The future belongs to lifelong learners in Thomas Friedman’s ‘Thank You for Being Late’

man wearing virtual reality glasses overlaid New York City

In Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations, Thomas Friedman sees the world at a turning point. He believes that technology, globalization, and climate change are reshaping our institutions—and fast. As his subtitle notes, this is an “age of accelerations,” and all of us need to keep up or get left behind.

As the subtitle also notes, Friedman is an optimist. In other words, he doesn’t think people have to be left behind. But he acknowledges that adapting to new conditions will require a tremendous act of imagination and courage, as well as an engagement in learning.

Thomas Friedman
Thomas Friedman says that tumultuous times require a new commitment to education.

“When so many things are accelerating at once, it’s easy to feel like you’re in a kayak in rushing white water, being carried along by the current at a faster and faster clip,” he writes. “In such conditions, there is an almost irresistible temptation to do the instinctive thing…stick your paddle in the water and try to slow down.”

Slowing down won’t work, however, either in the kayak or in modern life. “The only way to steer,” Friedman says, “is to paddle as fast as or faster than the rate of change.”

From science fiction to reality

Evidence of these radical changes is all around us, in every part of our lives.

Globalization is connecting economies and cultures throughout the world. A car sold in the United States, for example, can be designed in Japan with parts from Spain. A pair of pants sold in the United States can be made from Chinese cotton by factory workers in Thailand. This interdependency has profound consequences for both societies and individuals, as successes or failures in one place affect people around the globe.

The disruptive nature of global warming is increasingly evident in melting polar sea ice, shifting habitats, and rising sea levels. These changes in our environment threaten cities, wildlife, and our individual health. Here in Wisconsin, average winter temperatures increased by as much as 4.5 degrees Fahrenheit from 1950 to 2006, with serious consequences for local ecosystems.

Technology’s influence on 21st century life is simply awe-inspiring. In the realm of health, consider robotic surgery, in which a doctor controls instruments via computers—sometimes from a remote location. Wearable technology also has significant health applications, treating everything from hearing impairments to voice disorders. Technology can even connect our brains to neuroprosthetics by way of repairing damaged sight and movement.

Precision agriculture is revolutionizing farming with global positioning systems, electromagnetic soil mapping, and other cutting-edge techniques that improve efficiency. 3D printing is revolutionizing manufacturing by superseding the production line. And self-driving vehicles are getting closer and closer to turning a science fiction concept into everyday reality.

3D Printer
3D printing is revolutionizing manufacturing by superseding the production line.

Given that such innovations are driven by information technology, it’s no wonder companies like Facebook, Amazon, Google, Apple, IBM, and Microsoft are increasingly dominant in our culture. These employers, and many others in the private, public, and nonprofit sectors, need workers who can keep up with the latest advances, and that means constant education and training.

Friedman quotes AT&T chief strategy office John Donovan on the company’s new covenant with its workforce: “You can be a lifetime employee if you are ready to be a lifelong learner.”

Retooling education

Education is central to Friedman’s vision in Thank You for Being Late. Not long ago, people went to school during childhood and early adulthood and received some training on the job. But in the age of accelerations, keeping up in a career requires a more intense commitment to mastering new skills and knowledge.

“When the pace of change gets this fast,” Friedman says, “the only way to retain a lifelong working capacity is to engage in lifelong learning.”

One of Friedman’s most memorable examples involves dairy laborers in upstate New York. If you think milking a cow is a relatively stable skill set, think again. Farms are incorporating robots that scan the animals’ underbellies and chart their milking speeds.

“In the future,” Friedman says, “a successful cow milker may need to be an astute data reader and analyst.”

How to teach such new skills, whether for milkers or engineers or military officers? Friedman argues that schools must retool themselves, becoming more accessible to lifelong learners. This process is already underway at an institution like the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which has experimented with massive open online courses, competency-based programs, and other innovative approaches that meet people’s needs at various stages of their careers.

cow milker
Friedman says that, given advances in robotics, ‘in the future a successful cow milker may need to be an astute data reader and analyst.’

Most notably, the university has expanded its menu of flexible degree and certificate programs. They offer convenient options—online courses, blended courses, accelerated courses—for those who can’t manage a traditional residential experience, perhaps because adult responsibilities such as employment, community, and family obligations make it impractical to attend a face-to-face class. Students can customize many of these programs to fit their lives and interests, completing courses in a format more conducive to their schedules.

UW-Madison is also exploring alternative credentials that acknowledge the profound workplace changes Friedman describes in Thank You for Being Late. For example, both credit and noncredit certificate programs provide students with a quicker and less expensive way to develop skills than a degree program would. And even in a degree program like the professional master’s in GIS & Web Map Programming, students can receive an alternative credential—a digital skill medal—after completing a set of courses. It’s a way of showing employers their qualifications for doing certain jobs.

An important part of making lifelong learning accessible to a broad range of people is reaching out to those with barriers to continuing their education. While UW-Madison’s flexible programs cater to those with time constraints, its scholarships provide help for adults with financial constraints. The university offers Outstanding Returning Adult Student Awards, Continuing Education Grants, and other scholarships for nontraditional students. The UW Odyssey Project is a free program for adults near the poverty level, who earn college credit in a two-semester humanities class.


These are the just kinds of adaptations Friedman wants to see in higher education. “If traditional postsecondary schools are going to remain relevant in a world where everyone will require lifelong learning,” he writes, “educators need to provide…opportunities at a viable speed, price point, and level of on-demand mobility.”

The start-up of you

If Friedman sets a formidable challenge for educational institutions, he expects just as much of individuals. Lifelong learning requires extraordinary self-motivation—what LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman calls “the start-up of you.”Book cover of Thank You for Being Late

To inspire such starting-up, Thank You for Being Late serves as a rallying cry. It urges readers to take charge of our education in these tumultuous times and chart our destinies. We can all transform ourselves into lifelong learners, whether in a formal setting or through digital tools that have made self-training a real possibility. We can do so even if we have limited time and limited means.

“In this age of accelerations,” Friedman concludes, “everyone is going to have to raise their game in the classroom and for their whole lifetime.”

Author Jeffrey S. Russell is the dean of Continuing Studies and vice provost for Lifelong Learning at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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