The Double Helix of Learning and Work

Two major tendencies, having high visibility and causing intense debate, have marked social developments over the past three decades. The first of these has been the emergence of the concept and practices of lifelong learning. The traditional conception and organization of education as a continuous block, ten to eighteen years in duration, situated at the beginning of life and institutionalized around schools and universities, is being replaced by a more flexible scheme, whereby formal schooling, as well as non-formal and informal education, extends over increasingly long periods. The focus has gradually shifted to learning. Equally, work is no longer perceived as an activity consigned to the continuous block of adult life, devoted to contractual employment for thirty or forty years in productive enterprises, administrative institutions, or services. Work itself has been divided into categories similar to the formal, non-formal, and informal triad, according to the nature of remuneration (monetarized, monetized, or non-monetized, see Giarini and Liedtke, Wie wir arbeiten werden, Hoffman und Campe, Hamburg, 1998). It has also been extended to become ‘lifelong work’.
Common or related pressures emerge from the underlying pattern of these two parallel schemes in education and employment. They have emerged in the process of a dramatic expansion of knowledge, unprecedented innovations in technology, and an accelerated pace of change. The factors that seemed to be able to maintain lifelong stability, both in learning and in work, proved to be valid only for brief periods of time. Adaptation and updating have become imperative.
The Information and Communication Technology (ICT) revolution has emerged as the single most important factor that, at the beginning of the Twenty-First Century, is replacing the old clichés with new images. A reference to ‘a person who learns’ is no longer evocative of a child sitting behind a desk in a classroom and using notebooks and pencils, but a person of any age using a computer. A reference to an employed person is no longer evocative of somebody in a workshop or an office, but of somebody, of any age, using a computer.
The computer, this common device, that goes on changing the basic data of the two essential life processes of learning and work, warrants the following questions: What stable form will it give to both of them after the current transition period? How will humankind learn and work in the Twenty-First Century?
The first remark to be made is that both processes are undergoing unordered, quantum, and incoherent changes. After so many decades of debate on what was called permanent education, then continuing education and finally lifelong education, one might have expected that the concept would be crystallized and generalized. Given the circumstances of recurrent employment crises that have been analyzed ad nauseam, one might have expected more articulate measures than the resulting ill-assorted attempts to reduce work hours and to delay the age of retirement. The reasons for all these delays and hesitations lie in the fact that both learning and work have long been regulated by conservative laws and institutions, with deep roots in established traditions. School has always been one of the most conservative of institutions, owing partly to the concern of given generations to hand down values and knowledge to the next generation. As far as work is concerned, it has been subject to evolving national legislation and international agreements reflecting the numerous changes in the relations between employers and employees. While the workers gained more rights, paid work still remained a fixed point of reference. In short, the two systems of learning and work are both characterized by rigidity and inflexibility. They are burdened with an abundance of detailed and often irrelevant regulations. They discourage innovation, and they are unfit to absorb and generalize creative experiments.
The second remark refers to the fact that both systems are dominated by an ossified vocation and a single training formula. The resulting product is the ‘one-dimensional man’ (Marcuse, in Maclntyre, 1970) who follows only one pre-established track in life. The school diploma contains, like a passport, indications regarding the nature and degree of a person’s educational training. This information automatically assigns him or her to the practice of a well-delimited profession in the sphere of work. The person is ineluctably condemned to seek employment only in the various branches of that profession. Advancement is possible only within that same profession, and his or her career ends abruptly at the age of retirement. This scenario remains almost constant, despite the impressive increase in average life expectancy. A Procrustean bed forces everyone to adjust to an immutable pattern and to sacrifice any ability that may go beyond the imposed limits.
The divorce between the professional certificate and the chosen profession becomes evident when people change directions at the critical point of passing from school to work. Engineers who learn and practice business management, medical school graduates who become researchers in biology, scholars in the humanities who switch to the software industry, computer scientists who become financiers, farmers who turn into ecologists — the examples are numberless. And what about the masses of people who become unemployed for the simple reason that their training has been made inadequate and obsolete by the advent of new technologies or more complex qualification requirements?
It is now obvious that the articulation between the two systems of learning and work does not operate properly. The costs are high. Young people have to re-enrol in totally different departments thus, practically speaking, losing four to five years of their lives. Adults are forced to start all over again, in mid-career. The cohorts of people who have become marginalized are expanding, and society is confronted with the problem of underprivileged categories and increasing poverty.

Mircea Malitza: President, The Black Sea University, Bucharest
This is an introduction to the book of the same title (by Mircea Malitza and Orio Giarini), published by UNESCO-CEPES, Bucharest, in 2003.

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