Upskilling is all the rage these days in Human Resources, at least as much as any HR issue can be said to “rage.” But as I’ve thought more deeply on the topic, I’ve come to realize that upskilling in one area tends to lead to deskilling in another. Not only that, but these two dynamics could result in more polylearning and less monolearning in coming decades.
First, let’s talk about upskilling. At a recent HR conference, I presented my organization’s research on the topic of upskilling. Overall, I think it’s a good survey and report, but I’m still not sure how the term upskilling differs from regular old learning.
My take is that upskilling is a subset of learning, a moderately fashionable and vaguely useful term meaning “learn new things so employees can continue to do their jobs well or take on other jobs that’ll help them successfully contribute to their organization and/or careers.”
So, yeah, it basically means learning but contains those some useful nuances all in a single word.
Learning Defines Our Species
Learning is, of course, something people do day-to-day anyway just to get by. For example, we meet new people and learn a little about them in order to successfully interact as human beings. Or we learn that our cat is sick and so call the vet to help it get better. Or we learn that our digital clocks are flashing and so determine that the power went out when we were asleep.
Sometimes our learning is more complicated and takes longer. For example, let’s say we need to use a new technology at work. Sometimes it only takes a few minutes to learn. Sometimes it takes months or even years, such as when we’re trying to master a new programming language. And, of course, there are a lot of things in between, such as when we’re learning the ins and outs of a new work process.
In short, we’re always learning. We need to learn just to survive. In fact, though all animals learn, humans are exceptional at learning new things, which is why we consider ourselves wise–though clearly not humble–enough to call ourselves homo sapiens sapiens, or wise, wise humans.
The Three Drivers of Upskilling
So, why are we just using the term upskilling now? There are three primary reasons.
First, technology is changing every day. This is part of the human condition circa 2023. We have always been “extended humans” to some degree, even before we became the species we are today. That is, we have long extended our natural capabilities through tool usage.
The people from whom we are descended, homo erectus, were also tool users, even if their tools were more “primitive” (I put that in quotes because there was a craft to creating such tools that often requires subtle skills that most of us lack today).
These days, many of our technologies are so complex that no single living human being could create them from scratch. These fancy tools not only require teams of experts and craftspeople to make them, they also require vast and complex mining, manufacturing and distribution chains to bring to them into the marketplace and workplace.
Thanks to capitalism, another human invention we’ll get to in a minute, we are always busy building and producing new tools. This ongoing process requires continuous learning.
Whether we truly need this system to survive as a species is debatable. In fact, one could argue that, with the creation of new weapons, biological agents, and other technologies, we are doing more to endanger than to promote our species’ existence.
But we’ll leave that debate for another time.
Organizational and Cultural Change
Another primary reason for upskilling is that, partly in response to the constant churn of new technologies, our organizations are also changing. This is especially true if we broaden our definition of technology to inventions such as new work processes, business paradigms, approaches, etc. Some have referred to this constant churn as “creative destruction.”
Because of my job, I tend to think in terms of business organizations, but the same thing is more or less true for whole societies. Our manufacturing, transportation, healthcare and other systems are constantly evolving.
A third reason for the rising importance of upskilling is our capitalistic system. Perhaps we could, as a species, live in a more slowly changing society that meets the needs of most people via other forms social and economic arrangements. But most of us do not.
In capitalism, one must compete for one’s place within society by earning money (yet another human invention). This means that each person must somehow sell or otherwise leverage their skills to produce capital in order to survive and thrive.
Of course, there are lots of other socioeconomic systems (feudalism, colonialism, socialism, communism, libertarianism, anarchism, minarchism, etc.), but capitalism is globally dominant at the moment. This has a huge impact on learning. So, for example, if I want to succeed in my job or career, I need to continuously learn new skills that make me “marketable” within the capitalistic system.
Amid this state of constant churn of technologies, organizations and people strive to stay relevant in the capitalistic marketplace. Extraordinary amounts of learning are required. That’s why we coin terms such as upskilling, a word first used in 1983 and especially popular right now. It helps us conceptualize our need to continuously learn in order survive and thrive.
Then There’s Deskilling
One seldom mentioned outcome of all this change is that we are also in a constant state of “deskilling.” That is, we lose or just never learn skills that our predecessors (or even our younger selves) took for granted.
For example, how many of us could quickly, if at all, start a fire without matches or a lighter? Oh sure, there are a few who still have that skill. But, for the most part, we have deskilled ourselves in this area.
This can happen quickly, even within a single lifetime. When I was a kid, for example, every child was taught to read a conventional analog clock with its round face and two hands of different sizes. These days, however, it’s common for kids to lack this skill, being only able to read the digital clocks with which they’ve grown up.
Today, we have new technologies coming to the fore such as generative AI, which include tools that create both graphic art and reasonably well-crafted prose as well. Will these new technologies drive a deskilling trend in which fewer and fewer human beings learn to draw and write well?
And, if so, what will the reskilling trend look like? For example, will more people need to become extremely adept at writing prompts that get these new AIs to produce the best possible works of prose or art?
The Age of Abundance and Leisure
With the advent of powerful AIs and almost limitless cheap sources of power, we might be approaching an age when energy, material wealth, information and knowledge are so abundant as to be virtually free. If that’s true, then we’ll need to learn something new: how to live in an age of abundance and leisure.
Learn for Learning’s Sake
We can’t know what the future will bring, of course. Maybe society will collapse for some reason (e.g., wars, pandemics, global warming, etc.) and we’ll need to learn how to scrounge resources to say alive. Perhaps being able to start a fire without matches will again become a major survival skill. In that case, we won’t be upskilling, we’ll be reskilling ourselves with age-old, essential capabilities.
Or maybe, if there is an age of abundance when most wealth is generated with machines rather than human labor, we’ll be able to pick and choose what we want to learn as never before. Perhaps we will do more learning for learning’s sake, for the sheer joy of learning, rather than for the sake of a job or career.
The Decline of Monolearning
Think about agriculture today. For the most part, our primary foods are based on monocrops—that is, crops of plants that are virtually identical genetically. We call this monoculture and there some huge advantages of this type of farming. For example, you can grow the most nutritious, largest form of a plant and use the same farming approaches (in terms of soil tilling, fertilizers, pesticides, etc.). You are, in effect, mass producing the same valuable plant over and over.
But there are also serious disadvantages to monoculture, with the primary one being that crops become very vulnerable to disease and pests. Once a plant disease learns how to attack that form of a plant, it can essentially destroy whole crops all over the world.
So, I’m going to coin the term “monolearning,” meaning the teaching of a single skill over huge swaths of humanity using essentially the same pedagogical approach. For the last several centuries, we have engaged in more and more monolearning as political superpowers, communication technologies and international markets have proliferated.
In these kinds of environments, standardization of learning becomes incredibly useful. Standard metrics facilitate global trade. Learning international languages (most recently English) encourages commerce and the exchange of scientific and social ideas. Monolearning becomes a net good.
The Rise of Polylearning
But what if we moved away from such monolearning in many areas? For example, today’s translation software is already quite good. So, why should people all over the world learn the “monolanguage” of English if they don’t need to? In fact, it’s possible we could eventually see a proliferation of new human languages and dialects (which have been declining for decades) because we have artificially intelligent tools that do all the translation for us.
This could apply to other areas as well. For instant, these days few of us even consider that there are many alternatives to the decimal number system. There’s binary, octal, hexadecimal and many other systems—and perhaps many more that we haven’t even dreamt up. Why should we all be users of the decimal system if, again, we have artificial intelligence that can easily translate from one type to another?
“But why,” you’re asking, “would we want to do that?”
Well, because we can. Because it’s interesting. Because it sets us apart. Because humans remain tribal animals and these differences can both join and distinguish us in interesting ways.
And because polylearning (the opposite of monolearning) is as potentially robust and fascinating as polyculture is in the field of agriculture. Polylearning might even make humanity more robust and resilient as we let “a thousand flowers bloom” in terms of human perspectives, ideas, cognition, and ways of living.
Sure, this could bring centripetal chaos, but if we have new technologies allowing us to bridge these gaps, then perhaps we get the best of both worlds: the virtues of monolearning balanced against the rich tapestry and creativity inherent in polylearning.
The Backlash to Polylearning
In this post, we’ve come a long way from our not-so-radical concept of upskilling. I don’t know if the future will bring more polylearning, but I think there’s a reasonable chance something like it could evolve. And, if it does, it’ll be terrifying to some people. Consider how many people are now shaking in their respective boots in the face of rising waves of gender fluidity and transsexualism even though these trends do not limit their own choices.
Now imagine if polylearning leads to dramatically more diversity in thought and lifestyles. It could even lead to a fracturing of nations as radically different ideas pull people apart.
Living in Florida, I can see how dangerously reactionary the backlash against such trends becomes. True diversity scares many people. In fact, it often scares them worse that tyrants do, despite the fact that the latter tend to be far more dangerous, as history clearly shows. Pretty soon you have authoritarian politicians demagoguing to gain power, stirring up hatred and outrage against alternative choices and lifestyles.
If that’s true now, at a time when we still have a great deal of global standardization, just imagine the eventual backlash against polylearning. Things could get ugly as people battle against nonconformity.
Of course, I don’t know if these conservative backlashes will ultimately contain the rise of polylearning. Indeed, if people must flee reactionary systems, this could fan the flames of global polylearning.
Stay tuned. At the very least, I suspect we will all be learning a great deal over the next several decades, whether we want to or not.