From Europe, 2 Views On ‘Lifelong Learning’

Here’s a paradigm that’s as dead as a dodo: Learning is for the young. You go to school, you get your degree or degrees, you go to work, you retire.

It’s an old way of looking at things, as outdated as the idea that someone will spend their whole career with one employer. The main cause of the shift: We are working longer, and our careers are becoming more diversified. In the U.S., where labor force participation by those 60 to 64 is expected to rise about 14 percentage points by 2024, from about 45% in 1994 to 59%, the extension of working life is a reality long acknowledged by the business world — and, therefore, by the business school world, which years ago began tailoring programs to reflect the needs of an older workforce.

In Europe, too, the workforce is becoming older: The employment rate for workers between 55 and 64 in the 28 countries of the European Union rose 13 points between 2005 and 2015, from 42.2% to 53.3%. With the shift, workers are not only staying in jobs longer — they are switching occupations later in life. But what’s next for European B-schools, and for business education in general? That’s the question Poets&Quants put recently to a pair of academics: Wendy Loretto, dean and professor of organizational behavior at the University of Edinburgh Business School in Scotland, and Nick van Dam, professor of corporate learning and development at Nyenrode Business Universiteit in the Netherlands and adjunct professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

Loretto is currently conducting research with the Scottish government to determine what government can do to help businesses prepare for the aging of the workforce. She believes individuals need more than a big package of education early in their lives; they need to constantly add new skills. This is particularly true for women, who face the dilemma of whether and when to have a child mid-career. Van Dam, a partner at McKinsey & Co. and founder of the e-Learning for Kids Foundation, has been in the learning and development profession for more than 30 years. He says while classroom learning is effective in your early 20s, it’s not when you’re 60 — and B-schools can acknowledge this and help people to reach new career goals buy adjusting their executive MBA programs.

Describe the business landscape as you see it now, and as business schools must see it to craft business education for the future.

Wendy Loretto: We’re always thinking about different markets, different products, etc., but I think one of the areas we perhaps haven’t given as much attention to is the different markets and products according to people’s age and life course stage. I think life course stage is more important than chronological age. As we extend working life — which is pretty much happening across all developed nations, to a greater or lesser extent — people are looking to change careers in a way they haven’t done before. So even though it’s talked about that people are more mobile in their careers than ever before, when you look at statistics, people are still jumping around quite a bit in their 20s and 30s and then settling, but now I think as we’re moving to working longer there’s going to be another level of upheaval, with people in their 50s actually looking around and saying, “Well, what do I want to do?”

Wendy Loretto. Courtesy photo

So I think that’s the extent of working life, but then there’s also something that we’re certainly seeing here in the UK in various pieces of research on the pattern of engagement for women in the workplace, that there’s more women working full-time or mothers working full-time than ever before. What we’re seeing is people — still mainly women but maybe some men — taking time at the workplace for family raising, then coming back and thinking then about what they really want to do. I think there’s demographic pressures, meaning there is an appetite for different types of education.

And I think the other area, particularly for business schools, is this thinking about the problems that business — in the wider sense — that the problems that we’re trying to address can’t be solved in rigid, disciplinary ways, as an accounting problem or an economic problem or an HR problem. The scope must be much more interdisciplinary, and this is also tying in with people as they get to the middle, senior management stages in their 40s and 50s, thinking about these problems differently.

Those are the two big drivers I can see at the moment.

What, specifically, should business schools be doing?

There are a range of courses that can be offered and not just very traditional full MSc’s, but actually thinking more about flexible courses in terms of short courses, in terms of the mode of delivery, and in terms of online. But one thing that’s coming out from the current research I’m doing for the Scottish government is not assuming that everybody wants to move to online and digital learning. (It’s not just about) what we’re going to educate people in but actually how we educate them as well, and recognizing that there are different approaches that perhaps work better.

A couple of examples from my research: People in this stage of their career, you’re probably talking about men and women in their 50s, they want to learn together, so having a course that is predominantly online is not necessarily what they want. They want to physically get together. So a rule for business school: It’s about the types of learning as well as what these people are going to learn. Rather than saying we have a course in accountancy or we have a course in marketing, it’s much more about starting with the problem and how we can address that, and that’s much more interdisciplinary — and interdisciplinary beyond business schools, too, not just within business schools. It is actually about “What are the big challenges?” and how we can work, for example, with engineering or with design in order to think how we address issues in business management.

What prompted your research into workforce needs for the Scottish government? 

My area has been more about the employment need and aspirations of people, learning needs specifically, however as part of that I did a study that focused on work training, but part of that touched upon wider issues: apprenticeships, for example, the lack of attention to older people. Typically, in policy terms, it would be those over 50.

My current project with the Scottish government is interviewing both older workers but also a wide range of employers, some are Scottish, some who just have an interest in Scotland (multinationals). There is starting to be an awareness — pretty much unanimously across all sectors and sizes of organizations we’ve been interviewing — that this is not an issue we just need to look out for our 50-plus employees, we need to be thinking quite further down the line how we develop somebody and what their needs are going to be at various stages of their career and their life course.

Government in the UK, and pretty much all of Europe and all of the developing countries, are worried about our workforce and a skill shortage. The demographic trends are that there are fewer younger people, and also there’s almost like a tide turning where in some cases you will have cultures of early retirement — people retiring because their pension enabled them to leave. At the National Health Service, for example, they have a whole range of staff and you can still retire at age 55 with a full pension. So that has led to widespread shortages — there’s just not the people there — and also massive losses of corporate memory.

We learned this in 2004 research among Scottish employers, but people then weren’t really concerned. Now they really are concerned because they can see that they don’t have an automatic inflow of bright young things and they’ve lost a lot of their expertise, and they’re starting to think in terms of succession planning. They’re starting to think, “OK, if we’ve got to retain people for longer, we don’t just want to retain people who are not wanting to be there or who want to be there because they get paid but are not doing quality work. So how do they train them, how do we upskill them?”

And then the more progressive ones are now thinking, “We have to tackle when somebody gets to 50 and this is something we should be thinking about throughout the life course.” So the Scottish government’s specific question is, “What do employers think the government can do?” They’re very interested in finding out from employers what they can do.

Q: What is the answer, if there is an answer?

The MBA is a lovely case in point, in that we have seen the average age for the MBA increasing, and there’s not a direct correlation but its pretty much a close correlation between age and experience, and that’s very much indicative of people actually saying when they want to make these changes. And also going back to gender diversity, I think that’s part of a wider trend — you do get not just more women than ever engaging in the workforce, but more than ever coming back and saying, “Well, what do I really want to do with my career?” So that kind of professional approach to your career doesn’t just disappear because you take some time out.

Here at Edinburgh we offer some incentives for lifelong learning. There is a 10% university-wide discount that means any graduate of the MBA can have a 10% discount on any further course, and it’s not school specific — you could have been a graduate of medicine and then get an MBA and you get that discount. And then what we’ve actually done as well is, within the school is a more career-support discount, so for three years after graduation any of our alumni are eligible for a 20% discount on things like our executive development program or our master’s classes or any of our MBA options as well.

We’re talking here obviously about formal learning, but as you know a lot of the networks and informal learning starts a culture, if you like, of keeping in touch with the university, expanding the networks, etc. And it’s important that we talk about the mode of delivery as well. This is a partnership approach, so we’re working with students themselves and saying, “What do you want us to cover?” We’re planning a series of master’s classes now, and very much the content has been suggested and in some cases co-developed — and even co-delivered — with people as well. So I guess that kind of co-production we’re trying out as well.