While we often define groups of people by age, race or gender, these categories are becoming outdated and obsolete. Many platforms we engage with are now online, which profile us by our buying habits or search history. Perhaps it is time we start thinking in more dimensions when we think of learning and education.

In this digital world, individuals are increasingly responsible for their own learning journeys and must look to both formal and unstructured learning environments for development opportunities. 

Digital disruption

The need to continue learning regardless of life stage has become non-negotiable if you want to keep up with the constant pace of change and stay relevant, in both your work and everyday life.

The extent of digital disruption on the working world remains largely unspoken. What we do know is that continual unlearning, relearning, upskilling and reskilling during the course of your career can help to mitigate becoming irrelevant as technology and automation start making established skills obsolete.

A growth mindset, or the belief that abilities can be improved through learning, is an increasingly important attribute for finding and keeping a job, and can provide some degree of job security.

According to a recently released Accenture report, research done across Brazil, France, Germany, Japan, South Africa, the UK and the US shows 40% of all workers roles are highly automatable and 48% is highly augmentable. The percentage of automation increases as the complexity of the role decreases.

With increasing longevity, and the expectation that many people could start to live past the age of 100, career spans will undoubtedly increase, and our traditional concept of retirement at 65 must shift accordingly – 60 is now the new 40.

As longer and multiple careers throughout life become common practice, simply achieving a tertiary university degree at the start of your career doesn’t fulfil the requirement for continuous acquisition of new skills.

Lifelong learning is also said to assist with maintaining cognitive function and neurological health. Like any muscle, your brain needs to be kept active in order to grow. Evidence suggests that mental stimulation improves brain function and reduces the risk of cognitive decline. According to the John Hopkins Memory and Alzheimer’s Treatment Center, education could play an important role in improving cognitive reserve, which is the brain’s ability to cope with damage that would otherwise lead to dementia. Research suggests that education helps the brain develop more synapses, or connections between brain cells that relay information, boosting cognitive reserve.

The need to continue learning regardless of life stage has become non-negotiable if you want to keep up.

Finding informal learning environments
The ways we learn, as well as where we access learning is changing. Education is no longer restricted to classrooms or books, or only accessed in formal situations through a select few academically qualified individuals.

Finding and accessing the right informal learning environments can have a critical influence on your ongoing learning journey. In fact, at GIBS we often see connections and learnings taking place between individuals every day in our coffee shop. Young and old people see the value of a learning environment where everyone shares the passion to feed mind, body and spirit. Peer to peer and collaborative learning is just as important as traditional formal learning.

Online offerings for further education have flourished in recent years, with Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) offered by many well-established international universities and companies. MOOCs mean that learning can happen anywhere and everywhere through free and paid for online programmes. They are available on a wide range of topics from business and management to art history and engineering, with only a laptop and reliable internet connection required. Curation of the massive amount of free content available remains an open debate, but GIBS, as an example, is continually innovating and building relationships with online partners to make sure learning happens in a responsible way.

Tertiary institutions have also extended their modular offerings, or online nano degrees, in the form of flexible and accessible content. This unbundling of education into smaller components indicates a shift by universities to embrace online and modular learning as opportunities to engage with like-minded groups and communities are continuously available through online channels.

Towards self-directed learning
Much has been said in the past few years about the millennial workforce and how the world of work has had to adapt to their unique behaviours and preferences, as well as the differing expectations between the generations of what constitutes meaningful work.

Learning and individual development is a valuable talent-retention strategy for millennial employees, who have a hunger for personal and professional development in order to make them feel like valued employees. Continuous training and upskilling are considered as essential if they are to develop loyalty towards an employer.

Organisations need to adjust their hierarchies to become flatter, and managers who are leading a younger workforce need to abandon ideas of top-down authoritarian style leadership, and rather integrate elements of trusting leadership and culture and offer accessible and digestible learning offerings.

The fragmentation of learning opportunities, and the availability of online learning paths in an age of agile ways of working, means that self-directed learning, where each person takes responsibility for their own development, is becoming increasingly common.

A centralised human resources department can no longer be expected to be the only repository of learning, nor can it lead and direct the reskilling and upskilling of every individual in an organisation. Individuals, no matter their age or stage of their career, must take responsibility for their own learning and career paths, whether through mentoring and developing peer networks, online courses or more formal education possibilities.

Adaptability, curiosity and learning are what count now. Start a conversation, read a good book, or play a game. But don’t stop trying to learn.

Nishan Pillay is Executive Director of Open Programmes at the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) in Johannesburg. He is a passionate believer in lifelong education on the continent and is currently completing his Executive Masters in Digital Transformation and Innovation Leadership at the IE Business School in Madrid.