Lifelong learning, the ‘holy grail’ of social policies in the digital age

A BMW motorcycle factory, in Berlin. Jobs in the manufacturing sector are at risk due to growing automation in the work place. [Arbeitgeberverband Gesamtmetall/Flickr]

The constant retooling of labour skills will be a central element of a European Commission paper on the future of the EU social pillar, to be published on 26 April, has learned.

Regular skills upgrading is seen as holding the key to success in the digital age as job instability becomes the new normal.

Providing a system of lifelong education, with proper finance and design, is considered the “holy grail” of social policies, panellists agreed during a seminar on the issue hosted by ECIPE, a Brussels-based think tank.

Europe’s welfare systems are under siege. The ageing population is putting pressure on social spending. The gig economy is gradually eroding the traditional fiscal resources of nation states. And while the digital revolution is on course to destroy millions of jobs, uncertainty still reigns regarding the number of new jobs it will create in areas still unknown.

Against this backdrop, experts and officials agree that the updating of labour skills will play a fundamental part in increasing professional resilience.

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A well-trained labour force will also help narrow the gap between demand and supply in the labour market.

“Skills continue to be the best guarantor of social mobility and opportunity,” said a paper published by the European Political Strategy Centre, the European Commission’s think tank.

For that reason, the paper concluded that lifelong learning is critical in dealing with the numerous transitions that workers will face in the coming years.

According to the US Bureau of Labour Statistics, the median tenure of workers aged between 25-34 is three years, three times lower than for workers exiting the labour market (age 55-64).

The message is simple: the education we received upfront will not be enough to survive the unpredictability of the job market.

Who pays what

Marten Blix, a research fellow at the Research Institute of Industrial Economics and former official in the Swedish government, said the central question is how to finance valuable systems to retrain the workforce.

In his view, general skills could be financed by public coffers, while specific skills should be developed by employers. But money is not the only issue. How to spoon-feed these skills to a population educated in a different mindset is a problem that remains to be solved, he said.

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The private sector must play a role, but so far “it has not been very engaged”, said Claire Dhéret, an analyst at the European Policy Centre, a Brussels-based think tank.

As the importance of social investment in human capital grows, she called for new ways of educating people, offering the right set of incentives to improve human capital in the workplace.

However, efforts must start much earlier since the education system “has a role in addressing the digital divide from the early stages,” Dhéret emphasised.

Yet, as the ESPC paper warned, “not all workers have the tools to be equally self-resilient nor to sustainably tackle societal, personal and professional risks”.

“Access to re-skilling opportunities that have currency on the job market, and to adequate welfare protection are the most fundamental challenges that workers and job seekers are confronted with in the changing world of work,” the document reads.

“The world is changing fast so we need to adapt and develop the EU’s role further in this changing context,” Commission Vice-President Valdis Dombrovskis said on Tuesday (4 April).

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“The long-term changes will be impressive,” he added. In order to cope with them, he argued that the social pillar should be looked at in a broader sense, including not only the traditional economic and employment areas but also education and skills, health and consumer affairs, digital and research.

In its consultation paper on this issue published last year, the European Commission stressed that “population ageing, longer working lives and increased immigration of third country nationals require additional actions for up-skilling and lifelong learning, to successfully adapt to technological transformations and fast-changing labour markets”.

Accordingly, in order to increase the quality and relevance of education outcomes, “education and training systems need to become more effective, equitable and responsive to labour market and societal needs.

EU sources told EURACTIV that the April paper will be based on the same principles and objectives.

According to the UNESCO (Education Strategy 2014-2021) "The concept of lifelong learning requires a paradigm shift away from the ideas of teaching and training towards those of learning, from knowledge-conveying instruction to learning for personal development and from the acquisition of special skills to broader discovery and the releasing and harnessing of creative potential. This shift is needed at all levels of education and types of provision, whether formal, non-formal or informal.”

A skilled population is the key to a country’s sustainable development and stability. As a consequence, policy attention to technical and vocational education and training (TVET) is increasing worldwide.

  • 26 April: Commission issues reflection paper on the future of the EU social agenda.

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