Lifelong learning is a 21st century essential

If I have learned one thing during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is the fact that life and work can change on a dime.

The year 2020 represented not just a gradual and measured change in the way things work. Instead, it was a complete paradigm shift in a matter of days that required quick thinking and adaptation to navigate an entirely new reality. The circumstances necessitated a period of intensive learning just to be able to manage through the day. Organizations that already had a practiced culture of learning and adaptation fared better than those that had to start from scratch.

The pandemic serves as a wakeup call that success depends on organizations promoting an active culture of learning every day to be nimble and to be poised to adapt. Workers now gravitate to companies that value learning and that intentionally weave this practice into the fabric of the organization so that learning is encouraged and rewarded.

Personal learning and growth are critical to keeping team members fresh not only for the jobs they do now, but also for the jobs they will be asked to tackle in the future. This trend accelerated in 2020, accentuating the many reasons why lifelong learning is essential to remaining relevant and marketable in the 21st century. Most of the jobs that will exist in 10 years do not exist today, making lifelong learning and adaptability critical to building a career that continuously evolves and incorporates new skills and mindsets.

Workers in the 21st century will experience not just a single paradigm shift in their lifetimes but multiple and dramatic shifts that will require major mental adjustments and retooling to succeed. Lifelong learning can soften the blow of inevitable paradigm shifts by keeping skills current and workers well positioned to make the required adaptations.

Creating a learning culture

Clearly articulated goals that frame the value proposition for ongoing growth and skill building are critical to the buy-in required to build a learning culture. These goals must be coupled with internal processes and structures that facilitate learning not just through professional development but also through shared experiences, deliberate circulation of ideas, time for reflection and discussion, and accessible repositories of knowledge and information. Organizational leadership must embrace and prioritize learning as an embedded practice critically important to the future orientation of the enterprise. Finally, sharing information and knowledge with those outside of our own organizations can lead to cross-pollination of ideas and help us to examine problems through different lenses and perspectives.

This is not to say that these transitions and adaptations will ever be easy, but investment in a lifelong learning culture will enhance current workplace performance and better position individuals and teams for whatever curve balls are thrown their way. As the philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895-1986) said, “There is no end to education. It is not that you read a book, pass an examination and finish with education. The whole of life, from the moment you are born to the moment you die, is a process of learning.”

Deborah D. Hoover is President and CEO of The Burton D. Morgan Foundation