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Is the Workforce Becoming Less Intelligent?


Wed Oct 23 2013

Is the Workforce Becoming Less Intelligent?

Consider the implications of a recent study of adult skills by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development that looks how literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving is used at work. Compared to other populations, U.S. adults scored toward the bottom in every category tested.

Even more concerning to those of us who take a global view of things, however, was the fact that just about everyone did worse than expected. If the study were not grading on a curve, there would be no winners. Everyone is still stumbling, and yet, acquisition of these very simple skills has been directly linked to jobs and economic success.


Perhaps even more troubling is the finding that the adult children of less educated parents are much more likely to be lower-skilled and less-educated themselves. In the United States, this trend is more pronounced than in almost every other industrialized nation. According to Don Tapscott and others, we are creating a world of have and have-nots with regards to basic 21st century survival skills.

Skills gap revisited

ASTD called out this issue almost a decade ago with its first Skills Gap whitepaper, published in 2004. Since then, the organization has updated this information on a regular basis. U.S. businesses are well aware of the lack of skilled labor in the American workforce. Hundreds of books on the subject have been written and countless panels convened. And yet the issue continues to slow down our economy and lock millions out of an economically secure future.

Is the Internet to blame?

Parents have long suspected that countless hours spent online are making their teenagers lazy and less intelligent. Until recently, I would have completely disagreed with this position, arguing that the Internet is exposing those teenagers to global thought leaders, new ideas, and challenges, as well as helping them develop critical computer-based skills.


However, in the September 2013 issue of T+D magazine, ASTD editor-at-large Pat Galagan points to several experts who now suspect that the Internet may actually be making us all less adept at learning deep knowledge and solving problems for ourselves.

Is our brain remaking itself into a less intelligent version of itself?

In the popular press, the word “intelligent” is often misused, and I have intentionally used this word in order to get your attention. When we talk about people being less educated or less skilled than they should be, we immediately start looking for solutions and assume that we will find them.

But being less intelligent is a harder problem to solve—because it implies that there is a fundamental lack of ability that is inherent in the individual’s makeup. We all know about Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, but have you read Isaac Asimov’s essay, “What is Intelligence Anyway?” He gets to the same idea in a lot fewer words.

So, are we really becoming less intelligent? If this is true, it would mean that our constantly evolving brains are actually going backward in some physical, evolutionary way. One theory is that, while we are constantly creating new neural connections, these connections are increasingly linking highly superficial bits of information (such as who won last year’s latest talent competition) rather than developing new knowledge that can help us in the workplace.


Making the workforce more intelligent

In the face of this frightening downward spiral of human capability, what’s a human capital manager to do? One strategy is to shore up fading cognitive skills with performance support tools and technology.

You could also start offering classes in basic reading, math, and problem-solving in your place of business. These are probably both great ideas and things you should consider in the short-term. I’d like to suggest another more long-term approach as well.

Learning to learn

The number one reason that mankind has survived to this point has been the spectacular biological competitive advantage that sits between our ears. So, if our brains are being dumbed-down by the digital age, let’s put our brains to work and reverse the process.

Instead of merely plugging the holes in our understanding and skill, let’s start teaching people how to teach themselves. Learning to learn started as a strategy to help students with learning disabilities. Over time, some educators have come to realize that simply being alive in the 21st century brings with it a set of learning disabilities that must be overcome through conscious effort, practice, and education in how our brains work. If you want to reverse the trend toward a less-intelligent workforce, you have the power to do so.

In future articles, we’ll talk about “Learning to Learn” and some practical ways to implement this approach in the workplace. Until then, start by making yourself a little smarter today: Read a book, solve a problem without Googling the answer, or learn a new practical skill. Your brain will thank you.

Learn more about neuroscience applications for human capital.

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