Thu, Jul 12, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Overcoming the cognitive limitations of life-long learning

By Edoardo Campanella

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.

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