That individuals should pursue lifelong education is a universal and timeless belief. Education is valuable and remains a ubiquitous pursuit across cultures and over time. Benjamin Franklin informs individuals that “an investment in knowledge pays the best interest”, while an age-old Chinese proverb, “活到老,学到老”,reminds us to continue pursuing education even as they age. Locally, at the opening ceremony of the Bukit Merah Skills Development Centrein 1999, former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong shared the same sentiments. “Lifelong learning is not a new concept,” he argued, “learning to learn andwanting to learn must be our new culture.”
New policies such as SkillsFuture encourages Singaporeans above the age of 24 to attend upgrading courses by providing each individual with SkillsFuture Credits worth S$500. Courses included in this initiative are diverse, allowing individuals to pursue a range of workshops.
Additionally, private institutions such as the Singapore Institute of Management (SIM) and Kaplan provide avenues to pursue part-time bachelor’s degree. Each allow working adults to further their academic qualifications.
Furthermore, the Singapore government has implemented new initiatives to support Singaporeans with ambitions to pursue graduate studies. The Ministry of Education (MOE) established the MOE-Autonomous University (AU) Scholarship, which “supports young Singaporeans who demonstrate the interest and ability to pursue a career in academia in our local AUs”. In addition, individual universities have programs that complement the government’s efforts. For instance, the Singapore Management University (SMU) has programs, such as the Overseas Post-doctoral Fellowship (OPF) and the Overseas Postgraduate Scholarship(OPS).
Why pursue continued education?
Lifelong education clearly remains a government priority. But what benefits does continued education achieve?
For the state, the emphasis on lifelong learning allows Singapore to navigate its social constraints. As the nation develops into a smart nation with a vibrant service sector, it is hampered by the declining birth rates and an aging workforce. Older workers struggle to acquire required skills while new workers are regenerated at a slower rate, straining Singapore’s structural transformation. Initiatives encouraging adult learning allow Singapore to circumvent the social constraints for economic restructuring by rejuvenating the labour force.
Additionally, economic benefits trickle down to individuals who pursue lifelong learning opportunities. Not only do these new skills allow individuals to remain relevant in the face of changing labour market structures, they also serve as safeguards in an increasingly precarious labour market.
Guy Standing’s study on a growing class of Americans caught in precarious employment serves as a stiff warning. Standing finds that “precariats” live without a sense of security, causing material and psychological impediments on individuals. Although Singaporeans today remains largely unaffected by precarity at the workplace, it is not difficult to fathom that such a challenge will emerging as Singapore’s economy becomes increasingly globalised.
Looking beyond the economy, individuals can potentially reap social and personal benefits.
In the last century alone, we have seen the invention of technological marvels that have radically altered how human beings interact. Today, technology has become a cornerstone to social interaction. Being able to pick-up new skills is now crucial for one to remain relevant at the workplace and in social settings. Lifelong learning is mandatory for one to stay socially connected.
Social inclusion and a sense of belonging have effects an individual’s psychological and physiological well-being. Humans are social creatures who need interpersonal interaction. Studies have shown that individuals who are socially isolated experience high levels of stress. Lifelong learning allows individuals to stay socially relevant through online mediums, combating isolation. Further, lifelong learning provides stimulation for the brain, potentially reducing chronic age-related diseases like Alzheimer’s diseasein old age.
Singaporeans are continuously persuaded to proactively seek out lifelong learning opportunities, yet there is little mention of the costs incurred from dedicating oneself to the never ending pursuit of knowledge.
At what cost?
To make an investment, one first requires capital. Individuals will also require capital to invest in the steady accumulation of knowledge: time. While the Government’s policies provide individuals and organizations with financial capital to lessen the burden of pursuing one’s passion, time remains a finite resource that cannot be reclaimed once spent.
To properly acquire new skills, one requires a significant investment of time. In his book Outliers, Gladwell suggested that an individual takes approximately 10,000 hours of dedicated practice to master a craft. While the exact number of hours has been largely debated, it clearly suggests that individuals need to spend a large amount of time to acquire new skills.
The issue with time in lifelong learning is two-fold.
First, as individuals grow older, they are saddled with more responsibilities and do not have the requisite hours available to learn new skills. By the time one leaves the gates of education, Singaporeans are funnelled into the labour force as productive citizens. Motivating their transition is the “rites of passage” into Singaporean adulthood, namely, marriage, a Built-to-Order Flat, a family with children and, if fortunate enough, a car. Achieving these milestones is preceded by gaining employment in a well-paying job. Carrying such heavy expectations on their shoulders, it is unlikely that many find themselves blessed with the time to engage in self-enrichment.
Additionally, these social expectations are further complicated by state crafted narratives of “good citizenship”. The ideal Singaporean is one who works hard at their job, returns to the cosy flat he or she owns for 99 years and winds down for the day with his or her loving spouse and two or more children. Achieving such lofty expectations is already a monumental task for the average Singaporean adult, leaving them with precious little time to spare for self-improvement.
Second, time is zero-sum and the opportunity cost of investing it in education is time that cannot be spent on other significant things in one’s life. This includes time for one to rest from an arduous day at work, to socialise with friends and colleagues, to engage in romantic endeavours, to spend with the family and so on.
Ultimately, individuals who choose to invest time to educate themselves may do so knowingly and make necessary sacrifices to achieve their goals. However, if it is the objective of the government to encourage and facilitate the adoption of lifelong learning as a norm, it needs to consider the time required for individuals to achieve it.
It is unproductive to assume that individuals will make time on their own to pursue these goals. It further risks that citizens view lifelong learning as a luxury that remains firmly out of reach for the average Singaporean. If we truly aspire towards creating a society that values lifelong learning, it is worth investing a little time to recalibrate our policies towards enabling the average Singaporean. Otherwise, lifelong learning will continue to be a time-less project.