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Personal risk and responsibility (21st century skills)

Challenge and satisfaction often go hand in hand. Automation and globalization, as discussed earlier in the report, are making many jobs more demanding. Keeping a job today is likely to depend on the worker’s flexibility, ability to learn on his own, and communicate well with others. Though doing so is more challenging than simply completing tasks assigned by a supervisor, it also tends to make jobs more personally satisfying.

James O’Toole and Edward Lawler tracked this trend in their 2006 book The New American Workplace. In 1977, they found, only about a quarter of the workers surveyed (27 percent) strongly agreed that “the work I do is meaningful to me.” But by 2002, that figure had more than doubled, to 66 percent.

At the same time, though, people are being asked to take on more personal risk and responsibility for their own well-being. As a result of evolving corporate and government policies, workers are being held more accountable in three areas:

1. Job security. Time was, a loyal employee could expect to keep working for the same company for life. But even though human capital is many employers’ most valuable asset, workers can’t take job security for granted any longer. In the late 1980s, a Conference Board survey found, 56 percent of employers agreed that loyal workers deserved continued employment. But a decade later, only 6 percent agreed. Instead, more than three out of four companies said continued employment and rewards are based on individual performance.

2. Financial planning. The gold retirement watch and monthly pension check are becoming things of the past. Instead of the guaranteed “defined-benefit” pension plans of yesterday, most private-sector employees (61 percent) now have “defined-contribution” plans such as Individual Retirement Accounts and 401(k)s. That means that the employees themselves are responsible, at least to some extent, for determining how their contributions will be invested. And it means that their retirement income will depend on how well those investments work out.   

3. Health care. The trend in health care is similar. Instead of simply accepting whatever health plan their employer offers, workers today are expected to make their own informed choices in an increasingly complex health-care delivery arena. And as medical expenses spiral, they’re expected to shoulder a greater share of the cost themselves. How well they choose their own health plans and treatment options, then, can become a matter of life and death for themselves and their families.

So while increased workforce independence is making jobs more satisfying, it is removing the safety net underneath those who haven’t learned the necessary knowledge and skills to succeed in the 21st century. What are these skills? The rest of the report offers a clear, specific description.

For more, see Personal risk and responsibility in the full report, Defining a 21st century education .


This summary was based on a work by Craig D. Jerald. Craig D. Jerald is president of Break the Curve Consulting, specializing in education policy, communications, research, and practice. Previously, Craig was a Principal Partner at the Education Trust, where he worked on issues related to teacher quality, accountability, federal education policy, and the practices of high-performing schools and districts. Craig was also a Senior Editor at Education Week, where he founded and managed the organization’s research division and helped create Ed Week’s special annual reports series, Quality Counts and Technology Counts.

Posted: September 21, 2009

©2009 Center for Public Education

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Home > Policies > Putting it all together > Personal risk and responsibility (21st century skills)