Next-Generation Learning

As demand for lifelong learning grows, business schools must design programs that appeal to each generation, from boomers to Generation Z.

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IF YOU WANT to see the future, go to Singapore. The city-state, which for decades has been at the forefront of innovation in Asia, is now leading the way in innovation in education. But the future growth in education will not be driven by young people, warns Singapore’s former Minister for Education, Ong Ye Kung, in a recent interview. Instead it will be powered by working adults pursuing credentials outside of traditional four-year degree formats.

He emphasized that the linear model of education, based on one-time degrees, is likely to be replaced by entire careers interspersed with periods of study. “To keep on adapting and advancing, you have to embrace lifelong learning,” he said. “The old assumptions for many professions, that you must achieve a certain stock of knowledge and skills to see through your career, will have to change. This means that you don’t have to frontload education too much.”

Ong could not be more correct. A 2017 report from McKinsey Global Institute suggests that between 2015 and 2030, anywhere from 250 million to 280 million jobs could be created through higher spending on consumer goods, with 50 million to 85 million additional jobs generated from higher health and education spending. According to the report, “as many as 375 million workers may need to switch occupations and, consequently, need to learn new skills.”  The pandemic may drive even greater growth in certain sectors, especially healthcare, as well as increase the need for workers to reskill to fill new jobs.

But working adults do not represent a monolithic demographic. Rather, this group consists of people at different stages of their lives and careers, all seeking different ways to study.

What educational opportunities do workers look for at different times of their lives? What does each generation learners value most? At CarringtonCrisp, we sought to answer those questions in a recently released report, “A New Era for Higher Education.” Commissioned by LinkedIn, the report explores how future learners will want to study, what topics they’ll be most interested in, and what qualifications they’ll most want to obtain—at each phase of their careers.


Before we discuss generational differences, we first must recognize that today’s youngest workers expect to have longer, more diverse career paths than the generations before them. In 2019, CarringtonCrisp, the European Foundation for Management Development, and the Graduate Management Admission Council conducted their second “See the Future” survey of 2,500 students, business school faculty and professional staff, and employers from around the world. Among the student respondents, 41 percent expect to still be working in their 70s, while 50 percent expect to change careers completely at least once in their lifetimes. Among employers, 84 percent believe the young college graduates they hire today will need to upskill and reskill throughout their lives to remain employable.

That puts pressure on business schools to deliver educational experiences that are carefully targeted to the ongoing needs of learners and employers alike. As one business school dean put it in the “New Era” report, “We are merging exec ed and short courses so that we can offer building blocks and credits, all the way from the short courses into full master’s degrees.” While demand for such “building blocks” of education has not yet become the norm in higher education, he continues, “it’s just going to grow and grow as more people in the age range [of] 40 to 70 come back to school.”

Rafael Bras, the outgoing provost of the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, agrees that schools will need to serve a new type of learner. Not only that, he argues, schools will have to adapt more quickly and frequently to the evolving needs of business.

“In 40 years in academia, I have never experienced a faster change,” Bras writes in his forward to “Deliberate Innovation, Lifetime Education,” a report from the Georgia Tech Commission on Creating the Next in Education. “I am convinced that the future belongs to those institutions that are nimble enough to stay in front of the wave of change and, more importantly, help define what will be next in education.”


So, what do the data tell us about how different generations view their educational journeys? For our “New Era” report, we received responses from baby boomers (born 1946 to 1964), Generation X (born 1965 to 1980), Generation Y or millennials (born 1981 to 1996), and Generation Z (born 1997 to 2012). Here are some key takeaways from the survey:

Baby boomers prefer short-course formats. Older students don’t just look for different modes of educational delivery than younger generations. They also want to study different subjects and pursue different types of qualifications. Baby boomers are more likely to enroll in short skills-based courses from online providers—according to additional data that we gathered, 29 percent of boomers we surveyed are looking for greater flexibility in how they learn. Members of this generation are less interested in earning recognized qualifications than they are in acquiring new skills or knowledge that will quickly help them in their careers.

Baby boomers also highlight digital transformation, innovation, and negotiation skills as learning priorities. With digital transformation becoming ubiquitous across business, older generations may have some catching up to do to maintain their career progress. They are especially interested in increasing personal productivity, demonstrating greater competency, and enhancing professional legitimacy as they attain higher levels of leadership in their organizations.


Generation Xers and millennials (Gen Y) prefer diplomas and certificates. Generations X and Y are looking for educational opportunities from recognized providers, albeit for different reasons. While Gen Xers also want to increase their productivity, they place the greatest priority on the reputations of educational providers. In fact, 37 percent of Gen X respondents to our survey said they are more concerned about whether credentials are portable than whether they result in a degree. By contrast, 33 percent of Gen Y respondents cite the importance of accreditation.

Generation Y also wants to make an impact. Millennials desire to improve their leadership skills, perhaps reflecting the fact that many of them are beginning to take on leadership roles in their careers. As with Gen X respondents, a significant portion of Gen Y respondents—33 percent—also prioritize the reputation of educational providers.

Generation Z seeks a shared educational experience. Perhaps not surprisingly, as the youngest generation now seeking higher education, the members of Gen Z value a sense of community. While all the generations note that face-to-face content delivery provides the richest educational experience, this was especially true for Gen Z. Among members of this generation, 59 percent were most likely to seek out campus-based experiences and prioritize degree-based study.

Generations X, Y, and Z all place communications skills at the tops of their lists for professional development over the next 12 months. This prioritization might explain increased market demand for diplomas/certificates and rising interest in programs delivered by alternative learning providers. Learners recognize that communication skills, especially, can be developed outside of degree programs in non-university settings. 


Perhaps the survey’s most surprising finding is that older generations are very open to online study. In fact, 45 percent of baby boomers and 52 percent of Gen Xers state a preference for learning entirely online in the year ahead; among millennials, that number is 47 percent. Gen Z is the least likely to consider fully online learning, at 40 percent.

But if we dig a little deeper, the seemingly counterintuitive preference for online education among older learners makes sense. Because older learners have greater demands on their time—from career obligations to family commitments—they are unable to spend extended periods on campus. That makes online learning a natural choice for them.

Although massive open online courses (MOOCs) have not delivered on their initial promise to revolutionize higher education, MOOC providers are now fully established in the market, as learners of every generation are prepared to consider alternative providers. The greatest interest in MOOC-based education appears to be among Generation Y learners. Members of this group are most likely to consider taking courses on platforms such as LinkedIn Learning (31 percent), Coursera (24 percent), and Udemy (25 percent). Baby boomers are least interested in using alternative providers, but even so, 27 percent would consider LinkedIn Learning in the year ahead.

However, the increasing popularity of alternative providers does not mean the end of business schools. It is true that 50 percent of Generation Y respondents and 54 percent of Generation Z respondents believe that business school programs are too expensive to meet their current learning needs. That said, the majority of learners whom we surveyed believe that business schools can help them build their personal networks—that includes 62 percent of Gen Z, 60 percent of Gen Y, 57 percent of Gen X, and 60 percent of baby boomer respondents.


Business schools also have two major advantages over alternative online providers. First, b-schools can draw on their alumni connections to attract students back to learn with them. Among Generation Z, 49 percent indicate business would be their first-choice discipline for future study, largely because they had studied at a business school previously. Forty-six percent of Generation Y respondents and 41 percent of Generation X respondents say the same.

Second, most business schools have earned and maintain accreditation, unlike most alternative providers. As one dean told us, “Workers are really looking to reinforce employability, not just with the content of the courses but also the certification that we can offer.”

Because learners of all generations want to ensure that the qualifications they earn are recognized by employers, business schools need to communicate clearly the reputations of their brands with employers. They also should highlight the nature of their accreditation and the distinctiveness of their offerings if they are to secure a presence in the lifelong learning market.


One area that our report did not explore—but that promises to have an impact on how and what future learners study—is the emergence of new educational options arising as a result of partnerships between universities and business. A good example is the partnership between Starbucks and Arizona State University, in which any Starbucks employee can pursue undergraduate degree tuition-free. To date, 18,000 staff have enrolled and nearly 2,400 have graduated. In 2019, the partners expanded the program to include employees in the United Kingdom.

Such partnerships will offer future learners yet another option in an ever-expanding market. Business schools will have to adapt significantly to attract these learners to their programs. One senior business school administrator who contributed a comment to our LinkedIn report suggested that the answer to building a presence in the lifelong learning market was to “Be brave.”

What does it mean to be brave in the future of learning? It means that schools that have historically been conservative will need to transform into innovators. It means that schools will need to leverage their expertise in areas where external research is lacking, by developing original content with the help of their industry partners. It means they will need to embrace their roles as thought leaders, by encouraging passionate faculty to make an impact on the issues they care about most. And it means that they will need to cultivate strong personal and ongoing relationships with their learners.


Thinking about the future, another school administrator offered an even bolder view, suggesting that schools “shouldn’t charge MBAs anything for lifelong learning.” This commenter added that governments should “make education tax deductible, then get out of the way.”

Another administrator suggested that in the future, business schools will have to go beyond simply offering programs or courses. They will need to encourage their faculty, students, and staff to invest their time and talents in solving breaking issues. This vision is far different from the traditional academic mindset, in which faculty research can take five years to come to fruition and is less focused on immediate impact.

This is a time for experimentation, to see what types of offerings resonate with which groups of students. Not everything schools try will work the first time, but given current trends, they have no choice but to try. As one dean put it, “Schools who don’t choose lifelong learning are making a mistake. Managers who don’t choose lifelong learning are making a fatal mistake. If [workers] want to make it to their pensions, they will have no choice but to keep learning and reinvent themselves two to three times in their careers.”

Minister Ong said it well: “Old assumptions” no longer reflect the educational preferences of growing numbers of learners. If business schools want to exist a few decades from now, they will need to be brave enough to teach new subjects, in new settings, and with new partners as the needs of learners and employers change. And they will need to offer a wide range of educational opportunities that will help future generations upskill and reskill throughout their lives.


Andrew Crisp is founder of CarringtonCrisp, a consulting firm based in the United Kingdom that specializes in higher education.