Ben Sasse has an editorial in the WSJ that is well worth reading. We think he got one thing confused in discussing the nature of change in the economy. He says:
We are entering an era in which we’re going to have to create a society of lifelong learners.
We have seen the history of lifelong learners going back at least to the journals of Arthur Young (b. 1741) that we read as a grad student. They provided information to help farmers. Centuries ago, almost everyone was a farmer and they learned to farm better. More recently, as Sasse points out, you got a job in the city that you held until death (usually) or retirement. What Sasse misses is that these folks were lifelong learners but usually in a narrowly defined area. To name a few, the jobs of car mechanics, teachers, and accountants have changed enormously over the past 40 years. Compare the 1977 Pontiac Firebird to today’s cars. A car mechanic would be required to learn to continue to work.
For teachers and accountants there are similar technological changes. When we first taught class in the 1970s, exams were copied by mimeograph and collated by hand. It was a labor intensive process that required a lead time of weeks. Our computer had a tape drive without random access. Most of the programs were written by the faculty. The only classroom device was an overhead projector. Communications with students once they left the classroom was almost impossible. It was wildly different environment when we retired in 2015.
Folks have been adding to their human capital for centuries. What Sasse seems to recognize but express imprecisely is that now there will be bigger and faster changes that folks will need to adapt to. We think individuals are up to the challenge of a new twist in lifelong learning. Are the institutions?