Dr. Michelle Weise of Imaginable Futures and author of Long Life Learning

Get Reworked Podcast: Are You Ready for the 100-Year Career?

April 20, 2021 Learning and Development
Mike Prokopeak
By Mike Prokopeak, Siobhan Fagan

Get Reworked Podcast Episode 12 Guest Dr. Michelle Weise, Senior Advisor, Imaginable Futures
It's quite possible that people now entering the workforce could hold 20 or even 30 jobs over the span of a career that will last far longer than it has in the past. And the skills they learned to prepare for the jobs of today will be obsolete in record time.

In this episode of Get Reworked, Dr. Michelle Weise, senior advisor at Imaginable Futures, joins us to talk about what this all means for the future of workplace education. She shares insights from her recent book, "Long Life Learning: Preparing for Jobs that Don't Even Exist Yet." The short story? What we've done in the past isn't going to cut it anymore.

Listen: Get Reworked Podcast Full Episode List

"With all these different kinds of rapid technological advancements and changes in artificial intelligence and machine learning and deep learning, we're going to actually have to skill up continuously and return to learning in order to remain competitive in that longer life," Michelle said.

In this episode, Michelle explains how medical advances are making a 150-year life span a reality, meaning the next generation of workers could very well have a career that spans a century. Highlights of the conversation include:

  • What extended careers mean for education, both at school and at work.
  • The role of companies in helping workers reskill and upskill.
  • The skills we'll need to thrive in the jobs that haven't even been created yet.
  • How lifelong learning is like a spiral staircase.

Plus, co-hosts Mike Prokopeak and Siobhan Fagan share how their first jobs quite possibly violated multiple child labor laws, but the lessons learned carry on to this day. Listen in for more.

Have a suggestion, comment or topic for a future episode? Drop us a line at [email protected].


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Show Notes

Episode Transcript

Note: This transcript has been edited for space and clarity.

Mike Prokopeak: Hello, and welcome to Get Reworked, your guide to the revolution of work. My name is Mike Prokopeak and I'm editor in chief at Reworked.co.

Siobhan Fagan: And I'm Siobhan Fagan, managing editor for Reworked. At Reworked.co, we're dedicated to covering the people, the culture, the technology and the infrastructure that makes up our quickly evolving workplaces.

Mike: Get Reworked is our podcast, brought to you by Simpler Media Group, where you'll hear from industry pioneers leading the way into the future of work, reshaping not just how we work, but also why. We're excited to bring you conversations about best practices, workplace trends and key technologies that support the modern distributed workforce.

Hey, Siobhan, how are you?

Siobhan: I'm doing great, Mike, how are you today?

Mike: I am good. So let's talk about first jobs. What was your first job?

Siobhan: I was 13 years old, so probably completely illegal. I had to strip the thorns from roses manually in the lead up to Valentine's Day at a florist shop. How about you, Mike?

Mike: That does sound illegal. Especially for a 13-year-old.

Siobhan: It was wrong on so many fronts. I don't remember what I made. But minimum wage was low, maybe I was making ...

Mike: $3.25?

Siobhan: Yeah, $3.25. At the time, that was minimum wage. Yep. And then was sweeping up all of the thorns after the fact. And I hate roses to this day. 

Mike: I love the fact that not only were you illegal and probably being paid under the table, but they were making you do a job that was actually physically dangerous for you. That's classic.

Siobhan: It was something. What was yours, Mike, I want to hear. 

Mike: Actually, my mom found my first job application a couple months ago and gave it to me. And I figured out that it was actually something my parents forced me to do. It was a fake job application that they made me fill out to pull weeds and do outside work at my dad's workplace.

They made me actually fill out a job application with things like my social security number, my phone number, why I wanted the job. And it was all so I could go to my dad's workplace and pull weeds for one Saturday afternoon.

Siobhan: But that's great. I mean, that's teaching you lifelong skills for how to apply for a job. I hope you negotiated your fee.

Mike: Yeah, I can't recall exactly what I got paid. But I'm sure it was under the table at that point, too. 

Siobhan: So it's nice that both of us were getting our hands dirty in our first jobs. Where do you see your career going from here, Mike? I mean, you know, from pulling weeds to podcast host extraordinaire. 

Mike: And you know, being an editor is a bit like pulling proverbial weeds. Right? 

Siobhan: Nice transition. Yes, I remove all the thorns from the articles. 

Mike: That's right. You know, I think doing this is something that we didn't necessarily anticipate doing when we went into a journalism career. But here we are. And I think that's a key point about any job is that it really needs to be a continued evolution. You need to pay attention to what's happening, but also develop your own skill sets. And that is actually the topic for our podcast today.

We're going to be talking to Dr. Michelle Weise, who is the author of "Long Life Learning: Preparing for Jobs that Don't Even Exist Yet." And one of the things that she mentions is that it's entirely conceivable that many of us will go through 20 to 30 job transitions in our work careers, which seems like a lot doesn't it, Siobhan?

Siobhan: That seems extraordinary. I mean, when I was reading the book, I couldn't even wrap my head around that. But then I started thinking of how many jobs I have had, and I'm like, OK, now I see that 

Mike: Yeah, I mean, I'm probably at like 10 to 12. Now, if we go back to the, you know, the first weed pulling job, we go back that far, there might be that many in my early career path. So Michelle is a senior advisor at Imaginable Futures, and over the last decade has really concentrated her work on research and preparing working age adults for the jobs of today and tomorrow.

Before she was at Imaginable Futures, she was the chief innovation officer of Strada Education Network, as well as Southern New Hampshire University. She's done a lot of work with Clayton Christensen, who is the father of 'disruption innovation' in education as well as in business, and she co-authored the book, "Hire Education: Mastery Modularization in the Workforce Revolution," with him. She's a great person for us to talk to about this idea of career transitions and this idea that our careers could last 100 years, which is just astounding to me, so I'm ready to dig in and learn a little bit more. How about you, Siobhan?

Siobhan: I am Mike. 

Mike: Alright, let's Get Reworked.

Welcome to the podcast, Michelle. 

Michelle Weise: Thanks so much for having me. 

Mike: All right, we are talking to you about the concept of long-life learning. And for many of us this last year has probably felt like it's been 100 years. But you're actually arguing that our work lives could last for 100 years as we look forward to the innovations that are happening in health and the extension of our lives. What is driving this extension of our working lives? And why are you writing about it right now?

Michelle: So it happens that we are living longer, in general, basically, since the 1840s. Every single year, we've been adding a couple of months to our lifespan, I think, with the exception of the COVID pandemic because it has really kind of altered our mortality rates, that has been kind of consistently accumulating over the decades. And so our lives, our work lives, are also extending alongside our extended lifespans. And we've at the same time lost those kinds of guarantees of pensions after we've finished work. And so people are staying in the workforce for much longer than they had expected, well into their 60s and 70s. And so this is the long life we're talking about.

But on top of that, you have some pretty amazing kinds of forecasts out there by experts on aging and longevity and futurists, they're all kind of thinking that because of our ability to create new sorts of advancements in death-delaying interventions, that the first people to live to be 150 years old have already been born. And so there's that on top of the data we have showing an increase in our lifespans, there are projections that these can actually move forward in really exponential ways where our lifespans might actually extend in ways that we never expected. 

Mike: All right, can you draw the learning implications for us? What does that mean for how we learn, how we educate ourselves? 

Michelle: Yes, so I've been kind of fascinated by all these different questions around the future of work. And what I've realized is when you actually start to extend that work life, you realize that the future of work is inextricably tied to the future of education or future of learning. Because as we move forward into this uncertain world of work ahead that is longer and more turbulent, we can all anticipate that we may actually experience 20 to 30 job changes in that uncertain world of work.

Early baby boomers today, just to give context, are already experiencing on average 12 job changes by the time they retire. So it's actually not that difficult for us to extrapolate and extend maybe, OK, 20 job changes that we might expect in the future. And with that, we realize that with all these different kinds of rapid technological advancements and changes in artificial intelligence and machine learning and deep learning, we're going to actually have to skill up continuously and return to learning in order to remain competitive in that longer life.

And so that's why I've kind of created this concept of long-life learning, I think we've always kind of intuitively known that we need to be lifelong learners. But I hadn't really seen a lot of changes and reforms in how we think about the infrastructure to facilitate those continuous returns to learning. So this concept of long-life learning is really to kind of spur us into action. 

Siobhan: So Michelle, the book is basically a call to reform education as we think of it so we can better support not only people who are currently in the workforce, but also to bring up the people who are currently in subpar jobs. So how is education today failing to meet the needs of both of these different demographics?

Michelle: What was sort of helpful about the pandemic is it brought this urgency to light. So prior to COVID, coming in sort of really just disrupting our entire global economy, we had known in the US in particular that the future of work was already here, it was already making it so that we had close to 41 million Americans who were not thriving in the labor market there. These were people who were stuck, they had only a high school degree, and they were not earning a living wage. And so we had this incredible kind of "stuckness" in the system.

What the pandemic really revealed to all of us, is that all of our systems, not just education, but our workforce infrastructure, our training infrastructure, all of that was equally challenged in terms of trying to facilitate the transition of millions of Americans from these decimated industries into jobs that were actually in demand. For many of us who have been in education and workforce issues, we already kind of knew that prior to the pandemic but what we saw was how impossible it was for people to actually transfer their existing skill sets into new domains. And I think that's where we're seeing the failure or the inability for our various siloed systems or various systems like K-12, higher ed, workforce, employers, all these different systems that do not speak well with one another. They don't communicate well with one another. We saw how that all came to a grinding halt when the pandemic hit. 

Mike: Did we learn anything from 2008, the last great recession? What we thought was a great recession at that time, and that was a big disruption to business, and now here we are a dozen years later, experiencing another disruption. Did we learn anything from that last one? And if so, what did we learn? And how can we kind of use this particular moment to reshape the next era of business? 

Michelle: It was interesting when you actually look at the response in the 2008 recession, it was kind of that traditional response, where when we kind of moved into this dipping economy, there was a move of a lot of workers into education. They realized I need to advance my education in order to keep moving up.

In this particular recession that we have been experiencing through this pandemic, what we've seen is, again, that sense of stuckness, where even though many folks understand the need to pursue education or extra training in order to advance, they simply had no ability to actually return to education. They were looking for short form, bite-sized pieces of learning as opposed to trying to go back and finish a degree or get a master's degree or whatever that credential may be. The desire for these kind of short-form courses was palpable. 

What's also interesting is when you look back at the conversations that kind of surrounded the 2008 recession, there was a lot of talk about how we didn't have enough STEM workers to meet the demands of the future. There was a lot of worry that we weren't educating enough STEM grads to move into the workforce. That conversation has really shifted, especially over the last five years, as we've kind of looked at these future of work conversations where because we're seeing so much exponential change and the infiltration of artificial intelligence into our daily lives, the question has actually turned into how do we actually keep our human competitive advantage in the midst of all this rapid innovation. So there's actually been kind of more of a focus on the skills that will help us out-compete or complement the work of robots and machines.

So you've heard people kind of talk about the need for human skills. I think one of the things that educators are not paying attention to even though we have this kind of great evidence from the 2008 recession, is that basically, when that recession hit, we didn't have enough babies during that recession. And so what's going to happen is in the mid 2030s, you can actually see the enrollment cliffs for most traditional higher-ed institutions, meaning that there's just not going to be enough traditional aged college-going students in the mid 2030s, to meet the seat/tuition demands that schools need. And so there's going to be this huge drop off in enrollment. And that's something I see institutions of higher ed are really not paying attention to even though we have clear data about this birth dearth that happened in the last recession. 

Mike: If I'm an higher education administrator, I'm not feeling too good about the future then at this point. I mean, this really is a push to change. And one of those areas of change is working better with industry, which is a big part of I think what you're arguing in this book, is that there needs to be a re-framing of that relationship. Can you start to get into that a little bit about how it should change if it's going to meet the needs of industry and professionals who were really looking at education as a pathway to work? 

Michelle: Yeah, so at the same time that we're seeing that huge cliff in enrollment of traditional age students, at the same time we have to remember that there's this kind of untapped market of millions of Americans who are more mature working learners, working age adults, who also need to access some extra education in order to remain competitive in the workforce. And this is where the connection between employers and businesses and the higher ed community needs to definitely kind of knit together a bit better for the future.

Most folks who are currently engaged in work are actually pulling together and stitching together multiple part-time jobs to make ends meet, or they have so many different kinds of caregiving activities that they need to attend to that it makes pursuing that extra credential or a long-form credential, sort of unattainable. So how do we actually bend the system to meet the needs of the learners rather than forcing working age adults to somehow squeeze in their very irregular nonlinear realities into this rigidly linear system.

So this is a real opportunity for higher ed institutions to put their money where their mouth is and not just talk about meeting learners where they are, but truly shifting their practices in order to make them more flexible and convenient for adult learners. And for employers and businesses, the call is very clear where we have seen this kind of massive disinvestment from training over the last few decades, there needs to be a way to carve out time in the flow of the workday to embed these kind of skills-building activities for more and more employees. 

Siobhan: I'm so glad that you brought the employer into the equation, Michelle, because while I was reading your book, I kept having flashbacks to this wonderful article in The New York Times a few years ago, where they looked at the career course of two janitors. One woman worked at Kodak back in the 1980s. And the other woman works as a janitor at Apple today. And the woman who was at Kodak ended up becoming, I believe, the chief technology officer because Kodak did invest in their employees' ongoing education. In your book, you talk about how that education has been dropped both in quantity and in quality. And I'm wondering, how is this hurting not only the employees, but also the employers themselves? 

Michelle: That's a really amazing example. I think the data is clear. If you look at Peter Cappelli, his work out of Wharton has shown us through the data that basically, since 1979, we've seen this steady decline in the number of hours we give to our new workers, in terms of building their new skills, a lot of that 'on the job training' has been taken over by our need to fulfill compliance requirements — like sexual harassment training, or the discrimination training — these are all important things, but they're not about building new skills for the work of the future. And all of that time has kind of decreased steadily to the point where I think a couple of years ago, 44% of employers said that they offered zero upskilling or reskilling activities for their employees. And that's just not going to cut it for the future.

If we want people who are ready to work on day one, we actually have to put into that training, we can't just consistently buy people from the outside, we have gotten into this habit of recruiting always for the exact talent that we're looking for. But that method is just not sustainable for the future, we have to look internally and try to understand what skill sets do my people actually have? What are their gaps as we look at our future strategic goals? And how do we begin to fill them? The companies that are going to thrive in the future are the ones that are going to make these deliberate investments in their existing workforce, and build internal mobility pathways that really build more transparency about how you advance within the company, so that people really understand how they need to kind of go about filling those skills gap.

If you think about what most workers encounter today, there's just a lot of ambiguity and opacity around how you advance, right? It's a little bit of luck. It's your network, your ability to build social capital within the company. And at the same time for employers, they have long relied on this myth that if they invest in their existing workforce, their talent will leave, there is actually no data to suggest that this is a myth, and that really has a great hold over the risk aversion of employers. And so the real work of the future, is stop trying to figure out this kind of short near-term benefit of buying talent. But actually, if you invest in building your existing talent, you're going to reap those medium to long-term outcomes in terms of competitiveness. 

Mike: Michelle, you brought up, and I'm sure you've heard this as you've talked to people, that whenever you talk about that conception that people in companies have that 'if I spend money on it, well, I'm gonna invest in training my employees, and then they just leave.' And then the rejoinder to that is okay, what if you don't invest in them and they stay? I mean, you haven't, it's just exactly the larger problem. You kind of have to get past that idea of that everything has to lead to this direct ROI and have a little bit of faith that the investment will pay off for you in the long-term, maybe not in a specific employee level, but more culturally, or organizationally it does. 

Michelle: Mm hmm. 

Mike: Are there companies that as you wrote the book said, you know, hey, I think they've at least got a good start here. 

Michelle: So I do write about a few companies that are trying to carve out time within the work day, so that on top of everything going on in these working learners lives, those people are not forced to just sort of upskill or reskill on their own. And so I talk about some of the interesting interventions that Walmart is doing in terms of tacking on academies to some of their larger superstores, and they are leveraging different sorts of augmented reality/virtual reality (AR/VR), tablet driven interventions, and then having the learners practice immediately on the warehouse floor.

There's another company, for example, named gleek, where these are little micro interventions that are on their mobile devices where they're reflecting on different customer service interactions to build their human skills. So as we think about judgment and exercising judgment, one perfect example from that particular startup is they work with the company product for their retail services. And one of the women was reflecting on their app that this customer came in who looked like they were not maybe a product customer, they didn't look like they belonged in the building, but she served the person and catered to that customers needs, that person ended up buying $5,000 worth of merchandise.

Mike: The "Pretty Woman" scenario. "Big mistake."

Michelle: So she reflects on that, about how her bias was emerging, right, her impulses were different than what she actually ended up doing, and how important those kinds of skills are to build over time. So there are these different kinds of things that are happening in the flow of the workday. I happen to advise a startup called Hitch where they're trying to build these internal mobility pathways inside companies like Bosch and Allianz. These huge companies want to build more transparency into how you advance and they've created this kind of gig marketplace within the company, where people who are excited about building skills in different domains have the ability to practice these skills through real-world problems that those different groups are trying to solve. So they get to show that they can do that job, or they just practice those skills and they learn how to start doing new forms of work, because you can't do a lot of this without the low stakes opportunity to practice these skills, they've kind of built-in those learning experiences internally.

So these are the kinds of activities that are exciting. But what's fascinating, and what's intriguing to note, is that when you actually start to break apart some of these new fascinating skills, building initiatives, like the hundreds of millions of dollars that Amazon is pouring into their different kinds of Career Mobility pathways, or JPMorgan Chase's work, what those companies still haven't solved for, is the question of time. We think of money as sort of the most precious resource in terms of skills building, so we then think about how we can fund long-life learning.

But the most precious resource actually, for most working learners, is time, it's our limiting factor, we just don't have a lot of time off to build new skills. And so it's important as we look at these new initiatives cropping up, we need to isolate how these different employers are actually carving out time, in the flow of the workday, embedding into the workday, or through hands-on and experiential learning? How are they giving working learners that fair shot to build those skills while they're earning a living, as opposed to forcing them to do it on top of everything else going on in their lives, 

Siobhan: I want to dig a little bit deeper into the skills that you're seeing as needed for the jobs that don't even exist yet. So you brought up the human skills, but obviously, technology is playing an increasing part in pretty much every role. So what skills do you see as being necessary moving forward? And are there any evergreen skills that people can rely on for the long term? 

Michelle: Yeah, I think most of us are familiar with the concept of a T-shaped learner, right, that there's this kind of broad based upper part of the T and then this kind of vertical line in the middle. And you know that the top part is the broad based human workforce competencies, you know, the things that we're used to hearing about that also sound like liberal arts competencies, like systems thinking or critical thinking, or emotional intelligence, or EQ, and the ability to exercise judgment, those sorts of things. And then the vertical skills that used to be our obsession with coding skills, but it's also data science, it's these different kinds of skills that we're seeing the need to at least know enough to be dangerous, right? In certain domains, you really just do need a real depth in certain STEM skills. But for a lot of knowledge workers, it's kind of that mix of human and technical skills. And I think this is important, where we used to sort of think of it as either or, in different circumstances, but it really is kind of both.

But as we think about that longer work life, it's important to kind of extend that top part of the T and imagine different-sized teeth and jaggedness in terms of verticality that we're going to have to access over that longer life. At some points, we're gonna have to go deep into a certain vertical domain with those technical or technological skills. Other times, we're really gonna have to practice our human skills, those skills that are not sophisticated in us and they're not innate within us even though we do have these kind of uniquely human skills to bring to the table. As we're all aware, some people are better at emotional intelligence communication than others, these are skills that we really have to figure out ways to practice over time.

And so those evergreen skills, that I really do see as those human skills, are those quote unquote, softer skills. But it's really important for us to remember that we as humans need to practice those skills almost every single day over time. And because if we take an hour-long course on LinkedIn learning on empathy, we're not suddenly going to become empathetic, right? We have to practice empathy in different ways. And so how do we do that for working learners? How do we do that for people who are stitching together multiple part time jobs? How do we build in those kinds of interventions that allow people to practice those evergreen skills?

Siobhan: I love that phrase, knowing enough to be dangerous, I could just see people walking down the street and being like, "I understand the fundamentals of machine learning, watch out," you know?

Michelle: Yeah, so, I mean, that's what they're doing in Finland, it's kind of a really interesting initiative, where they're just trying to educate 1% of their population on artificial intelligence. If we were to just kind of go on to the street and pick someone off the sidewalk and ask them to define artificial intelligence most people don't understand how it works and don't know how to describe it. But what they're trying to do is give people those basic principles of understanding artificial intelligence so that later when it comes up in policy, and when it comes to civic engagement, people can be smarter advocates for themselves and for society. 

Mike: So Michelle, you started to get into what this means for how we actually train people, for lack of a better term, how they engage in long-life learning. I guess I'd say is there a way that companies can do this more effectively because they've really struggled with soft skills development. It's not something that is very easy to teach. It's, as you said, something that needs to be practiced.

As learning becomes a little bit more modular, which is one of the arguments of your book that we need to kind of break these things apart into these different pieces and be able to make them sort of mix and match in a way, how do we shift our thinking to be able to do that and still make sure that what we're doing is deep enough that they actually get the knowledge around things like emotional intelligence, which is a difficult thing to grasp? It's not like you can take a course on it, get the certification at the end and say, "I'm done. I got it, we can move on." How do we have to shift our learning methodology to to bring out these more human skills? 

Michelle: So I think there are two things we need to pull apart in this question. One is just the ability for our education and training providers to build modularized pathways for learners who just need a certain set of competencies in order to advance they're not always looking for a bundled credential, or a one year certificate, in certain cases, they may just need four competencies in lean manufacturing in order to move on. So that's kind of one case where even if we know the skills gap of a learner, we don't actually have the precise educational pathways to guide them to to say, just go here, get those four competencies and move on because everything is bundled together in these weird ways where we can't pull apart those four competencies that the person needs. And instead, it sounds like okay, go over here and go to four years of night school, which just seems overwhelming to most folks with families or caregiving responsibilities.

The other side of this, which you rightly point out, is those human skills that we need to build over time, can't be done always in a modularized way where it's just this one to 10 hours, and you're, you're good to go on empathy, right? How do we actually build in these constant ways of practicing over time? I think one good example of the way you start to do some of this work, and this is where I get really excited about technological advancements in artificial reality, or augmented reality and virtual reality, is that the technology is becoming easier to build and reproduce now, that allow people to engage in these kinds of scenario based learning activities where you can be on your computer, and you can practice giving someone feedback and negotiating with someone and you're getting responses and you're having to adjust to the nonverbal body cues of the person in front of you, and you're having to adjust the way you speak with them. And then a coach can kind of help you reflect on that activity. This is what happens in one of the groups that I talked about in the book called immersion. And what that does is it brings down this lofty thing of executive coaching to frontline workers and everyone in between. It's not something that has to be sort of saved for senior management, but it can be something that we all get to practice in these simulated environments so that when we actually have to do the high stakes, giving feedback to our direct reports, we do it in a way where we don't regret what we said, after the fact, right.

And so there are these different kinds of ways to leverage AR and VR to do some of that work, which is exciting. But when we think about modularization, and ways in which we can make bite-sized pieces of learning, we have to kind of think about the conundrum of deep learning, because a lot of these important skills, and these evergreen skills, are skills that take a lot of time to build. And when we look at our K12 assessments or the way we assess in higher ed, we're not always measuring what matters and these sorts of skills, David Epstein talks about, in his book Range, how it often looks like failure, even when you're learning it in the right ways. If you were to test it on one of these traditional assessments that we have, it would look like failing. So how do we actually really start to suss out what are the most kind of valuable skills? And how do we teach them in new ways, vs. just kind of putting out a lot of content that is divided into different academic departments, and hoping that someone is kind of gaining the system's thinking skills by osmosis, as opposed to kind of deliberately building these skills through, you know, scenario-based learning or real-world problem-based learning?

So these are the questions we need to kind of solve for the future. And how do we build the best problem? How do we cultivate the best problem solvers of the future? It's gonna be a curriculum that looks quite different than what we're used to. 

Mike: Yeah, that's where a nonlinear pathway really kind of comes in, this isn't your 'a one and done' approach to education, you know, not just higher education, actually, in a company, I trained you on X, you're done. Let's move on to the next thing. It's like it's this kind of continuing recursive path that you come back to throughout your lifetime, which is the premise of long-life learning. 

Michelle: Yeah, one image that an instructional designer shared with me many years ago, and I think it's an apt image, is of a spiral staircase to avoid thinking of mastery-based learning or competency-based learning, is that kind of one and done experience. It's actually that idea that you're recursively returning to these skills and strengthening them and becoming more proficient or deeper at executing these skills over time. So you're kind of climbing this spiral staircase and hitting those same competencies over that longer work life, but you're strengthening your ability to show and demonstrate those skills. 

Siobhan: Michelle, you talk about this as an ecosystem problem, that it's going to take obviously more than just the education system, more than just employers to create the changes that we need to see in learning. Who should be involved and do you think all of the partners would be willing to work with each other? 

Michelle: Yeah, the reason why I call it an ecosystem challenge is having sort of hovered in this space between post secondary education and the workforce for the last decade, especially on the innovation side, and getting to see all the different kinds of nonprofit and for profit innovations and solutions that are being built. One of the hardest things for me, as an observer has been to see the vast duplication of efforts. There's just so much reinvention of the wheel, there's this incredible innovation going on. But some of these entrepreneurs have no idea that maybe five or 10, other companies are working on the same problem or have already developed solutions in this space. And so I found myself over the years often matchmaking behind the scenes and trying to bring together these different innovators and thinkers to build together instead of building in silos.

Of course, the challenges are incentive structures. And the way venture capital works and proprietary solutions work is such that there is no incentive to collaborate and break down those silos. But I think when you just take a look at, you know, what happened in the spring and summer of last year, when it came to the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, and seeing millions upon millions of unemployment claims add up, it just showed us that plowing ahead in silos isn't going to work for the future. We've been doing that for many decades, and it's not serving our people. Well, people don't know how to navigate a job change in a way that is seamless, and understandable and easily comprehensible. And so when I talk about an ecosystem approach, it is how do we actually get some stakeholders, policymakers, employers, educators, alternative learning providers, workforce investment boards, some of them in different kinds of ways you can do this at the city level, Metro level, you can do it from a state level or from a regional level. But if you were to really put the job seeker at the center of this challenge, and say you were working within the confines of a state, and you were to ask one of those people who lives in the state how they're going to navigate their next job change, they need to be able to understand how these different solutions and myriad organizations come together to offer clear career navigation, help and guidance, better wraparound support services, so that they can actually get through this learning experience and move on to a better job.

And that includes human touch points on top of, you know, tech-enabled supports, they need more precise targeted educational pathways, they want to make sure that whatever they learn, is going to be understood by a future employer. And they also want to make sure that this is also integrated into their earning experiences — so it's integrated earning and learning. So they're not having to do this on top of everything else. And then they're also going to need those fairer, more transparent hiring practices that are skills based. Most job seekers are going to need these different pieces to come together, whether it's in their city or state or region, they need to understand where to go, who to call, how to pick which educational learning pathway to pursue, these questions need to be easier to answer for most people. So they know how to quickly move on to the next thing. And the next thing, because again if we return to this concept of having to do this 20 or 30 times over, it has to be easier than what we're doing today.

And so it's those five pieces that really need to come together. This is why I focus specifically on people who are in the kind of bottom quartile of the labor market. Because through all of those qualitative interviews, the challenges really coalesced around these five things. And these five things are going to burden all of us as we navigate our future job changes — around those career navigation supports, wraparound support services, precise educational opportunities, integrated earning and learning opportunities and fairer, more transparent hiring practices. 

Mike: Michelle, as we think about this at the individual level, a lot of what you're arguing is that a lot of this is a shared responsibility. It's shared by higher education providers. It's shared by employers. But also we're asking the individual to take a lot more ownership or more direction maybe than they have in the past. What do you do to continually reinvent yourself? How do you go about educating yourself and reinventing yourself to be ready for this long life learning? What are some practices that you have?

Michelle: I luckily get to work in fields where I'm constantly learning and synthesizing new information. I think my brain just happens to work in an illogical way where I'm often taking concepts from very different disciplines and bringing them to bear in an unusual way, that's just my way of making sense of the world as I learn a lot about different disciplines, and then try to use those in solving the problem in front of me.

But I'm lucky that I get to rapidly try to understand different fields, like there's a lot of different ways of approaching the future of work. And it just means that you kind of immerse yourself in a lot of the different kinds of readings and the folks who are speaking in this space, but also bringing to bear very different approaches to this where my background is, as an English professor, and one of the most powerful pieces I've ever read is written by a Russian literature expert over at Northwestern called Novelistic Empathy, where he talks about the use of literary devices like free indirect discourse as a way to practice empathy and a way to teach literature in a way that helps our college going learners understand how they build empathy, and how they truly stand in someone else's shoes and understand their perspective.

So just different kinds of ways of synthesizing information for me has been really helpful in terms of, quote unquote, reinventing myself. But I do want to say, you know, for most people, this burden of having to navigate this on your own, it's impossible for most people. I have the luxury of having built professional networks over the last few decades, whereas a lot of folks who are currently struggling in the labor market today, don't have someone in their network who is willing to give them a shot even though they may not have direct experience in this field.

I've been given a shot in very different kinds of work activities, where even though I don't have direct experience or background in those fields, I've been given a shot to kind of prove myself. And these are the areas in which we're going to see more experimentation, in things like outsourced apprenticeships, so that more people can prove that they can do the work ahead, even if they may not have the credentials that the employer normally is looking for. And these are kind of these 'try before you buy' programs that I show in my book through these various on-ramps that are rehabilitating folks who were formerly incarcerated and getting them into incredible jobs because they're building a pipeline for employers that gives employers the the ability to test out people before they, quote unquote, buy them, right. They get to test out their systems thinking capabilities and their ability to solve problems in cybersecurity or lean manufacturing or advanced manufacturing or healthcare, these really interesting opportunities for people to prove that they can do the job ahead. 

Mike: Well, I'm glad you brought up English majors because I'm one, and it's nice to hear that there's value in my degree, and I think it's a good setup for our next segment, underrated/overrated. Siobhan, if you want to set it up. 

Siobhan: Yeah, so we ask people a series of just different bullet points, and you're going to tell us whether you think they're underrated or overrated, and you can give a brief explanation or you could just leave it simple. Are you up for playing? 

Michelle: Sure.

Siobhan: Mike, why don't you just kick us off? 

Mike: Do you feel like the undergraduate liberal arts major, the liberal arts degree, is underrated or overrated. 

Michelle: I believe it's underrated. I've actually done research to show how valuable these skills are in the labor market, but they just translate differently, you have to actually translate them into domain specific skills. And you see the ways in which liberal arts grads show this in their career trajectories. But I do think they are underrated. 

Mike: That's right. So yeah, my senior thesis on the tragedy and comedy of "The Brothers Karamazov" doesn't directly translate into a job but it is translatable, you just have to do a little bit extra effort to do that. 

Michelle: Yep. 

Siobhan: Next up, teaching to different learning styles.

Michelle: Overrated. There's more of kind of a blue sky opportunity for educators to think about problem-based learning in the future, and how we actually break down our silos within education, to cultivate these amazing problem solvers. So instead of teaching problems within a specific discipline, like as a math problem, or as a literary problem, or as an anthropological problem, this is where the partnership with employers can be so powerful if we bring in real-world problems to solve, like, how do we measure unhappiness? Or how do we think about reducing plastic waste in the world? Or how do we address bringing clean water to areas that need it the most, it's in the context of solving these big problems, and these problems that affect all of us, that learners will really understand the specific methodologies and principles they need to understand in order to solve those problems.

But it's in that contextualized learning experience, right, and an experiential hands-on work-based learning opportunity, that we're actually going to build some of the most important skills for the future. So I think that's the approach that I'm most excited about, and I feel like we are primed to do. I come from a background of theories of disruptive animation, and it's really hard to disrupt from within. But when we think about trying to incorporate something like problem based learning, it's difficult, but it is certainly not impossible. 

Mike: Next one for you, Michelle, the idea of free college, this has become a political football over the last year or so as you know, the idea of student debt forgiveness being an issue and the rising cost of college tuition. The idea that college should be free has come into the conversation more and more frequently. Do you feel like free college is underrated or overrated? 

Michelle: I think it's overrated, I actually wrote about this when Obama was president, when he brought it up in one of his State of the Union addresses. What I think most people don't understand is that community college is free for the people who need it the most, for people who are in those bottom quartiles who need the most aid, college is free. And what free college ultimately does is it benefits folks who may not actually need this to be free. So I think it's really more helping people navigate the system in order to better understand that they can access college for free. And then we heard a lot about the undermatching opportunities many years ago. There are many universities and colleges, beyond sort of community college, too that offer a free ride for people in the bottom income quartile. And so that's why I think it's overrated. 

Siobhan: OK, last one for you, Michelle, I'm going to return to the beginning premise of your book, where you're talking about the long lives that some of the people who are alive today might have in their future. So living to 150, underrated or overrated. 

Michelle: I think it’s underrated. But I think what’s important to remember is that for many of us, we are not going to actually live to be 150. I think the people who have been making those predictions are talking about people who have recently been born, we may encounter some pretty amazing death delaying interventions as we get older. I think there’s already a ton of experimentation going into this space that’s called amortality. I think it’s underrated in the sense that we haven’t actually prepared a long-life learning infrastructure to help us navigate this future ahead. 

Siobhan: Given the choice, would you live to 150? 

Michelle: Do I get to stick at 40 for … forever? 

Siobhan: You get to stick at any age you like. 

Michelle: If there’s a way to delay the aging process that’s a little more appealing.

Mike: Yeah, I actually like the idea of the old job interview question. Where do you see yourself in five years? How about where do you see yourself at 150? Let’s throw that one out there. All right, Michelle, well, thank you for joining us. If people want to find out more about you, and where they can follow you, where do you recommend they go? 

Michelle: Sure, I have a website that’s called riseanddesign.io. And then they can also find me on Twitter or LinkedIn through the handle @rwmichelle 

Mike: Great. And we’ll be sure to include the link to your book in our show notes. But thank you so much for joining us today. Michelle, it was a fun conversation and we appreciate you being a part of this. 

Michelle: Thank you so much, Mike and Siobhan.

Mike: So Siobhan, do you want to live to 150? 

Siobhan: No, thank you. 

Mike: What’s your ideal age? 

Siobhan: I don’t know that I have an ideal age. But I would just say that with the creaking of my bones when I get out of bed in the morning. I can’t imagine 150. I mean, I'd do it in the way that Michelle said she would, if you could choose what age you’re frozen at. How about you, Mike? 

Mike: So I don’t know if I have an age pegged. But I think it’s as long as I’m learning something new and feel like I’m adding something, whether that’s you know, to the people around me and my family or you know, my community, then I think it’s worth it. But as you said, once you get to a certain age, then the body starts hurting. It’s like, Ooooh, this is just getting really hard. I’m not sure that there’s a good point there to keep going beyond that, until they can take us and preserve our consciousness and upload it to the internet. I’ll say you know, between 75-80, would make be happy. 

Siobhan: That’s perfectly reasonable and agreed. If I were given the chance I would happily be in school for the rest of my life. So that would keep me going for a long time. 

Mike: All right, Siobhan, good to talk to you as always 

Siobhan: Great talking to you, Mike, steer clear those weeds. 

Mike: And stay clear of the thorns as well. 

Siobhan: Always, always, Mike, thank you.

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Thank you again for exploring the revolution of work with us and we'll see you next time.


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