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‘Unlearning’ and its role in helping us stay relevant at work

The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read or write but those who cannot unlearn, learn and relearn.

               Alvin Toffler futurist and philosopher

Unlearning is about challenging and maybe even discarding what we think we know.  It is considered a vital component of life in the 21st century for employees and organizations because everyone acquires knowledge, habits and beliefs that are no longer fit for purpose.

While this means we must re-think models and strategies we have previously relied on in our work environment, it also applies to myths and assumptions.  These are often deeply ingrained and difficult to shift.  For example, when it comes to assumptions about older workers, it is not just employers or younger people who make them, but older workers themselves.  Individually, we tend to define ‘old’ as 10 years older than we are, but we frequently don’t afford that view to others our age.  For that reason, we can be discriminated against in the workplace by people our own age.  

Myths maintain traction despite individuals frequently not conforming to them. This is because they have a collective reality. Unlearning these, therefore, is not a straightforward task. It’s about a shift in outlook. This is hard because we accept everyday ‘realities’ as givens and don’t think to question them.

A range of unlearning ‘tools’ are suggested, for example, reflection, curiosity and seeking out the unfamiliar. These behaviours are critical to remaining relevant in the workplace because they open us to new perspectives. Diversity in teams also fosters unlearning, especially teams made up of different age groups where employees are exposed to different experiences, ways of viewing the world or specific problems.   While diversity can provide a process for both unlearning and relearning, it requires courage to ask the ‘stupid’ questions. Together, these tools can help to identify habits and beliefs that we may need to challenge. 

Unlearning is especially important in times of transformative change. It can be difficult, even unpleasant, but we need to be guided by facts and beliefs that are fundamental to our life and work in this moment. It does not mean that the skills and experience we have developed over time are necessarily redundant. Those learnings will stand us in good stead as we face new situations and new opportunities as the workplace changes.

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