Breaking the straight line: Education remade for a non-linear life

Many of today’s students will live until they’re 100 years old. The questions is, are they ready to change their approach to learning, and are educators ready to walk a lifeline less straight?

Imagine you’re 100 years old. Born in 1918 when World War I was ending in the era of the Model T Ford , you would have waited until you were about 50 to watch TV, and 70 for the internet. You would have retired in 1983 – the year the first mobile call was made. Possibly with a gold watch.

While few of us are lucky enough to be centenarians today, progressive increases in longevity mean the numbers will increase in future. With more change set to happen in the lives of today’s graduates than in those of previous generations, they’ll need education and training that goes the distance.

From linear, to non-linear

In the recent survey and report, ‘Higher education for a changing world: Ensuring the 100-year life is a better life’, professional services firm Deloitte detailed how on average we are expected to live much longer in future. As a result, ‘one-time’ attitudes to education would be rendered obsolete.

With about half of the 20-year-old students in university or vocational education and training (VET) today expected to live to 100, the workforce is likely to see a parallel increase in participation rates in older age groups. Many people will still be working well into their 70s and 80s.

What does this mean for the traditional career? In short, it’s goodbye to the straight line.

Deloitte contrasts the traditional ‘linear life’ with the new 100-year life many of today’s students can expect to enjoy. In this model, we see the traditional three-stage ‘education’, ‘career’, ‘retirement’ life transforming into a multi-stage journey marked by a variety of careers, breaks and transitions.

The past involved a ‘single-shot’ dose of education followed by a long, continuous period of work and retirement in your 60s. This future will involve longer careers with a variety of endpoints, continuous changes in the nature of work undertaken, and a whole career that is a journey of learning.

Are individuals ready to walk into this brave new learning future – even if it’s not a straight line?


Individuals and lifelong learning

Deloitte surveyed 4000 Australians aged 18 years and over who are (or have recently been) in the workforce for their views on study. Over half (55%) were termed ‘study-interested’, having recently completed study, being enrolled in study or intending to study within three years. It found:

  • Enthusiasm for training and education wanes as we age and gain more experience in the workforce, despite the high proportion of people identifying as ‘study-interested’.
  • This attitude grows to the point where 75% of workers who did not complete study in the last three years don’t have any plans to pursue further study at all in the future.
  • In general, once we get to 35 our life commitments take over and study takes a back seat.

Deloitte suggests this means the ‘multi-stage’ life model is still in its infancy. The people who stand to gain the most from lifelong learning appear to be interested the least – with some way to go until 100.


The education individuals want

The majority of ‘study-interested’ workers are demanding education and training linked to their current job and industry context, in line with this persistent focus on a single chosen career.

  • 31% expect to see education providers collaborating with industry to deliver better learning content.
  • 68% think developing job-specific skills is relatively more important than obtaining a formal qualification.
  • Interestingly, 38% of those planning to study within three years will choose a course that is not accredited under the Australian Qualifications Framework (up from 30%), in what could be an indication shorter courses (and the non-linear life model) is becoming more popular.

The merging of study and work extends to who should foot the bill. Another recent Deloitte survey of Millennials showed 39% expected employers – not society – to meet their education funding needs.


How individuals want education delivered

In the 100-year age where the shelf-life of skills learned may be as short as five years and life and work become increasingly complex, Deloitte’s survey showed flexibility and bite-sized learning are already showing strong demand from students – something expected to increase in future.

  • 78% of ‘study-interested’ workers want at least half of their learning delivered online, on the back of sustained growth in online learning and off-campus delivery modes like MOOCs.
  • Their preferred education delivery mode is a mix of online and in-person learning, if possible delivered in intensive ‘bite-sized’ chunks that fit around work and life commitments.
  • 46% were prepared to invest 3-10 hours a week, and only 25% more than 10 hours.

Australia’s higher education and VET providers can be reassured 78% of ‘study-interested’ workers are still willing to enrol with them in future, despite growing competition from exclusively online providers in some specialist industries and global providers in some professions.


100 years of wisdom

The Chinese philosopher Confucius only lived until the age of 72, but that was long enough for him to share more than 100 years worth of wisdom, including the following: “If your plan is for one year, plant rice. If your plan is for 10 years, plant trees. If your plan is for 100 years, educate children.”

In an age of lifetime learning, those who live to 100 will have 218,000 hours at their disposal to dedicate to meaningful work, up from 124,000 for those who will live to 70. If he were alive today, perhaps Confucius would have added: “If you plan to live for 100 years, educate yourself.”

The question is, what opportunities exist for educators in the age of the 100-year life?

One answer may be the ‘lifetime subscription’ model. Imagine for a moment a tertiary education and training world that wasn’t so excessively geared towards the flow of undergraduates that have sustained universities in the age of ‘single-shot’ education. Adapting and evolving this model for longer and more flexible working lives, it would suit providers who can accommodate the ongoing learning and development individuals will need to traverse multiple careers and transitions.


The lifetime subscription

The lifetime subscription – or Knowledge-as a Service model – would deliver a lifetime of guaranteed quality learning and training from a trusted source post-graduation for a fee, rather than preparing students intensively over periods of three to five years for a perceived unbroken lifetime of work. Meeting the growing need for the ongoing learning and skills required to navigate a longer and more volatile work and life reality, it might look a lot different from the way education looks now.

Many tertiary education and training providers have the benefit of a vast pool of alumni, with more names being added to the list every year. While many students pass through education with the same mindset as educators – getting a qualification that will gain them a career for life – there is the potential to shift these alumni into a lifetime subscription mindset that will not only benefit them over the longer term, but also provide a sustainable business model for educators into the future.

What might the key characteristics of an education subscription model be? Here’s a few ideas:


A current and evolving library of specific courses and programs would meet a person’s changing education and skill needs as they develop and transition, with no ultimate ‘end point’ in mind.


Courses would be delivered both online and in-person in shorter, more intensive formats on demand to ensure people could create space for ongoing learning within busy post-35-year-old lives.


Education would need to be high quality, useful and engaging to ensure students not only gain outcomes from ongoing study, but maintain interest in learning while paying for the privilege.


Learners could follow unlikely connections across different disciplines, allowing things like leadership skills to sit alongside philosophy, or digital marketing to add a new dimension to a STEM career.


Online and offline networking and collaboration would deliver on a promise of connection with a vast pool of experienced and like-minded peers all seeking to expand knowledge and opportunity.


Course content would be fully enabled for a mobile and global base of alumni, who would be able to access the learning and expertise they require from anywhere, at any time and from any device.


A fee-for-access subscription model would allow tertiary providers to renew access monthly or annually on an ongoing basis, ensuring graduates could still be learning when they reach 100.

The lifetime subscription model is not the only answer to a longer lived society. However, if we are able to redesign education and training in such ways to meet the needs of tomorrow’s growing population of 100-year-olds, we’ll be able to ensure their lives are better, as well as longer.