As new technologies continue to upend industries and take over tasks once performed by humans, workers worldwide fear for their futures. However, what will really prevent humans from competing effectively in the labor market is not the robots themselves, but rather the human mind, with all of its psychological biases and cognitive limitations.
In today’s fast-changing labor market, the most in-demand occupations — such as data scientists, app developers or cloud-computing specialists — did not even exist five or 10 years ago. It has been estimated that 65 percent of children entering primary school today will end up in jobs that do not yet exist.
Succeeding in such a labor market requires workers to be agile life-long learners, comfortable with continuous adaptation and willing to move across industries.
If one profession becomes obsolete — a change that can happen virtually overnight — workers need to be able to shift nimbly into another.
Life-long learning is supposed to provide the intellectual flexibility and professional adaptability needed to seize opportunities in new and dynamic sectors as they emerge, as well as the resilience to handle shocks in declining industries. Training centers, the logic goes, simply need to identify the competencies that companies will look for in the future and design courses accordingly.
Yet, in the eurozone, only about 10 percent of the labor force undertook some type of formal or informal training last year, and the share declined sharply with age. If life-long learning is the key to competing in the labor market, why are people so reluctant to pursue it?
The truth is that reversing the process of skills obsolescence requires overcoming psychological and intellectual barriers that are too often ignored. According to behavioral economics, human beings are biased toward the “status quo”: People overestimate the potential losses of a deviation from their baseline and underestimate the potential benefits.
Life-long learning is viewed as extremely costly in terms of time, money and effort, and the returns are regarded as highly uncertain, especially amid technological disruption. Such views might be reinforced by the feelings of depression and hopelessness that often arise when workers lose their jobs or face career crossroads.
If the need to “start over” after years in a certain job or field is demoralizing, after decades it can seem like an insurmountable challenge. Embarking on such a change late in life runs against a human’s natural patterns of development.
Human beings experience a decline in cognitive performance relatively early in life, with fluid intellectual abilities — associated with working memory, abstract reasoning and the processing of novel knowledge — beginning to decline at about age 20.
After middle age, these abilities deteriorate substantially, making the acquisition of new skills increasingly challenging. Only crystalized cognitive abilities, related to communication and management skills, improve later in life.
This reflects centuries of evolution. In almost any society, age is associated with wisdom, experience and growing social status. Youth was the time for learning the fundamentals of the profession that a person would practice throughout adulthood. Once in that job, a worker would refine their skills as they gained experience, but they would probably not have to learn new competencies from scratch.
Today’s training programs are ineffective, partly because they usually target fluid intellectual abilities. For companies, the conclusion seems to be that retraining a workforce is too challenging, so when new skills are needed, it is better to pursue alternatives like automation, offshoring and crowdsourcing.
In its 2015 Economic Report of the President, the US Council of Economic Advisers found that the share of US workers receiving either paid-for or on-the-job training fell steadily from 1996 to 2008.
The assumption that workers, regardless of their age and educational background, will independently do what it takes to keep up with technological change is a fallacy that risks creating an army of unemployed people. Such an approach can be expected only of the most highly educated and qualified workers — those whose jobs are usually not even at risk from automation.
This might change in the future, because younger generations are growing up with the expectation of life-long learning. However, in the meantime, policymakers should take steps to mitigate the complicated mental processes at the root of many people’s professional inertia.
For starters, counselors could help to guide workers through the tumultuous process of skills acquisition and job hunting. For individuals, securing the help of a counselor would require overcoming feelings of despondency or shame about needing help at all.
Moreover, workers might get caught up in what psychologists call the “illusion of control” — the tendency to overestimate ability to shape events without external support.
However, if counseling services become the norm, workers are far more likely to take advantage of them. To this end, trade unions and business associations should establish formal mentoring programs to advise workers on how to progress in their careers or in a transition to a new sector.
Employers, for their part, should establish formal feedback processes, not just to evaluate the performance of their employees, but also to assess what skills need to be updated or can realistically be acquired.
In addition, companies should be granted generous tax incentives to boost investment in training programs. Reflecting the reality of adults’ cognitive abilities, such programs should aim to transfer new knowledge gradually, while leveraging crystalized intellectual skills. More experienced workers might be less prone to learning altogether new skills than their younger colleagues, but they might excel in other valuable areas, such as problem-solving, self-management and self-motivation.
As robots with increasingly human-like capabilities are developed, people should take a closer look at their own. Only by learning to overcome — or at least evade — such cognitive limitations can people have long and fruitful careers in the new global economy.
Edoardo Campanella is a Future of the World Fellow at the Center for the Governance of Change at IE University in Madrid.
Copyright: Project Syndicate
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