Notes on the “Breaking the Education and Training Paradox for an Aging Workforce”

by Lucas Yoquinto

Last month, I published a piece for our friends at AARP Policy, Research, and Thought Leadership, on the need to rethink learning and development for longer careers. This subject—an intersection where learning and the economics of population aging meet—is of special interest to me. In addition to my work at the MIT AgeLab, I coauthored the 2020 book Grasp, an effort to rethink education to reflect the latest research from the cognitive sciences. Better education for longer careers (whether you prefer to call it continual learning, lifelong learning, upskilling, or something else) is a field ripe with potential for improving workers’ lives and boosting firms’ economic productivity. It’s also a thorny problem.

The gist of my new piece is that careers are growing longer than ever (another way of saying “people are retiring later”). The pace of technological change, meanwhile, already berserk, is somehow—impossibly—poised to accelerate. Given this moving backdrop, workers will need to constantly top up their practical skills, and maybe also build up broader, more generalizable skills that allow them to switch careers as necessary.

If this sounds at all interesting to you, I’d encourage you to read the piece. Researching it, meanwhile, raised a number of issues, not all of which made it into the final product.

First of these is the question of who, exactly, is working longer. The average age at which people in the US say they’re retired hit its nadir around 1990; aside from a temporary pandemic-related reversal, it has been rising ever since.

Who are these hard-working people?

Typically, they’re treated as belonging to one of two groups: either people who, for financial reasons, need to work later than they’d prefer; or else those who, for identity or meaning-making reasons, prefer to work later than they need.

This is a helpful framework that I’ve personally relied upon in the past, but it’s worth recognizing that there’s actually, inevitably, quite a bit of grey area between these two poles. There are simply going to be lots of people for whom work in later life isn’t necessarily about avoiding destitution, but could still make a real difference in their present and future standard of living. That’s especially true if they have a high degree of exposure to the sudden costs that can arise with, for instance, surprise caregiving responsibilities.

To zoom in on the learning/training/development angle, there is a vast variety of training and educational materials and programs that workers currently do participate in, and might conceivably benefit from. (The full range includes everything from, for instance, “how to operate a cash register,” to “coursework required for the completion of your doctorate in computer science.”) From a workforce research perspective, this vastness poses a problem: It’s hard to describe trends in training and education when that can entail so many different things. Combine that fact with a not-great historical record of corporate training and development practices from decades past, and it’s hard to say whether companies are providing more or less of it than they used to.

The story that tends to get told about trends in workforce training, however, goes something like this. The transition in the US from large, vertically integrated, midcentury companies to smaller firms that rely on a competitive pool of out-of-house suppliers has led to underinvestment in training and education at work.

Anecdotally, for anyone who’s lived through the post-Cold-War decline of many of the US’s midcentury industrial giants, this story will ring true. It’s almost axiomatic that a tradition of serious, continual workforce training has vanished with these companies. I happen to be writing these words in Maynard, Massachusetts, a stone’s throw from the former headquarters of the Digital Equipment Corporation. Like many large, vertically integrated, mid-century computer firms in the Boston area, DEC lost ground to relatively agile Silicon Valley competitors in the 1980s and early ‘90s.

There was a fundamental difference between the two towns’ approaches to making computers, and it wasn’t just Boston’s uptight culture versus the West Coast’s laidback vibe. It was also the fact that if you worked in one of Boston’s firms and you needed, say, a new component fabricated, you likely made an internal phone call. Meanwhile, in Silicon Valley, you would have called one of a number of competing supplier companies. There were major benefits to this more fragmented West Coast structure, including the fact that competition drove suppliers to best each other in terms of quality and costs. But there was also a drawback: In this freewheeling environment, workers flowed freely, companies poached from one another, and companies’ incentive to provide career-long training diminished. Workers, meanwhile, still needed education, of course—responsibility for which fell to them as individuals, and to the education sector.

But even in the heyday of the Eastman Kodaks and DECs of the world, most workers didn’t work at these kinds of companies—and anyway, the type of training required to succeed at a technical position in a high-tech firm is different from what you might need to make manager at a box store, or switch careers entirely, or learn to keep up with ChatGPT as a knowledge worker who last saw the inside of a classroom while completing an English degree thirty years ago.

One thing does connect wildly different species of workforce learning, however: aside from what you learn actively on the job, workforce education costs not only the price of tuition, but also time. Traditionally speaking, only in our younger years do we set aside the kind of time necessary to get up to speed on organic chemistry or political science or what-have-you. If you want that time when you’re older, somebody has to carve it out, and employers aren’t universally keen to do so. Plenty of people find the time anyway—at night or on the weekend. Plenty of others, however, who might have family obligations or health concerns that keep them from burning the midnight candle (or who might already be working nights and weekends) have no such flexibility. For these folks to really dedicate themselves to continual learning, they’re going to need some time carved out of their work schedules. A lucky few are granted this kind of time—to pursue executive MBA programs, for instance. Many more are not—for now.

I don’t know what the future will hold, or if employers will ever change their tune on this. (Although, as I explore in the piece, companies in rapidly developing economies may not have the luxury of waiting for their workforce to haphazardly muddle its way through upskilling: They may need to actively train those workers themselves, or else get more involved in the education sector.) But at the very least, it seems to me that factoring in the time required to hit the educational gym throughout one’s long career seems like the sort of thing that should enter into individuals’ holistic longevity planning (a topic of continuing interest at the AgeLab) starting early in one’s working life.

For employers, meanwhile, I would be interested to see firms experimenting with a four-plus-one workweek, with four days devoted to work plus one set aside for learning and development. We won’t know the outcome of such a setup until more companies try it out, but given the demographic and technological pressures coming to the world of work, this experiment strikes me as well worth running.

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About the Author

Photo of Lucas Yoquinto
Lucas Yoquinto

Luke Yoquinto is a science writer who covers learning and education, as well as aging and demographic change, in his role as a researcher at the MIT AgeLab. His work can be found in publications such as The Washington Post, Slate, The Wall Street Journal, and The Atlantic. He is a graduate of Boston University’s science journalism program.

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