At the beginning of the 20th century, Americans were lucky to live past their 50th birthday. By the new millennium, average life expectancy in the United States had shot up to nearly 77 years.

Today it’s almost certain the first person to live to 150 years already is walking among us, according to Harvard Medical School’s aging expert David Sinclair.

As science and technology extend our lifespans to lengths previously unheard of, these same forces continue to disrupt and reshape our economy and society. What does this mean for our working lives? And how will a two- or four-year degree hold up over a potential 80- or 100-year career?

If you’re feeling like you have more questions than answers, Michelle Weise understands.

“Your reaction, I think, is the same as mine and everyone else’s,” she told our stunned podcast hosts after laying out these facts on a recent episode of Strada’s “Lessons Earned.”“Oh, my gosh, I don’t want to work that long. How is this going to work?”

Weise is an entrepreneur-in-residence and senior advisor at Imaginable Futures and formerly served as chief innovation officer at Strada where she led research into the future of work at Strada Institute. “Long Life Learning,” her new book published in conjunction with Strada, takes uncertainty about the future head-on as she lays out a vision for a radically updated education-career system prepared for longer working lives awash with technological and economic disruption.

In preparation for the book, Weise and her team at Strada Institute recorded about 100 hours of interviews with working adults from across the United States. Their testimonials provided the researchers with an unfiltered portrayal of the struggles and systemic barriers faced by millions. And they showed the need to transition to a learner-centered ecosystem amid a potentially tumultuous future.

That transition requires educators, employers, and policymakers to reform the foundations of our education-workforce system to accommodate an era of work unprecedented in our history as a species. It requires revisualizing how postsecondary education is delivered and cultivating an array of uniquely human skills that can’t be replicated by artificial intelligence.

Strada Institute identified five key pillars these lifelong learners will need from an education and training system designed for them:

  1. It has to be easy to navigate. Right now “the risk is that everything rests on the individual to figure out. You don’t have someone to call. There’s no trusted advisor you can turn to for good, solid advice,” Weise said. Within a system that is simple to navigate, learners can evaluate where they are and plan a path to reach their goals.
  2. Supports are needed to help learners balance their lives. Individuals facing systemic barriers need wraparound supports to overcome obstacles and balance the complexities of life. These include everything from coaching services to address persistent self-doubt faced by nontraditional learners to basic material supports like transportation, child care, and tools for a job. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, “we had over 40 million people who were not planning on coming back to higher ed,” she pointed out, “so what is the way that we can get them what they need in order to do better in the labor market and gain some sort of social and economic mobility?”
  3. Targeted education should lead to a job. Weise is skeptical that a degree program front-loaded at the beginning of a career can survive a rapidly changing world of work. Instead, learners need periodic on- and off-ramps to and from programs that respond to hyperlocal needs and deliver the right skills at the right time with a pathway paved directly toward a job.
  4. Hiring practices must be transparent and fair. That means operating in the common language of skills and measuring an individual’s overlooked competencies. “Maybe you’ve had an elderly grandparent in your family who’s been suffering from Alzheimer’s living with you and you’ve been a caregiver. … Ideally, there’s an assessment that can also surface these hidden competencies within you,” she said.
  5. Students must be able to earn while learning. None of this works unless individuals can continuously go back to school to retrain while still putting food on the table. Weise suggests portable benefits, like individualized lifelong learning bank accounts, could alleviate the financial burden.

These goals are audacious, but Weise says the gravity of the situation requires a response in equal measure. Embedded in her work is a dire warning against the consequences of failing to act now.

The forces of automation and globalization already have disrupted the lives of so many  Americans, leading to not only financial devastation but deep personal wounds, a sense that the system is intractably rigged, and a loss of purpose.

To Weise, the entire concept of an equitable society is at stake. “The future of workers,” she writes in the book, “is the future of us.

Still, Weise remains optimistic. “I think it’s important to cast the problems in a realistic light,” she says. “But it’s even more important to be in this innovation space, to be able to say, look, there’s so much amazing stuff happening. There are these seeds of innovation that are being planted everywhere.”