Did The Knowledge Society Contribute To The Student Debt Crisis?

peter drucker, knowledge worker

"Successful careers are not 'planned.' They are the careers of people who are prepared for the opportunity because they know their strengths, the way they work, and their values." - Peter Drucker

Knowledge Worker

Peter Drucker coined the term "knowledge worker" in 1959 and wrote a great deal about it in the decades that followed. He believed that knowledge workers had to manage themselves, which means finding opportunities where they can contribute, learn, and develop. They cannot rely on others to "learn how and when to change what they do, how they do it, and when they do it."

Most people think they know their strengths, but they are usually wrong. People are typically better at understanding their weaknesses, and Drucker asserted that we could not excel on weaknesses. Instead, we should focus on our strengths and operate in an environment where we can rely on our strengths to produce high-level performance and results.

When working with your strengths, it takes less energy and fewer resources to go from a competent person to a star-performer. It is much harder to improve from incompetence to low mediocrity while attempting to fix your weaknesses. Drucker did not believe in trying to change yourself. He did not think that objective would be successful. However, he did encourage working hard and improving the way you perform.

Drucker posited that the educated person is at the core of the knowledge society. Formal education is the way to obtain knowledge, work, and social position. Drucker contended that new jobs would require not just formal education, but also the ability to apply theoretical and analytical knowledge to the individual's job. Knowledge workers must have a different mindset and a different approach to work. Most importantly, the knowledge society will require its workers to develop a habit of continual learning.

As a result of the universally accessible knowledge, Drucker anticipated that the knowledge society was going to become much more competitive than what people were used to in prior generations. He pointed out an unexpected outcome. In the knowledge society, many more can be successful. However, that also means that many more people can fail.

Having observed the college debt crisis over the past 20 years, I wonder how much of it has to do with the concept of a knowledge society. It has become an accepted truth that in order to get a good job – or if we were to use Drucker's terminology, to become a knowledge worker – everyone has to go to college to get a formal education. Any other path leads to a life of destitution. Maybe, this is a bit of an exaggeration, but it does not refute the fact that many families take out student loans they cannot afford in an effort to participate in the knowledge society.

The story of the student debt crisis is still unfolding, and we do not yet know how it is going to get resolved. However, that situation is another reminder that good-intended policies sometimes result in negative consequences.

Continual Education

In an entrepreneurial society, we need continual learning and relearning. In the past, we could assume that education stopped upon college graduation, and everything we had learned by the age of twenty-two would apply in an essentially unchanged way for the rest of our lives. The new assumption in an entrepreneurial society is whatever you know at twenty-two will become obsolete in five to ten years. Therefore, it is imperative to continue learning and developing new skills and knowledge throughout our lives.

Drucker emphasized the importance of continual learning and relearning and taking responsibility for your own self-development and career progression.

"The assumption from now on has to be that individuals on their own will have to find, determine, and develop a number of 'careers' during their working lives."

Education is no longer just for the young. Adults of all ages, no matter the level of prior education or the highs of professional achievement, will have to continue learning and developing professionally for the rest of their lives.

Multiple Careers

Drucker noted that many professionals, especially executives, become bored with their work by the early- to mid-forties. After spending decades doing a similar type of work, they are good at what they do, but they are no longer learning, contributing, or feeling satisfied with their work. This time in people's lives is often identified as a "midlife crisis."

Because it is a common phenomenon, a crisis moniker is somewhat misleading. Regardless of how it is positioned, Drucker recommended preparing for the second half of one's life and possibly for the second career. Drucker published an article Managing Oneself in the Harvard Business Review in 1999, which included a section on "The Second Half of Your Life." I read this article six years ago, and it stayed with me ever since. The idea of a second career or the second half of your life is more applicable today than ever before. The only exception is when we talk about the future of work, we expect individuals to have five-plus careers over their lives, not two, as Drucker mentioned in 1999.


I sometimes wonder who is Peter Drucker of our generation. He had so much depth and foresight in his immense body of work. Everything Drucker used to talk about is what we are still struggling with today. Management challenges will continue to shift and evolve, and we need to continue to evolve with them through life-long continual education.

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