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  • Ali Boston

How lifelong learning can empower you in your career – and make it more meaningful

What happens when technology threatens to disrupt the work you find meaningful, and what can you do about it? Future of Work specialist Ali Boston explores how becoming a lifelong learner can help you feel more empowered to take small actions in support of your future career.


A blank open notebook in front of a computer screen.

Two months after its launch, the generative AI ChatGPT became the fastest growing consumer application ever, with an estimated 100 million active users. Bill Gates called the technology “revolutionary” and said that AI has the potential to “change our world.” For many though, ChatGPT’s launch was alarming. As someone who spends a significant part of their working life writing, I’ll admit I was a little worried too. Countless news articles claimed it would make my work easier and more productive, helping me brainstorm and draft content so I could get on with other important tasks. I wondered what other tasks exactly – spending more time on emails or in endless Zoom calls? I tried to imagine how my future working life would feel if I couldn’t do something I find very meaningful anymore, like writing.

As one of the topics that I most enjoy writing about is technology and the future of work, I spent a lot of time reflecting on how generative AI like ChatGPT might affect my work and what I could do about it. What I came to realize was that it’s easy to fall into a passive mindset about the future and careers. Yes, governments need to take the impact of new technologies seriously. Yes, employers need to play their part in building an inclusive and equitable future of work. But we as individuals don’t have to wait to create a future working life that both provides us with a decent livelihood and is meaningful. There’s plenty we can do, too. And one of the best places to start is by becoming a lifelong learner. The great disruption According to recent Pew Research data, 62 percent of Americans believe artificial intelligence will have a major impact on jobs in the next 20 years. Yet only 28 percent of Americans believe it will affect them personally. Because it’s the future, no one knows exactly how or on what time scale AI will further disrupt jobs. In a frequently cited study published in 2013, researchers Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne at the University of Oxford found that an estimated 47 percent of US jobs were at risk of computerization. A report published by Goldman Sachs in the wake of ChatGPT’s launch found two-thirds of jobs in the US and Europe were exposed to “some degree” of automation, and about a quarter of jobs may be completely substituted. But it’s not just that some jobs might become obsolete. Many jobs may still exist but simply get worse. Studies have found links between automation and work becoming more intense and stressful, as well as tasks becoming oversimplified, making work monotonous and less rewarding. On top of this, there are now more and more ways that employers can track workers, leading to increased stress, reduced productivity and sick days.


A man works late at a coffee shop window.

The power of learning Government or corporate-sponsored reskilling and upskilling programs are often cited as key to helping people transition into the jobs of the future. A 2020 report from the World Economic Forum (WEF) found that successful reskilling programs could boost global GDP by as much as $6.5 trillion. As well as the need for specific reskilling programs, the WEF’s report noted the importance of a learning mindset – an ability to continuously learn new skills throughout life. According to the European Commission, lifelong learning is “all learning activities undertaken throughout life with the aim of improving knowledge, skills and competences, within personal, civic, social or employment-related perspectives.” Lifelong learning could be anything from participating in a development program organized by your work, to learning a new language on DuoLingo. Numerous studies have linked the practice of lifelong learning to a multitude of associated benefits, including:

  • Better career prospects. Learning throughout your career can not only help you shift into more senior roles or transition into a new profession, it can also help you stay on top of the trends and needs in the workplace. A Gallup study found three in four workers who have participated in an upskilling program report advancing in their career. The same study also found that upskilled workers are more likely to have a “good” job, which includes factors such as stable and predictable hours and pay; control over their own schedule; and a sense of purpose and dignity.

  • Increased fulfillment and job satisfaction. A number of studies have linked lifelong learning to increased satisfaction at work. Analysis from the UK’s Department of Business Innovation and Skills found that 60 percent of adults surveyed who had participated in further education reported greater job satisfaction. The benefits of lifelong learning can also spill over into supporting a sense of fulfillment and satisfaction in life in general.

  • Adaptability to change and openness to innovation. Research has found that lifelong learners are more open to change and innovation. Lifelong learning seems to increase self-confidence and people’s ability to innovate, making the prospect of change presumably both less daunting and more manageable thanks to the new skills learned.

Getting started The great thing is that today there are so many ways to make learning a part of your everyday, no matter how small your budget or how scarce your free time. The plethora of opportunities can of course also be overwhelming – how do you decide what is the right kind of learning for you? What is going to best help you get what you need from your career? At MeaningSphere, we follow a simple method to help us approach something new, and it can be helpful to apply this when thinking about what kind of learning you want to spend your time on: Explore – Understand – Act.

An illustration depicting the Explore - Understand - Act modelt
Explore (E) — Understand (U) — Act (A), with a feedback loop that takes you back to E. This model was created by Robert Carkhuff, who led the revolution of the helping professions from theoretical to operational treatment in the late 1960s. He and his associates defined the effective ingredients of helping in operational terms.

  • Explore: Start by finding out what opportunities are out there. Read articles about topics that you’re interested in. Explore the available courses on sites like Coursera or Udemy. Watch YouTube videos about topics you’re interested in.

  • Understand: Spend some time reflecting on what ignites your interest. You may find it helpful to journal or make a list. What is it that appeals to you most? Or what do you think could be most useful for you to learn to help you where you are, today?

  • Act: Take one small act in support of your own learning. Sometimes, just starting can be difficult: we feel that we can’t prioritize learning over other things. Give yourself permission to invest in yourself and your future career.

Once you’ve been through the stages of Explore – Understand – Act, repeat the cycle as you learn and understand what’s working for you.

You can’t control everything about what happens in the future of work. There’s so much that neither we, the policymakers, nor the people creating the technology understand about how AI will impact different kinds of jobs. Yet by becoming a lifelong learner, you can improve your future chances of finding good quality, fulfilling, and more meaningful work.

 

Ali Boston writes about the worlds of work and technology (fictional and non-fictional). She began her career in communications, before going back to university to study for a Master’s in Politics and Technology. Since then, she’s been working on projects that help realize an inclusive and sustainable future of work. She lives in the Italian mountains with her fiancé, and loves cross-country skiing and stand-up paddling (neither of which she is proficient in).

Want more help exploring what you find meaningful – or meaningless – about the work you do? Take the first step by joining a free, virtual Meaning Circle. Guided by an experienced host and the session topic, you’ll be invited to reflect on what is meaningful to you in your work in a small group of 5-8 people. You’ll share and listen to the diverse experiences of others. There is no crosstalk or judgment; just complete acceptance, listening, and learning.


Image credit: Unsplash (first two photos), MeaningSphere (last photo)

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