If there is one lesson the global financial crisis of the late 2000s taught us, it is that we cannot simply bail ourselves out: we cannot escape the current doldrums solely by printing money.
So what can we do? I believe that in this fast-changing and unpredictable world, adult learning is the key. We were already beginning to understand this before the pandemic, and the past year has dramatically reinforced the trend: skills have become the global currency of 21st-century economies.
But this is a currency that depreciates rapidly: because the requirements of labour markets evolve, and because individuals quickly lose skills they do not use. We must all be able to learn, unlearn and relearn throughout our lives as our context changes.
More by Andreas Schleicher: Why collaboration is the key for teachers
Background: Campaign calls for adult learning entitlement
We used to learn to do the work; now learning has become the work, changing skill demands overnight and creating a huge need for just-in-time adult learning.
To succeed in converting education into better jobs and lives, we need to know what skills are needed, to ensure the right mix is being learned, and to help economies make good use of those skills. The Centenary Commission on Adult Education’s "Build Back Better" campaign is asking the right questions to move this agenda forward.
The importance of foundation skills for adults
The OECD’s Survey of Adult Skills shows that what people know – and what they do with what they know – has a major impact on their life chances. On average across OECD countries, the median hourly wage of workers scoring level 4 or 5 in literacy – those who can make complex inferences and evaluate subtle truth claims or arguments – is more than 60 per cent higher than for workers scoring the baseline level 1.
This impact goes far beyond earnings and employment. In the countries we survey, individuals with poorer foundation skills are far more likely to report poor health, to believe that they have little impact on political processes, and not to participate in social organisations or volunteering. The essential starting point for the recovery of all our economies is to better anticipate and respond to the evolution of skill demand.
During the past few decades, there have been major shifts in the economic underpinnings of industrialised countries and, more recently, of many emerging and developing countries too. Many nations could learn from countries like Denmark, Germany, Norway or Switzerland, all of which have made a shift from qualifications-focused education upfront to skills-oriented adult learning.
In the past, education was about teaching people something. Now, it’s about making sure that individuals develop a reliable compass and the navigation skills to find their own way through an increasingly uncertain, volatile and ambiguous world.
It’s been only too apparent in the past year that we no longer know exactly how things will unfold. We need to learn from the extraordinary, and sometimes we make mistakes along the way. Often it will be the mistakes and failures, when properly understood, that create the context for learning and growth.
Integrating the worlds of learning and work
We also know that adult learning and skills development are far more effective if the worlds of learning and work are integrated. Compared with purely government-designed curricula taught exclusively in educational institutions, learning in the workplace allows people to develop “hard” skills on modern equipment, and “soft” skills such as teamwork, communication and negotiation through real-world experience.
Countries need a wide spectrum of adult learning, work-related employee training, formal education for adults, second-chance courses in basic literacy and numeracy, language training for immigrants, labour-market training programs for jobseekers – but they also need learning activities for self-improvement and leisure.
Urgent need for change
First, governments can provide better information about the benefits, which include not just improved labour market outcomes but also improved self-esteem and increased social interaction – this will help to motivate those most in need.
Second, easily searchable, up-to-date online information and personal guidance and counselling services are needed to help individuals define their own training needs along with possible funding sources.
Third, recognition of non-formal learning through certification will provide an incentive.
Fourth, learning must be relevant and flexible: a number of countries have recently introduced one-stop shopping arrangements with different services offered in the same place. The Centenary Commission’s campaign is calling for community learning centres in every town in the UK.
Lifelong learning transforms lives, generates prosperity and promotes social inclusion. If countries are to grow and develop through the current crisis and for the longer term, they must equip adults with the skills to collaborate, compete and connect in ways that drive their lives and their societies.
Andreas Schleicher is director for education and skills, and special advisor on education policy to the secretary-general, at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development