The Double Helix of Learning and Work

5.2. Slowly Getting Ready
An educational system, no matter how decentralized, needs some general guidelines in order to operate properly. These are elaborated at a national level and are expressed in laws and policies. The regulated segment includes the structure of the system, the procedure for awarding diplomas and other attestations, the standards or grades, the funding schemes, and the operational requirements of this vast public sector comprising from one-fourth to one-fifth of the population. The government is therefore the prime agent entitled to take decisions regarding the institutional framework of education and the needed reforms.

The private sector comes next with its practical knowledge of the actual current and future manpower requirements at company level. In fact, training for work is even older than religious education.

In third position comes civil society, represented, in particular, by parents, who have always been involved but have recently become more vocal.

The fourth essential factor is the teaching staff owing to its position in the educational system and the weight of its opinion in the formulation and application of reforms. The importance of teachers, even in numerical terms, should not be overlooked. In any country, there are about 50,000 teachers and auxiliary staff for each 1 million young people enrolled in the educational system. Most of these teachers are represented by powerful trade unions.

Finally, since it is necessary to analyze the relationship between work and education, it is necessary to note the role of the trade unions in the national economy as a whole, especially in the light of their trilateral partnership with employers and government.

The press, television, and the other media are factors that influence the debate on the future of education; however, they can be regarded as part of civil society or as part of the non-governmental sector.

One observes that a strong will for change is obvious in regard to experimental action, and important steps in favour of structural reform have been taken at that level. Such has not been the case with other major agents that are having a crucial impact in key sectors: legislation and financing. Despite some interesting and promising developments, the inertia of the old structures and policies remains considerable.

The question here is that of the institutionalized governance of states and of their parliamentary and executive systems. Central to politics is the power to decide and manage the affairs of state in an orderly manner. Consequently, all structures have to be judiciously organized: public administration, law enforcement, the military, the health system, and public education. The political mind dreams of stability and continuity. The obsession with order becomes a systemic disease that begets bureaucracy, corruption, inertia, and resistance to change. Most national educational systems have retained a certain rigidity. They still emphasize the ideas of order and regulation, and they resist the kind of modernization that is required by contemporary society and economy and made possible by contemporary technology.

Spasmodic attempts to promote renewal are noticeable in the shaping of the reforms promised by political parties in the run-up to cyclical elections. In fact, the commonly accepted idea of how to go about reform may be fatally flawed. The stages of educational reform should not coincide with the succession of governments. The educational system needs to be regulated by a built-in mechanism of permanent and continuous reform. Considering the pace of change, no formula can be regarded as the ultimate formula. The key to effectiveness can be found only in the capacity of the system itself to absorb change in a continuous flow.

Current educational legislation and practice lack such adaptive mechanisms for their basic components: the cast-in-concrete curriculum, the teacher-class system, and the conditionality of diplomas. Those immobile elements, plus the goal of integration into a homogeneous mass designed to serve and perpetuate an economy and a society that no longer exist, allow only insignificant, ornamental, and symbolic alterations.

Two major processes, globalization and regional integration, are now confronting states with a new agenda. The position of an individual country within the international environment depends on how wisely it manages to play its cards, to find new niches, and to identify and to exploit its competitive advantages. These requirements call for a flexible and alert educational system.

The following story may prove more enlightening. At a conference in Algiers devoted to the new international economic order, a subject that was much debated in the 1970s, a young diplomat approached Lord Ritchie Calder, a well-known Laborite author and specialist in science and technology. Said the young man: “I must ask you about something that bothers me. When the United Kingdom gave up India and the colonial empire, among the arguments you mentioned was the country’s ability to find other ways to assert its global interests. After all, Britain had been the cradle of the… industrial revolution through technology, science, and knowledge. And yet the dream shattered once the young brains of the realm started their migration to the US.” Lord Calder replied: “The answer is simple. Education did not keep pace with the times. Universities did not understand what was at stake. School prevented us from moving forward”.

Today, states are beginning to realize that they cannot ride the waves of globalization with fixed, non-adjustable sails. Another good sign is that no nation seems inclined to suggest that its own system is the best and should be adopted as a model. All existing systems are still quite far from the ideal of flexibility and radical renewal that learned international conferences have been putting forward. Some education systems, which have been famous for their rigidity, such as the Japanese system, are starting to throw off ballast.

The private sector has also been slow to rise to the challenge, but for different reasons. The financial resources of a private bank or company are far greater than those of a ministry.

The business community has two main reasons for its reluctance to get involved in matters traditionally reserved for government action. First, education has been assigned a place on the other side of the barricade, while the government was supposed to abstain from interfering with the economy. The second reason is even more serious. Profit is the motive force of the private sector. It may even acknowledge that education is a profitable exercise. But the problem is that education becomes a profitable investment only over the long term. The natural preference of capital is for short-term gain. At this point, a quotation from Lester Thurow (1996, pp. 283-284) appears to be relevant:

Consider college education as a hard-nosed capitalist might consider it. Sixteen years of expensive investments must be made before the returns begin. Approximately $65,000 must be invested to acquire a K12 education; depending upon the quality one wishes to buy, $80,000 to $120,000 will be necessary to buy a college education and the sixteen years spent in school will mean forgone earnings of about $68,000. Sixteen years of high-quality education will require a total investment of about $250,000 per child. The risks that this investment will not pay off are enormous…. Capitalists simply don’t invest in sectors where they have to commit to a sequence of investments with low returns, high risks, and falling asset values.

There is another serious consideration. Investors always take care to avoid a situation whereby their investments could give competitors a free ride, as is the case with public goods. The emergence of corporate universities indicates that the feeling of insecurity about the economic returns on investment in education might have been overcome. But keeping educational investments under corporate control in order to frustrate free riders may still inhibit private investment in education as a public good.

Are these good signs? Yes, if one considers the grants that some companies punctually, though not very frequently, award to universities, or their patronage of certain schools. Also yes, if one considers the significant experience of the technological parks attached to universities, which provide a prolific interface between education and companies, with enhanced chances for the education-work linkage.

Neither the third nor the fourth categories of agents (teachers and unions) that have a bearing on structural measures are in a position to offer sufficient supporting elements for positive action.

Let us start with the teachers. They regard themselves, rightly, as the key element of the educational system. But they fear that a new system, while enhancing their guiding function as tutors, might reduce their crucial, well-defined role as masters of their discipline, their exclusive control over the way the curriculum is covered, and their decisive power over evaluation.

Teachers are the ones who award the credits and give the green light to the issuance of diplomas. The mechanism of reward and punishment is also in their hands. A possible dislocation from that entrenched position would naturally meet with opposition. The notion of confining education to instruction and the tacit adherence of teachers to behaviourist principles, with their emphasis on exogenous control and the minimization of the endogenous resources of learning, make teachers feel comfortable in their dominant positions as wardens of the whole process.

But these are not the reasons teachers would normally give for their resistance to innovation. Their objections are packaged as a campaign in defense of quality against the changes that might threaten it. This argument carries weight with parents. They attach importance to quality and good results, authenticated by diplomas and certificates as the safest way to a stable career.

It should, nonetheless, be noted that many teachers have embarked upon experiments meant to broaden the educational horizon. Also, one should not overlook the important trend—embraced by public opinion and reflected in the activities of NGOs—which proclaims its faith in the individual, in his or her autonomy and resourcefulness. The prevailing philosophy and mentality of civil society can be transposed in the area of education through the individual curriculum, the personal itinerary, and the freedom to alternate learning and work during one’s lifetime.

Although they are frequently viewed as being a part of civil society, the trade unions play a special role in the relationship between learning and work. Traditionally, their priorities were related to jobs and wages and, later, also, to working conditions. Consequently, they looked with some suspicion upon the educational sector because it produced people with di­plomas that entitled them to automatically hold better-remunerated positions without having “real” qualifications. But unions tended to support promotion following on-the-job training, adult courses, open education, and other measures developed within the enterprise itself.

Transition to a system based on individual training is a major test for the trade unions. Such a system brings with it not simply enhanced mobility of the type advocated by liberals in the labour market, but total mobility. The difference is fundamental. The mobility of the market is involuntary in terms of individual choice and interest, while individual mobility is voluntary and dictated by interest.

Let us assume that the unions might give favourable consideration to the new schema, if and when it is accepted by their members. However, a fluctuating mass between the two helixes may eventually deprive the unions of clear and stable support from their membership. The need to protect the rights of those who are simultaneously and recurrently engaged in work and learning will generate new forms of organization, which will require the unions to develop more complex and comprehensive activities.

At present, the agents involved in structural change are not prepared to direct their energies and resources toward a far-reaching transition in the work-education relationship. But those agents are themselves subject to experimentation. Whether they like it or not, they are constantly confronted with the dysfunctions of the traditional systems and the high costs of their maintenance and repair. They begin to realize that a new approach is necessary in order to face the demands of modernity in the Twenty-First Century.

5.3. The Counter-Aging Society: A Life of Sixty Active Years
The best indication of the success of the Industrial Revolution was the increased human life expectancy that came in its wake. It is still rising in most parts of the world.

This phenomenon is frequently described in traditional terms as a sign that society is aging. If the statement merely means that most people today live longer than they would have lived some fifty years ago, then the statement is acceptable. But, in itself, the expression, “aging society”, is somewhat inappropriate. It is first necessary to recognize that there has been an increase in the length of the life cycle, which should probably count as one of the greatest achievements of the Twentieth Century. Second, it must be observed that what is really becoming older is the notion of age itself. One only needs to refer to the European literature of the past century in order to learn how people felt at 40. It is also clear that the onset of physical and mental decline has been pushed back. In other words, at 50, 60, or 70, one is much younger today than one would have been at those ages in the not so distant past. Therefore, our societies are, in a sense, getting younger because people are living longer and better. This phenomenon can be observed in most countries around the world.

The failure to understand the situation in these terms can lead to serious errors. On the one hand, we tend to marginalize a growing portion of the population (those over 60) far too early. On the other hand, we quickly run aground in the political debate about how much and how long the younger generation should pay to support the older generations. On both counts, we find ourselves at a dead end!

In order to come up with a rational answer, it is necessary to turn the proposition completely around: Older people are younger today than they used to be in the past because the “value” of human beings is being linked to their productive activities and creative endeavours. The key social and political challenge of the coming decades will be the extent to which modern society manages to involve people from, say, 16 to 80 years of age in the worldwide process of creating and sustaining the wealth of nations. There are already clear signs that things are beginning to move in that direction, even though the global picture is as yet far from homogeneous (Delsen and Reday-Mulvey, 1996). It is important to recognize the good news that we live in a counter-aging society, since the change that is occurring in the structure of our planet’s population is a momentous one in human history. Our culture, our mindset, and the structures of our societies must now adapt to this new and promising trend. The inescapable significance of the new situation is that every one of us has a potential for staying on as an active participant longer and more effectively than it has ever been the case. Achieving that sort of continued participation must now become the goal of the learning-work tandem and a key instrument of progress and justice for all.

In this perspective, it will be essential to propose educational programmes for those who are 60 and over with an aim to develop new skills enabling them to embark on new careers based essentially on part-time jobs and/or unremunerated activities. Indeed, a great deal is already happening along these lines.

One must also consider the fact that in many countries, particularly in the developing world, young people account for a very large segment of the population. Those people will eventually grow old within twenty, thirty, or more years. The consequences of an extended life cycle will then become a truly global issue everywhere. China, for instance, has already taken this inevitable problem into consideration at governmental level.

It is first necessary to reconsider and to redefine the notion of work as productive activity in the world of today, but not in the sense of what has been inherited from two centuries of the industrial revolution. Full-time remunerated work of around thirty-five hours per week, at the least, is still considered in most cases as the only measure of the contribution of an individ­ual to productive activity. It is through this process that one establishes most of one’s social contacts. It is also at work that individuals find and define their place in society. Official forms one has to fill out on various occasions always ask questions about one’s professional career, qualifications, skills, and even sex. The perception of one’s personality is very much linked to that sort of factual information. One’s entire network of social interaction is heavily dependent upon one’s position in the world of (remunerated) work.

The fact that other human activities are hardly ever noticed has led to a perverse situation: somebody who is engaged in valuable non-monetized work—household work or child care at home are the obvious examples—receives much less that his or her due share of social recog­nition. Evidently, this attitude has adverse effects on personal motivation and self-esteem.

Quite a few other activities are gaining importance in a society in which leisure may sometimes occupy people at least as much as work, even though that representation is not entirely true since much of the so-called leisure time is spent on voluntary work.

The increased differentiation of the types of productive work and of the opportunities to perform additional activities as complementary elements of human personality is a rather new development, particularly if seen from the point of view of classical economics. An evaluation of such activities becomes a helpful tool for making judgments about individual contributions to the progress of society in a modern economic system.

We still hold to our philosophical prejudices: we are much more what we produce than what we consume. Even consumption patterns are simply ways to generate an image of ourselves. Most people, we believe, are aware of the fact that their worth is much related to their level of self-esteem and usefulness to society. We definitely stand behind the idea that we consume, and need to consume, in order to produce for ourselves and for society rather than the other way around. In this perspective, the question of work as an element of one’s personality gains a whole new dimension.

To identify the current intensity of work in the life cycle we have to examine the participation rates of people in the monetized labour market. This determination is made by the ratio of the active population—i.e., all persons of either sex who ensure the supply of remunerated labour for the production of goods and services regardless of their employment status—to the total number of people in a determined age group. The higher the proportion of the active population in a specific age group, the greater their work intensity. Work intensity is subject to legal regulation, social influences, and individual decisions.

A sharp increase in economic activity occurs at age 15 to 24 as a result of graduation from secondary or tertiary education. Before the age of 15 there is usually, at least in the industrialized countries, only negligible activity in the labour market. This situation changes when mandatory school attendance comes to an end, and individuals can join the work force according to their personal inclinations and needs.

Afterwards, work intensity is more or less stable over a period of several decades. For men, the proportion of economically active people typically exceeds 90 percent, while for women, the rate tends to be considerably lower. Depending on the degree of integration of women in the labour force, the activity level, in various countries, only rarely exceeds 75 percent. During the period of activity, the participation rates of women exhibit a particular but very characteristic drop between the ages of 30 and 39. An obvious explanation for this phenomenon is the preference of women of that age to spend more time on domestic work and/or child-care activities.

At the end of this phase, the proportion of people who are gainfully employed gradually diminishes. At this time, retirement becomes a major factor in the making of personal deci­sions regarding working time and lucrative activities. More and more people choose to drop out of the labour market and to devote increased time to other activities than remunerated work.

We shall now propose an alternative system for the distribution of work and work intensity that seems better suited to individual needs throughout those different stages of activity.

During the education phase, more part-time work should be integrated into the official tertiary education system. Such an approach would enable young people to gain working experience while still studying, without necessarily submitting themselves to the stress of taking an unpleasant or uninteresting job in addition to being enrolled in full-time education. At the same time, the solution would relieve them of at least part of their financial worries. The integration of part-time work into the educational system would also foster connections between theory and practice, and it would provide closer links between higher education establishments and the productive sector.

During the second phase, there would be fewer changes in work intensity. That stage, however, should be gradually phased out rather than come to a sudden end. There would be increased possibilities for older people to prepare for retirement by gradually reducing their workloads according to their individual preferences and needs. At the age of 60, they still have twenty years of life ahead of them. Gradual retirement could thus become a beneficial complement to the established three pillars of the social security system. It would also help reduce the pressures on national budgets in aging societies. Voluntary work, which is already, to some extent, being undertaken, might increase in volume. It could become a non-monetized substitute for part of the previously remunerated work since many older people would like to stay active without necessarily asking for monetary compensation.

During all three phases, education, training, and retraining should be part of daily life, albeit differentiated according to age. Constant access to education is necessary in order to enable people to remain in the labour market and to meet the demands of an ever more complex and rapidly changing society.

At this point, it appears appropriate to dispel a common misperception. Conventional corporate wisdom still claims that older workers are a burden to dynamic enterprises trying to keep abreast of a rapidly changing business environment. In fact, a number of serious recent studies demonstrate the generally positive contribution of older workers (see Warr, 1994: 472-480; and The Commonwealth Fund, 1991). They have been found to be experienced, reliable, hardworking, and effective in their jobs. They think before they act, and they seem to be more flexible when faced with new assignments and changing work conditions as compared to their younger colleagues. These very positive characteristics of older workers can, and definitely should, be exploited not only until the age of retirement, 60 to 65 years in most industrialized countries, but for a longer period. Longer life expectancies and improved health conditions make such an extended period of employment possible.

One of the major problems of the employment of older workers stems from the system of remuneration according to seniority. Traditionally, older workers have been more expensive than their younger counterparts who, in fact, have been subsidizing the higher wages of the former. This practice has led to a situation whereby older workers might be earning more than their actual productivity would merit, thus providing employers with an incentive to dismiss them, or with an excuse to shed them first in case of downsizing resulting in redundancies. The situation is even more serious in certain countries in which contributions to pension schemes increase with age, thus making older workers even more expensive.

A movement in favour of performance-based remuneration is underway in certain countries, especially in the Anglo-Saxon world, which is likely to enhance the competitiveness of older workers. Part-time work could considerably assist the transformation of the system of remuneration, since the switch of older workers, who have reached retirement age, from full-time to part-time employment with additional, if partial, pension benefits would ease some of the financial constraints for both the employer and the employee.

However, the current distribution of income among the older population, those aged 65 and over, still does not reflect any shift towards higher earnings from part-time work.

Gradual retirement, as a complement to the established three pillars of the social security system and an expression of personal choice and individual preference, is closely linked to part-time work. Even in countries like Germany, France, or Japan, where traditional attitudes to part-time work have been predominant for a long time, the situation is beginning to change. The explicit wish of those over 60 to have a broader choice of ways to organize their lives has contributed to increased recognition of the rationality of more flexible work patterns.

So far, experiences with part-time work as the component of a gradual retirement approach are mainly positive (Delson and Reday-Mulvey, 1996). Initial organizational problems can be overcome rather quickly, and the costs of the required administrative measures, planning and sometimes equipment, are compensated through reductions in absenteeism, increased flexibility, improved morale, and productivity growth. Ignorance appears to be one of the more serious obstacles to part-time work or employment of older people, especially when they have passed the official retirement age. People tend to be skeptical whenever there is no experience of part-time work, but when that practice has been developed, it is generally welcomed by supervisors. Younger colleagues can also benefit from the valuable skills of part-time experienced workers who would otherwise not share them when fully retired.

Since the benefits of the part-time work performed by older people generally outweigh the costs, there should be no structural obstacles to the employment of older people. Current practice shows that part-time workers could undertake many more tasks than is now the case. The development of part-time work thus appears to be an ideal way of lengthening working lives and/or of giving them increased flexibility.

There is an element of absolute novelty in the relative length of working periods. The sixty-year active life tends to become generalized. An average active life increases by twenty years. Thus, the facts of demography and the leap from 55 to 75 years in life expectancy eventually come to terms with societal organization. Extended useful lives are no longer the bane of national budgets, and the specter of the “aging society” no longer seems so frightening.

† The Geneva Association, a pioneer in this important issue, had already started a research programme on gradual retirement in 1987. It has since organized at least one seminar each year on this issue and has published a series of special studies as well as The Fourth Pillar Newsletter.

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