Learn, Unlearn and Relearn

This was a popular lecture delivered at the 29th Western Regional Meeting of Women in Public Enterprises (WIPS) held at Ahmedbad on December 16, 2019. The organisers requested me to speak on the topic of ‘Learn, Unlearn and Relearn’. I was a bit perplexed but decided to speak on technology and its impact on our lives and how we could respond to it. The talk was divided in the three parts as in the title and to keep it lively I have interposed it with some cartoons.


Government of India’s Shramshakti Report in 1988 was a landmark report on working women. It noted that “all women are workers because they are producers and reproducers. Even when they are not employed, they are involved in socially productive and reproductive labour, all of which is absolutely necessary for the survival of society”. That is, both the economic and household work of women is important for the growth and stability of the economy and society. All the work that women do is equally important.

As women, this is the first thing we have to keep in mind. All work we do is important for ourselves, our families, the society and our country. Don’t let anyone downgrade your work, whether it is at the work place or at home. Teach your children, including your boys, that your work at home is what keeps the society going, it reproduces the next generation. You can do this by assigning tasks at home to your children, equally between boys and girls, just to make them feel how important it is and how time consuming and strenuous it is. Girls are the same as boys in their behaviour! It is we who make them feel different. Treat boys and girls as equal in your instructions regarding behaviour, to begin with, and later for their life choices.

You do not tell your girl to behave like a lady. Tell your boys and girls to behave like human beings, compassionate, kind, polite and treat all people as equals. This is best for a healthy, harmonious today and tomorrow.

Girls and Boys are the same in Behaviour as Nancy demonstrates

India’s population is expected to peak in 2020[1] with 64 percent in the working age group. India has more than 50% of its population below the age of 25 and more than 65% below the age of 35. It is expected that, in 2020, the average age of an Indian will be 29 years, compared to 37 for China and 48 for Japan. This bulge of the youth population (15-35 years) is called the ‘demographic dividend’. However, the advantage of having a young population will not be an advantage if the education system fails us. How does the education system fail us?

To begin with all our children in India do not go to school. Drop-out rate from schools is very high, particularly after the age of 10, more so for girls. Yes, there are many positive features in education. There has been a vast improvement in levels of general education among the youth. Illiteracy has declined sharply, particularly for women. Students completing secondary and higher secondary schooling has risen for both girls and boys. An encouraging feature is that the gender gap, that is the difference between girls and boys, in enrollment in secondary and higher secondary schooling is closing. The gender gap has also closed for graduate education, which constitutes about 20 percent of the youth.

The second worrisome feature of our school education is that children who DO go to school DO NOT seem to be learning much. You must be all aware of the ASER, Annual Survey of Education Report? This report has been telling us that the children who do go to school do not achieve any standard of learning in language or simple arithmetic.

Highlights of the ASER, 2018 report:

  • Indian students, especially those in elementary school (Classes I-VIII), are not learning enough. Only half (50.3%) of all students in Class V can read texts meant for Class II students.
  • There seems to have been some improvement in learning levels, especially among students of Class III and Class V, in 2018 compared with those of the previous five years. However, the improvement is not visible at a higher level, for example among students of Class VIII.
  • The deficit is across both government and private schools. Traditionally, students in private schools have fared better than their government school counterparts, but that’s a relative situation. For example, while 40% (60%)of Class VIII students in government schools can do simple division, the figure is 54% (46%) in private schools. However, there is gradual improvement in some segments and in some states. The reading ability among Class V students in Kerala jumped 10 percentage points in 2018 from that in 2016. In Himachal Pradesh, the growth is nearly 8 percentage points and in Chhattisgarh and Odisha it is around 7 percentage points between 2016 and 2018.
Learn as Mothers

It is not just the schools that are the problem. We ourselves create the problem. Before we tell our children to not spend time on the smartphone or watch television, we must check our behaviour. How much time do we spend on our smartphones, WhatsApp and other social media? How much time do we spend on watching worthless serials on TV? How many of us read a book? How much time do we spend on reading a book or even the newspaper? Children copy us, so next time you reach for the smartphone, think once!!


Children copy their parents, so unlearn some of your behavior and habits as in Denis the Menace comment below.

Before we unlearn anything, we first need to make sure our children learn something, from us and from school or college. For people of our age, did we learn anything in the discipline we chose at college? If so do we remember any of that? Was your college education useful to you in your job? Many of you may feel it was not.

If you feel that your education did not help you in your job, it means that there is a mismatch between the job you are doing and the skill that you learnt (if you learnt anything) in your college education. This is true today for a large part of the education system. A failure of the educational systems is reflected in a strange phenomenon of skill mismatch. There is high unemployment among the educated and uneducated youth, while the employers say that there is a labour shortage. This is because the employers do not find the youth employable or there is a skill mismatch in what the skills the employer is looking for and what the youth has to offer.

One reason for this is a quality skill-gap which occurs when firms hire apparently qualified workers, but complain that the worker quality or skill is inadequate for the job. Workers have to unlearn much of what they learnt in college or technical education. The company then has to invest significant amount in training of the employees adding to the cost of the firms. For example, graduates in commerce have to be re-trained by companies in the accounting procedures of the firm. This has also partly to do with changes in technology, fast changing software programme and so on.

Over-education is a form of skill mismatch when persons are hired for jobs/activities that do not require such high qualifications. For example, a technically qualified person is hired for a non-technical job. For example, an engineer is hired as the Director of a marketing firm. Such skill mismatch is costly to the employer and inefficient to the employee. He has to unlearn all his technical training and relearn management skills. The returns to the investment in education for the worker are lower when there is such an education-occupation mismatch.


We were talking about the skill mismatch that employers and employees find at the workplace. Part of the fault for this is with the educational institutions, schools, colleges and technical institutions. There is a growing mismatch between the skills we teach our students and the jobs that are available in the market. With increasing use of technology in manufacturing and service industry, the emerging gaps at the level of tertiary education are a major constraint for youth in getting good jobs. 

We are in a world of rapidly changing technology and innovations. The new fear instilled in the hearts of workers is the recent innovations like artificial intelligence, machine learning and the Internet of Things. Internet of Things is an ‘ecosystem consisting of web-enabled smart devices that use embedded processors, sensors and communication hardware to collect, send and act on data they acquire from their environment. Sometimes, these devices communicate with other related devices and act on the information they get from one another’. Sounds scary? An example of this is ALEXA, a device that you can speak to and order!! With these technologies, companies are rethinking the way they can create value, manufacture, provide services and make profits. Another scary thing is robotics and what it will do to jobs in the economy.

Robots take over jobs?

As of now most manufacturing activities and related jobs are concentrated in the developing countries, for example, garments (GAP) and automobiles (Honda). The company may be in the West, but manufacturing is in India, Bangladesh etc. Now there is a fear that these manufacturing jobs may go back to the United States or Europe. How? In the United States there now is a fully automated T-Shirt making factory which works with Subots. Subot is a robot to which one can schedule messages. So these can be programmed to undertake the tasks to manufacture a T-Shirt, with very few technical staff providing instructions. This innovation in the manufacture of garments occurs as fashions are changing fast. Garment companies have to respond quickly to remain in the market. In the automobile industry a system of ‘mass customization’ has begun, where cars are customized for each buyer. So the customer and the producer have to be close to each other and automobile manufacturing may go back to Germany! 3D printers are the other innovation that will take away manufacturing jobs. Manufacturing of Radiator Caps for automobiles was done in India. Now in Austria it is being produced through 3D printing! Massive loss of jobs for the developing world as each industry tries to find its new position in the market.

The other new feature is the changing methods of hiring and providing services. The Gig or Platform economy has entered mainly the service sector. The gig economy consists of two kinds of work. Crowd work is when a task, NOT A JOB, is posted on an internet platform and a large number of workers can undertake the task like a contest. The best one gets paid. Or the platform chooses the worker on a first come first serve or some other basis. Freelance workers can make themselves available for crowd work by registering themselves on platforms such as oDesk, Amazon Mechanical Turk or Crowdflower. Companies can put out offers to undertake some predetermined task or outsource work. Freelance workers can perform the task and submit to the platform. The other form is called Work on Demand via apps. We are dealing with these on a day to day basis. This is mainly some local service offered on an app, such as cleaning services (Urban Clap), transportation (Uber/Ola) or food vending (Big Basket/Swiggy/Zomato). Owners of assets like car or homes can better utilize the asset by making them available for use on a rental [2]).  

New Education System: Given the emerging market for jobs, what is it that a New Education System for the youth should provide? What kind of skills is important and required in the world today? Definitely good technical and practical knowledge is essential. But there are other important skills that our universities and colleges can and should impart.

And what about you who are already on the job? You have your established skills and knowledge which has grown over the years with experience. What is it that you should do to make sure you do not become redundant for your organization?

Analytical and Data skills: Information is the key to progress in today’s world. The programmes in the University need a strong emphasis on developing analytical and data skills. This is the route to understanding and processing information. Mathematics, statistics, programming and econometrics are crucial in today’s world. Besides gaining the ability to apply these methods, the students should become proficient at analyzing large data sets, commonly called ‘Big Data’ with use of software packages. Engineering students would of course learn new computer languages.

The same applies to you. Any opportunity you get or see that exists to gain data analytical skills should be taken up. New courses, new online courses, workshops in or outside your organization can add to your skills and employability going forward.

Working in Teams

Working in Teams and multi-disciplinary perspective is the next important skill. In most good jobs today, the employee does not work alone. She works with a team. This team could consist of people from different disciplines. The team could have an engineer, an accountant, an Economist and a Biologist depending on the project. Educational institutions should encourage students to work in teams and develop a flavor of multidisciplinary work. Universities could encourage students of engineering to register for courses in social sciences and vice versa and encourage group assignments and projects. Both these unique features will help students to gain not just theoretical knowledge, but also learn to understand appreciate other disciplines, and learn to work as a team. All companies check for the team spirit in candidates while hiring. Your own survival and growth in your companies may depend on how open you are to working with colleagues with a different kind of training from yours. Do think about it.

Soft Skills: Languages and communication skills: Other important skills are capacity to communicate, presentation skills and use of language. The vernacular language is very important, but it is a good idea to develop proficiency in another language as well. German, Chinese and of course English are very valuable language skills to cultivate.


And my final thought for young people, both girls and boys, and for all of you, is to develop some hobbies. It could be reading, writing, poetry, art, drama, cricket, hockey, other sports or stitching/sewing. Spend some time every day on these hobbies and stay away from your smartphones. Meeting people and socializing in the real world is a skill, an art actually, which we are fast forgetting in this era of the virtual.

To conclude, in the emerging markets with fast changing technology, lifelong learning is the only way to stay ahead. As teachers we are constantly faced with batches of younger and younger students. Their behaviour, their views, their standards, and their attention span are constantly changing. We have to adapt our methods of teaching, our ways of dealing with them, gaining their attention and our methods of evaluation, all the time. We have to re-invent ourselves and our methods constantly. In fact, so do you. So continue learning, unlearning and relearning, it will make you happier, healthier and wise!!

[1] http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/india-is-set-to-become-the-youngest-country-by-2020/article4624347.ece (accessed June 13, 2017).

[2] Jeemol Unni, ‘Formalization of the Informal Economy: Perspectives of Capital and Labour’, Indian Journal of Labour Economics, 61(1), 2018, 87-103


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