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Why one career for life is a thing of the past

Shot of graduation caps during commencement.
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Getting a college degree may no longer be significant for people's careers, according to an expert in the education sector.

Speaking to CNBC's "Street Signs Europe" on Monday, John Fallon, CEO of education company Pearson, said shifting career expectations and longer life expectancies were reducing the importance of receiving a college education.

"Think about this, if you're an 18-year-old leaving high school this year, there's more than a 50% chance that you will live to be over 100," he said.

"That means you're going to be working well into your seventies or eighties, and through that time you're likely to have five or six different careers — so this idea that what you do in high school, going onto university between the ages of 20 and 22, is going to define you for life is no longer going to exist, because you're going to have to relearn, reskill, (and) retrain throughout your working life."

Pearson, the world's largest education publisher, creates educational content and assessments and operates in 70 countries. The company announced last month that all new releases of its 1,500 titles in the U.S. would be "digital first."

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Pearson CEO: A college education no longer 'defines' you for life

Fallon told CNBC that attitudes toward education and careers were being changed by the fact that younger generations had grown up in a "digital-first world."

"They don't want to spend a fortune on higher education only to find it's not relevant to their needs in the working world," he said. "The reality is that we're always going to be learning throughout our lives."

Figures suggest that young people are increasingly considering alternative paths to higher education.

The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center's statistics show that overall, post-secondary education enrollments in the U.S. saw a year-over-year decrease of 1.7% in Spring 2019. The data also showed that enrollments at four-year public and private institutions declined from the previous year.

Meanwhile, a poll of nearly 3,000 British school pupils published this month found 20% of young people up to the age of 16 did not think it was important to go to university. Market research firm Ipsos Mori also found that young people felt knowing the right people was more important than getting a degree.

However, Fallon said universities could make themselves more relevant by publicizing the fact that they were training students in important life skills that could not be automated.

"(We're monitoring) the skills that are least disruptable by technology and the hardest for machines to automate or mimic," he told CNBC.

"Those (skills) are learning how to learn, fluency of ideas — the ability to be creative and come up with lots of different things — the ability to persuade somebody of a different point of view, the ability to teach somebody how to do something, the ability to lead, the ability to empathize, (and) to care for somebody."

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Fallon said these were "uniquely human skills," and argued that universities were the institutions that did the best job of teaching them.

"(Universities) just don't always do a very good job of explaining to society that that's what they do or apply those skills and those attributes in a way that is as directly relevant to work as it could be," he explained. "That has to change, and I think that will change."

Although Fallon predicted a college education would become less important in the future, statistics suggest that going to university still makes financial sense.

According to data published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in February, workers with at least a bachelor's degree earned more than the national median weekly earnings, while people who had professional and doctoral degrees earned more than triple the income of those with less than a high school diploma.

Meanwhile, a 2018 report by the British government's Department for Education and the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that men in the U.K. received a 6% income boost if they graduated from university, while women earned 28% more if they had a degree.

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