well— apply their judgment and reason, find new problems to solve, make sense of complex situations and lead others to get extraordinary things done. What could be more important for a new generation of centenarians?

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