Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

Incentives – and pressures – for U.S. workers in a ‘knowledge economy’

As automation looms and more and more jobs are being shaped to accommodate the tech-saturated “knowledge economy,” 63% of full- and part-time workers say they have taken steps in the past 12 months to upgrade their skills and knowledge.

That is one of several key findings from a Pew Research Center survey conducted last fall to understand people’s motives for learning, both in professional and personal contexts. The Center then held a series of related focus groups in December, drawing insights from those in the Baltimore, Atlanta and St. Louis metro regions.

Here are some of the key themes that came out of those conversations about learning, work and a changing economy.

The Great Recession led to soul-searching and skills re-evaluation. A number of participants talked about how they took stock of their skill set and employability after the economic collapse that began in 2007-08. As a result, many pursued job-related training. More than half (55%) of those who did so sought to learn, maintain or improve job skills:

[In 2008]

My friends and I just assume that what we do now will be obsolete in the next decade. That’s our reality. You always have to keep learning and improving. – Millennial in starter job, St. Louis region

Indeed, many noted how technology had encroached on traditional human workplace activities, including sophisticated tasks:

[to perform]

Those who aren’t trying to improve will get passed by. One compelling motivation for some is to stay nimble and keep learning in order to increase their worth for employers and in their own eyes:


I want to be alert and keep my mind working and going. I don’t want to be somewhere stuck. I keep trying to learn more by challenging myself, thinking outside the box. Be creative, inspirational, that kind of thing. I would hate myself if I stopped trying to get better at what I do. – Millennial in the music business, Atlanta region

Competition is coming from every direction, including globalization and new job entrants. Technology advances are only part of the story. People know jobs can be outsourced abroad or challenged by others in the local labor market:


Focus group participants' reasons for learning

People have intrinsic and extrinsic reasons to keep learning. In addition to trying to stay employable, participants cited any number of reasons they have pursued new knowledge. Some were related to self-fulfillment:

[when it starts as]

One of the St. Louis region participants told of a time when he knew his organization needed better ways to do communications and outreach. So he taught himself how to be a desktop publisher and use social media for promotional purposes. Within a year, his efforts had yielded so much attention for the organization that it got a high-profile visit from an Obama administration official and local political leaders:

It makes me feel really good that I took the time and didn’t do it halfway. I gave it 100%. And they did not expect these results at all, so it really makes me feel important in that organization.

Another participant from the St. Louis region described how she feels it is important to keep on learning because so many people depend on her to make good choices:

I have to make so many decisions for my family and my work. I have to stay on top of research to make educated decisions for myself and the people in my life. My colleagues depend on me and my children depend on me. 

To which another member of that group quickly added that he is dismayed watching people who don’t want to learn:

[seem to feel]

Sometimes people’s rationale for job-related learning is defiance. There are those whose motivation for learning and upgrading their skills comes from proving their detractors wrong and prevailing when arguments arise:

[mastering work-related knowledge]

Most focus group participants felt positively about learning


Learning brings its own rewards. There is undeniable stress for many as they adjust to the new economy. Yet, when asked to provide a single word to describe their feeling about learning, most of the focus group participants chose a positive rather than negative word. And they much more often spoke of the pleasure of learning than the pain of it. Their responses are listed in the adjacent table.