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The Key to Surviving in the Age of Automation

'The Economist' shows why employees ought to get lifelong learning

By Richard Eisenberg

A confession: Although I’m the editor of Next Avenue’s Money & Security and Work & Purpose channels, I’m not a regular reader of The Economist, the 174-year-old weekly British magazine. But its recent 11-page Special Report cover story, “Lifelong Learning: How to Survive in the Age of Automation” caught my eye and I strongly recommend others in their 50s and 60s — as well as America’s employers, colleges and policymakers — do, too. It’s online here.

Lifelong Learning
Credit: Getty Images

The theme of The Economist’s package, by the magazine’s business affairs editor Andrew Palmer, is that training can no longer be just for people starting out in their careers, if that was ever true. Given today’s technological (the robots are coming for your job), demographic (the Millennials are coming for your job) and economic changes (the future is coming for your job), continuous learning has become essential.

What Older Workers Know

And workers — especially older workers — know it. My Next Avenue colleague, career coach Nancy Collamer, recently wrote that nearly 40 percent of workers over 50 told the Pew Research Center that they believe continuous training is essential to their future career success.  FWIW, Mark Zuckerberg gets it, too: As The Economist notes, Zuckerberg sets himself new personal learning goals every year.

Problem is, as The Economist points out clearly and bleakly, employers and policymakers are doing precious little to provide the necessary training to keep U.S. workers at the top of their game. In fact, Palmer maintains, “employers seem to be less willing to invest in training their workforces" than in the past, partly due to financial pressures and the growth of automation and outsourcing.

Lifelong Learning Seedlings Are Sprouting

Fortunately, Palmer notes, “the faint outlines” of a system connecting education to employment are beginning to emerge.

For instance, Massive open online courses (MOOCs) from the likes of Coursera and Udacity are adopting employment-focused models and granting “nanodegrees.” LinkedIn now offers courses through LinkedIn Learning and a startup called Degreed aims to be a central bank of credentials for workers.

A few businesses have developed reputations as places where workers keep learning, such as United Technologies, which pays employees’ tuition bills of up to $12,000 a year. The Economist says Microsoft’s performance review system now includes an appraisal of how employees have learned from others and how they have applied that knowledge. AT&T employees must maintain a career profile with a record of their skills and training; they can also earn Udacity nanodegrees.


Next Avenue blogger Kerry Hannon recently wrote about Huntington Ingalls Industries’ Newport News Shipbuilding Apprentice School, now available to employees of all ages (one recent 58-year-old graduate called the program “life-changing”). It was featured in the AARP Public Policy Institute report: Disrupting Aging in the Workplace: Profiles in Intergenerational Diversity Leadership.

The Role for Government

The Economist believes, however, that governments need to step up to help bring together workers, employers and education providers.

Ours could take a tip from Singapore, whose $600 million annual Skills-Future Initiative requires employers to forecast likely changes ahead for their industries and cite the types of skills they’ll need. Every Singaporean, The Economist says, now gets a $345 credit towards training courses from 500 approved providers; residents age 40 and older get additional subsidies of up to 90 percent.

The Aspen Institute's Good Companies Good Jobs Initiative

I recently learned about a few encouraging examples of companies “making work work” during the Aspen Institute’s recent Good Companies Good Jobs webinar.

At the Anne Arundel Health System in the Baltimore area, for example, medical assistants now get trained to do some of the work physicians there did in the past. This allows the doctors to see more patients and the assistants to feel more needed — with less burnout. Equally important, said Dr. Robert Eden, who devised the system: “The patients see they have a team supporting them, as opposed to just a doctor alone.”

Eden proudly told the audience a story about his assistant Stacy and a local neurologist who traditionally wouldn’t see one of Eden’s patients unless Eden personally spoke to the physician on the phone. “Stacy called and was accidentally put through to him directly before I got on the line,” said Eden. “She said: ‘I know the case. I’ll just present it.’ He let her, and now he will take all calls from Stacy. She feels very good about that.”

Photograph of Richard Eisenberg
Richard Eisenberg is the former Senior Web Editor of the Money & Security and Work & Purpose channels of Next Avenue and former Managing Editor for the site. He is the author of "How to Avoid a Mid-Life Financial Crisis" and has been a personal finance editor at Money, Yahoo, Good Housekeeping, and CBS MoneyWatch. Read More
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