The New Learning Economy and the Rise of the Working Learner

Posted: October 10th, 2016

By Parminder K. Jassal, Ph.D. & Hope Clark, Ph.D.

Until recently, we thought of learning, working, and living as separate parts of our lives. In our younger years we went to school.  We spent our adult years working, and wove in personal events into the time that remained.  Now imagine a world where all of this has changed. In the not so distant future, working, learning, and living will become increasingly inseparable, not by choice, but in order to thrive in a rapidly evolving learning economy.

Today, working learners are all around us.  They are individuals who work for pay and are simultaneously going to school to earn a credential. Working learners are 21 million strong with 14 million in postsecondary education and training programs and another 7 million in high schools .

Low-income working learners suffer the most disadvantages by working and learning at the same time; however, intentionally linking working and learning through high school provides more opportunities than simply working full-time after high school graduation.

While this trend is propelled by working learners who are 30 and older, we need to also remove barriers for younger generations so they don’t get left behind.

The rise of the working learner signifies a dramatic shift in how we think about working and learning and what that means for overall life satisfaction: a new learning economy, so to speak. Just like any other economy, the new learning economy operates at many different levels: global, state, regional, and local. Historically, research on working and learning has been analyzed and reported as parallel and separate paradigms with little or no intersection. These reports typically cover working or learning but not how they coincide and interact. With funding support from ACT Foundation and other partnering foundations, researchers have begun examining the intersection between working and learning and the implications for education and employment programs at all economic levels.

That’s why we have developed our new Working Learner Antholology of Recent Evidence, which provides a summary of the latest research findings and introduces possibilities that support the vision of a new learning economy where everyone is valued for their ability to perform, and where everyone has an equal opportunity to achieve greater life satisfaction for themselves and their families.

Research on working and learning is a new and emerging field and only recently have attempts been made to pull the two fields together.  ACT Foundation, seeing the possibilities and necessity for examination of this area, provided significant investments to bring together these two fields and to shed light on the complicated interactions that working learners face now.  As a result of these efforts, we have a better understanding of the trends, dynamics, barriers, and promising models to support the rise of the working learner.  This work has only just begun and will continue to evolve as new technology and innovative solutions are created to support successful outcomes to learn and earn simultaneously.

The new learning economy will give working learners greater access to relevant learn-and-earn opportunities, better connections to work pathways, clearer and more attainable learning outcomes, and increased life satisfaction.  The primary focus of ACT Foundation was to advance these trends in order to discover solutions to reduce the gap between the rich and poor and to increase the quality of life for underserved individuals.

Download the Working Learner Anthology of Recent Evidence and learn more about what’s being done to improve and increase working learner success  – and stay tuned for our upcoming book.