In today’s technological workplace, knowing how to learn is key to keeping pace with change. We’ve entered a new work culture, one where technology executes while humans learn and create new value. Being able to acquire new skills is becoming a skill in itself: In this new era, those who learn and adapt fastest will thrive.
We‘ve all heard that different people learn in different ways. But the idea that personal learning styles are crucial to successful education models has been debunked as little more than a myth. As it turns out, learning styles aren’t entirely innate, so it likely doesn’t matter whether you’re a visual learner or a kinetic learner, a “reflector” or a “theorist.” What matters more is your experience of learning — how you’ve learned how to learn — and the experience you bring to what you’re learning.
While people might not strictly learn in their own unique style, they do tend to learn differently depending on their age. For example, several studies have compared the way that older and younger adults learn and found that there are important differences that can be leveraged by employers.
A 2014 Brown University study scanned students’ brains as they learned. When humans acquire new information, our brain cell structures change in order to store it, a phenomenon known as “plasticity.” The researchers found that older and younger adults learned at the same rate, but they tended to store new information in different parts of their brains.
What does that mean in practice? One study compared traditional-age college students in their late teens and early 20s with adults returning to college in their 30s, 40s and 50s. It found that the older group tended to take more time to analyze and break down new information rather than simply memorize it.
And yet another study found that older students were better at staying organized and felt less stressed by coursework than their traditional-age peers. “Students with more life-roles and responsibilities” — that is, older students — “may be more adept at the mechanics of time management such as making lists and scheduling activities in advance,” the researcher concluded.
There’s also evidence that as people age, understanding the process of learning becomes more important to them. Mid-career and older workers often want to understand why they’re learning a new skill — how it will contribute to their overall mission, how it fits in with what they already know and how they can deploy it creatively in the future. In contrast, younger learners are often ready to soak up knowledge as it’s presented to them and figure out how it fits into their work later.
This is important because all people are being called upon to keep learning new skills much later into adulthood than ever before. We’re in the midst of an unprecedented, rapid technology shift. Whereas previous generations could learn a trade and stay at it for a lifetime, today’s workers are asked to constantly assimilate new information, new skills and in some cases, entirely new jobs.
As future-of-work strategist Heather McGowan, co-founder of Work to Learn, has said, “this shift [in technology] requires us to think differently about both work and learning. In the past, we learned once in order to work, but we must now work to continuously learn.”
Then there’s the fact that older adults are staying on the job much longer. Summarizing a 2018 study, The Atlanta-Journal Constitution reported that in 2000, about one in 10 Americans aged 65 to 74 worked. Today, roughly a quarter of that age group works, with that figure expected to grow to one in three in the next few years.
Economic strain can play a role in that, as do longer lifespans. But many older employees also say they simply take satisfaction from having meaningful work. As they reach the mid- to late-career stage, people start to take inventory of their work as it pertains to both purpose and self-expression. Some find a greater connection to their passions, whereas others wish to recast their career in greater alignment with their values.
The result is a much more multigenerational workforce, according to the AARP. It isn’t unusual for a 22-year-old and a 65-year-old to be learning the same new tech skill at the same time from the same supervisor. Or perhaps one employee is teaching the other — and either could be the instructor. That makes it important to understand your own learning style as well as that of others, so you can better communicate no matter if you’re the teacher or the student.
Here’s an example: Imagine that your manager is showing you and a colleague a new process for publishing documents online. Are you most likely to: A) Memorize the sequence of clicks and keystrokes; or B) Figure out what each click in the sequence is doing?
If you answered “A,” you learn in a way typical of people in their 20s. It might seem easier to simply memorize or write down the sequence of commands without worrying about why it is the way it is. It might seem frustrating when your fellow employee insists on understanding the inner workings of every process. But bear with them, because it will help the lesson stick in the long run — and you might learn something in the process that you can apply in your work.
If you answered “B,” you learn in a way more typical of people over 30. You don’t just want to go through the steps, as you won’t remember them unless you know the logic behind each one. You should realize that your coworker might not need the full explanation of what they’re doing — they might just need a quick rundown of how to work the system. That doesn’t mean they’re not absorbing what’s being said, but they might need to come to you if they run into trouble since you might have a deeper understanding of the process.
When you understand how you approach new information and new skills, it will be easier to adjust your style to help others. As AARP’s Debra Whitman has noted, “In today’s era of rapid change… a single dose of education is not enough. Explicit knowledge is easily accessible from our devices and ripe for automation. Workers maintain their value by continuing to learn and adapt.”
As multigenerational workplaces embrace how different people learn at different stages of life, it will become easier to unify all employees across cultural and technological divides. In this way companies will be better able to optimize the different skills and experiences their age-diverse employees bring to the table. AARP believes that learning is a social act that is much more fun and meaningful when it happens in collaboration with others.