Lifelong learning is key to bridging new generation gap

The high-altitude thinkers who we invited to project technology trends earlier this year concurred on one key insight we all should note:

Lifelong learning is growing ever more critical for our community’s prosperity and for each of us, individually, to remain relevant in the workplace.

Co-sponsored by Bellevue Community College and Senator Maria Cantwell, the event convened 12 chief information officers and other executives from Microsoft Corporation, Geospiza, Group Health, the Washington Software Alliance and the University of Washington, among others.

All agreed on one central point: technology is no longer a ‘thing,’ but a way of life. And most business technology will soon be mobile, as the line between working hours and personal time, between workplace and personal space, continues to fade.

This is Web 2.0 — not a new Internet, but a new way of using the World Wide Web to meet and collaborate with others around the globe who are working on the same issues, opportunities and challenges as we are. Web 2.0 is a complex, highly diverse place where new and more sophisticated programming has spawned virtual mega-communities for information-sharing and collaborative problem-solving.

Unfortunately, our visionaries also agreed, the United States lags behind many countries in productive use of Web 2.0 — behind Israel, South Korea and India, for example. The reason, they suggested, is the emergence of a new “generation gap.”

It is not just that older workers tend to resist change, some panelists asserted. The older generation’s fundamental approach to work, they said, runs directly counter to the philosophical and cultural values of the Web 2.0 denizens. Younger workers focus more on group achievements and credit, as opposed to highlighting individual contributions and status; they freely share information, instead of holding it close as a personal domain; and they network by affinity, as opposed to identifying primarily with their own company or department.

Some panelists asserted that these fundamental differences run so deeply that they are keeping U.S. businesses from fully reaping the payoffs in creativity and efficiency that Web 2.0 makes possible.

Panelists also agreed, however, that community colleges are playing an increasingly central role in bridging the new divide.

At Bellevue Community College we focus on teaching the knowledge, skills and cognitive abilities identified as crucial by our panelists: the ability to thrive within the world’s new interconnectivity, to understand and respond productively to multiple perspectives, and to work effectively and creatively with people of vastly different ethnic, racial and national frameworks and diverse spheres of intellectual focus.

Another result of the generation gap is: each year we enroll more and more middle-aged students who want to learn new ways of thinking and doing things. Nearly 2,000 students age 40 and above are taking courses for credit at BCC right now. In our non-credit Continuing Education program (in which three-quarters of all enrollments are in career-related programs), half the enrollments are of people age 40 and beyond, with half of those (one-quarter overall) age 50 or more. And over one-third of all of BCC students already hold a bachelor’s degree or higher.

As it becomes increasingly vital for individuals, employers and the community to bridge the widening generation gap and take advantage of the rich opportunities that technology provides to work and collaborate differently, we expect more and more people, past the traditional college-age, to come to BCC to retool their skills and recharge their thinking.

In this era of rapid change in all corners of society, it’s becoming more and more clear that institutions such as BCC are the community’s containers for lifelong learning, and as many educators already say, “the new graduate school.”

Jean Floten is president of Bellevue Community College.

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