How will the future of work shape our learning needs?

Skill needs will change over time, so workers, employers and policymakers need to figure out how to ensure that workers can learn new skills to keep up.

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Lifelong Learning


Society has long been organized around a three-stage linear model of education, followed by a working career, followed by retirement. This is no longer the case, as workers need to manage a more rapid pace of change in the work environment, requiring workers to be open to new technology, new ways of working and continuous learning throughout their working lives. Workers will also need to learn to accentuate different aspects of their existing skillset as artificial intelligence (AI) and assume more repetitive tasks (see Megatrend: Advances in Technology). Continuous learning and adapting can help workers earn promotions and advancements to enable them to withstand and even thrive amid these changes. But technological changes and potential job elimination could push other workers to a new, unfamiliar place of lower wages and stagnant opportunities.

In an effort to remain nimble, workers are adding new skills to keep pace with changes. It’s in an employer’s best interest to support this demand for lifelong learning, upskilling and reskilling. This can be accomplished with strategies such as micro-credentialing and nonlinear educational paths, returnships, internships, apprenticeships and job sharing. Multigenerational work teams can support learning for people of all ages.

“What’s lacking is the time to get the additional training because you are working full time.
The cost is also an issue. Lastly, knowing what skills to get next.”

—Fawn B., Brooklyn, NY, participant in AARP focus group


With the need for continuous learning to stay relevant in the workplace, there will be opportunities and challenges for employers and workers alike.

Opportunities for workers

  • Acquiring new skills and knowledge can help workers maintain their engagement with and interest in work—keeping them at the forefront of their profession.
  • Once workers have acquired new skills and knowledge, they have the opportunity to move to higher-quality and better-compensated positions.
  • Upskilling and reskilling is an investment in the future and can boost worker morale. The opportunity to take courses and upskill or reskill encourages employees to feel more engaged in their roles and have a more positive outlook on their future within the company, or, if need be, the confidence to transition to a new company.
  • Maintaining a relevant skillset can help workers extend their working lives, which in turn can help them increase their savings for retirement and overall financial security (see Megatrend: Longevity).

Challenges for workers

  • Pursuing education and training requires time, financial resources and/or company support that are not available to all workers.
    • Many of those with jobs most vulnerable to displacement due to advances in technology are also those who are often the least financially able to pay for training and reskilling (see Megatrend: Advances in Technology and Megatrend: Income Inequality).
    • Older workers may be overlooked for employer-sponsored learning and development opportunities under the assumption that these workers will retire soon and do not need the training.
  • Workers lack information about which degrees, certifications and trainings are likely to yield the highest returns on investment, as well as which training and education providers to trust.
    • Many workers are unclear what employers want in terms of training and certifications.
    • Many workers are unclear if new training will benefit their future via job placement, promotions or increase in pay, making it almost impossible to evaluate the costs and benefits of training; there is also a lack of awareness of the opportunities tied to different trainings.
  • Quality differs and is difficult to discern among continuing education opportunities.
    • There are a lot of educational options, making it difficult for individuals to determine what to pursue and what will provide the best outcomes for their midcareer shifts, especially for those over 50 years of age.
    • Workers could fall victim to predatory continuing education companies that overpromise and do not deliver adequate training.
    • Because the burden of continuing education typically falls on the individual, assessing different providers is time-consuming and carries financial risk.
    • Learning institutions have not focused on workers who are 50+ and will need to pivot to provide adequate and relevant support (see Megatrend: Longevity).
  • It can be particularly difficult for low-wage workers who cannot afford to take time or spend money to seek out, pay for and complete education not provided by employers. It can also be difficult
  • few years left until retirement to recover financially from the investment.
  • Workers may take out student loans to cover these costs, but, if they do not complete their studies, they will still need to pay back the loan without seeing improvements in salary or marketability.

Opportunities for employers

  • Employers can better retain employees by helping with upskilling and reskilling. Supporting this ongoing education is often far less costly than the turnover costs related to recruitment, hiring and onboarding.
  • Helping employees find new ways to stay curious and relevant in their jobs keeps them productive and motivated.
  • Demonstrating commitment to employee career development could improve morale and engagement across the workforce.

Challenges for employers

  • To remain competitive in attracting talent, employers will need to support ongoing education and training for workers. Advances in technology and the workplace are changing rapidly, making it difficult to adequately plan for future skill and employment needs (see Megatrend: Advances in Technology).
  • It’s currently unclear how to place value on credentials following an upskilling or reskilling course. There’s a need in the market to differentiate and understand which credentials verify skills and which are not useful.
  • Allocating appropriate financial support toward making lifelong learning and development programs available to all employees may be difficult. There may be pressure to allocate these funds to profit centers while keeping costs low.
  • Employers may need a mindset shift to embrace both the cost of courses with the time away from a role while employees are upskilling or reskilling.


  • Policymakers can develop consumer protection tools and policies to help workers navigate the numerous training and development providers in the marketplace.
  • Policymakers can reallocate resources to provide lower tuition costs for post-secondary education, making it more affordable and accessible to a more diverse set of students.
  • Employers can provide a mix of training and development support to workers, including certification, stipends for training, job shadowing, mentoring, experiential learning and mid-career reviews. Special emphasis could be given to people whose work is most vulnerable to job displacement whenever possible.
  • Policymakers and community organizations can provide skills training, learning opportunities and micro-credentialing that is aligned with current and projected employer needs. This could make them more readily available to a wide audience, including older workers, those who work in jobs vulnerable to displacement due to automation and those with limited formal education (see Megatrend: Income Inequality).
  • Employers can work with local educational institutions like community colleges and universities to offer courses and certifications that are relevant to their business.
  • Policymakers, nonprofits and employers can develop cross-generational skills by creating apprenticeships and reverse-mentoring programs for all ages to build valuable institutional knowledge and initiate information exchange among generations.

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