“Of clouds and clocks … clouds are intended to represent physical systems which, like gases, are highly irregular, disorderly, and more or less unpredictable. On the other extreme of our arrangement, we have a very reliable pendulum clock, intended to represent physical systems which are regular, orderly, and highly predictable in their behaviour1.”
Karl Popper

Nature tends to follow a path of renewal and refreshing core elements. In humans, the skeleton is completely regenerated every 10 years2 and so over a normal life we each have 7-8 skeletons. The corporate world is also regenerating itself with few businesses surviving in the major listings3. It is much the same with the skills we develop at school, at college and university, and then later in work. While looking at the half-life of skills, we also need to view the context and major drivers re-shaping the workplace.

There is a major change in the accumulation and the use of information across all aspects of society and the economy. Just taking a few examples: the typical engineering degree takes 4,800 hours of work to complete and 2,400 hours of that will be obsolete in 10 years3.

Between 1800 and 1900, human knowledge doubled. It doubled again over the next 25 years. The next doubling took 12-13 years and now it is down to less than a day to double4; further studies have shown that engineering skills and knowledge has a half-life of 2.5-5 years5.

Driving these changes are four main factors6:

  • Advances in production technologies promoting technological task complementarities
  • Advances in information technologies promoting informational task complementarities
  • Changes in worker preference in favour of versatile work
  • Advances in human capital that make workers more versatile

Together these four forces are challenging the content of jobs and making skills potentially obsolete one way or the other.

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Types of Skills Obsolescence7
Technical skills obsolescence

  • Wear – natural ageing process, illness, or injury
  • Atrophy – no or insufficient use of skills

Economic skills obsolescence

  • Job-specific skills obsolescence – new skill requirements for the job due to developments in society
  • Skills obsolescence by market developments – shrinking employment in occupation or economic sector
  • Company-specific skills obsolescence – external mobility

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At any one time we have a process of skills being lost, gained and modified. This process varies by occupation held, sector worked in, and location8. In order to prevent the worst effects of obsolescence, there are several key remedies9:

Remedies for skills obsolescence

Indicator How observed
Willingness to be mobile across jobs Search behaviour on the workers’ initiative over the last 12 months
Capacity to be mobile across jobs Tenure in current job versus duration in the labour market
Willingness to participate in training The extent to which workers participate in training, determined by the number of courses
Capacity to participate in training The total amount of time a worker has spent in education, encompassing initial education as well as further training
Willingness to be functionally flexible Willingness to carry out tasks which are not part of the current job
Capacity to be functionally flexible Frequency of doing tasks which are not part of the current job in the past

To understand resilience a little more we need to delve into the tasks that people do at work. Why? Because different types of work lead to different types of learning. There is intra-task learning: learning by doing – the more time a worker spends at a task, the more skilful he becomes at performing that task and thus the greater his productivity. Then we have inter-task learning: when a worker can use the information and skills acquired at one task to improve his performance at other tasks. This latter type of learning is greatly encouraged through job rotation, team working, cross-functional improvement teams etc.10

Now this would suggest in order to understand the level of ‘natural resilience’ of an individual and a workforce we need to also know the context of the role and the workplace, and how much today’s role is preparing the job holder for future adaptation. By using the O*NET data and tagging tasks that are related to the core role, we suggest it should be possible to analyse the half-life of skills, which may help to extend the day-to-day work performed. These ‘role extender tasks’ might serve as an indicator of the resilience of the occupation holders. This would also help to qualify those studies which suggest the largely negative impact on many routine and semi-routine, relatively low skilled occupations.

Notes:

  1. Popper, K. (1972) “Of clouds and clocks. An approach to the problem of rationality and the freedom of man” in Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach. Revised Edition, 1979. Oxford University Press. 406 pages
  2. Minne, H.W. (2005) Invest in your bones. Move it or lose it. International Osteoporosis Foundation. 20 pages.
  3. Anthony, S.D.; Viguerie, S.P.; Schwartz, E.I. and Van Landeghan, J. (2018) Corporate Longevity Forecast: Creative Destruction is Accelerating? www.innosight.com 11 pages. Corporate life expectancy has been falling when the membership of the S&P from 67 years in 1920; 33 years in 1964; 24 years in 2016; and predicted to be 12 years by 2027
  4. de Solla Price, D. J. (1986) Little science, big science and beyond. Columbia University Press. 336 pages
  5. Parrish, S. (2018) Half-life: the decay of knowledge and what to do about it. www.fs.blog/2018/03/half-life ; Arbesman, S. (2013) The half-life of facts: why everything we know has an expiration date. Current. 256 pages; Thomas, D. and Brown, J.S. (2011) A new culture of learning. Cultivating the imagination for a world of constant change. Podium Publishing. 137 pages/audiobook. For useful overviews see: Deloitte (2019) Future of work: An introduction. 40 pages. Bersin, J. (2017) Future of Work. The People Perspective. Deloitte Consulting LLP. 57 pages
  6. Lindbeck, A. and Snower, D.J. (1999) “Multi-task learning and the reorganisation of work – from Tayloristic to holistic organisation”, Journal of Labour Economics, 18, 353-376
  7. De Grip, A. (2004) Evaluating Human Capital Obsolescence. Paper prepared for the joint EC-OECD Seminar on Human Capital and Labour Market Performance, held in Brussels on December 8th, 2004. 26 pages; CEDEFOP (2012) Preventing skills obsolescence. July. www.cedefop.europa.eu ; these mis-matches created by different forms of obsolescence need to be viewed alongside different forms of skills match e.g. skills shortage (demand for a particular type of skills exceeds the supply of people with that skills at equilibrium rates of pay), qualification mismatch (the level of qualification and/or the field of qualification is different from that required to perform the job adequately), over (under) qualification/education (the level of qualification/education is higher or lower than required to perform the job adequately), skill gap (the type or level of skills is different from that required to perform the job adequately), and, over (under) skilling (the level of skill is higher or lower than required to adequately perform the job. World Economic Forum (2014) Matching Skills and Labour Market Needs. Building Social Partnerships for Better Skills and Better Jobs. WEF, Davos-Klosters, Switzerland. 28 pages. Also see: CEDEFOP (2010) The skills matching challenge – analysing skill mismatch and policy implications. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the EU; and, OECD (2011) “Right for the job: over-qualified or under-skilled?” OECD Employment Outlook. Pages 191-233. Paris: OECD.
  8. Tanner, W.; Miscampbell, G. and Blagden, J. (2019) Human Capital. Why we need a new approach to tackle Britain’s longtail of low skills. Onward. 68 pages; CEDEFOP (2012) Op. cit. which uses the CEDEFOP pilot skills obsolescence survey which identifies the most impacted groups: those aged 50-55
  9. Van Loo, J.; de Grip, A. and de Steur, M. (2001) “Skills obsolescence: causes and cures”, International Journal of Manpower, 22, 121-137
  10. Lindbeck, A. and Snower, D.J. (1999) Op. cit. See also: Brown, J.S. (2016) Working – learning – leading in the exponential age. Game in changing – are we? 2016 AACSB International Deans Conference, Miami, Florida. 36 pages. Here the importance of tacit skills is raised and suggests that many new skills can only be learnt by doing at work and perfected over time.