Marshall McLuhan’s “Learning a Living” Meme Anticipated Today’s “Learning a Living”


Marshall McLuhan anticipated that learning and work would become increasingly interrelated: “… it is becoming clear that the main “work” of the future will be education, that people will not so much earn a living as learn a living…. Industry and the military, as well as the arts and sciences, are beginning to consider education their main business” (McLuhan & Leonard, 1967, 25). In this, he was in agreement with and possibly influenced by his friend and colleague Peter Drucker, who coined the phrase “knowledge worker” in his 1959 book Landmarks of Tomorrow, writing in his 1994 essay The Age of Social Transformation

The great majority of the new jobs require qualifications the industrial worker does not possess and is poorly equipped to acquire.  They require a good deal of formal education and the ability to acquire and to apply theoretical and analytical knowledge.  They require a different approach to work and a different mind-set.  Above all, they require a habit of continuous learning.  Displaced industrial workers thus cannot simply move into knowledge work or services the way displaced farmers and domestic workers (the dominant jobs at the turn of the last century – R.M) moved into industrial work.  At the very least they have to change their basic attitudes, values, and beliefs”. 

Here are some additional McLuhan quotes on Learning a Living to drive home the point:

“The business community itself is becoming more and more a community of learning and of relearning, so that the huge industry expenditure on education today arises from a constant need to keep executives apprised of new information necessary for decision-making. And this is characteristic of all people in business, no matter what stage or level they are operating at, so that learning and the absorption of information in business itself has become a major part of the business operation”. – (1958, December). Culture is Our Business: The Meaning of the New Electronic Media. National Association of Educational Broadcasters journal, p. 4

“Already it is becoming clear that the main “work” of the future will be education, that people will not so much earn a living as learn a living. Close to 30 million people in the U.S. are now pursuing some form of adult education, and the number shoots skyward. Industry and the military, as well as the arts and sciences, are beginning to consider education their main business.”McLuhan, M. & Leonard, G. (1967). The Future of Education: The Class of 1989. LOOK  Magazine. Feb. 21, 1967, p. 25.

“Men could, for the most part, get through a normal life span on the basis of a single set of skills. That is not at all the case with electric speed-up. The acquiring of new basic knowledge and skill by senior executives in middle age is one of the most common needs and harrowing facts of electric technology. The senior executives, or “big wheels,” as they are archaically and ironically designated, are among the hardest pressed and most persistently harassed groups in human history. Electricity has not only demanded ever deeper knowledge and faster interplay, but has made the harmonizing of production schedules as rigorous as that demanded of the members of a large symphony orchestra.” – Understanding Media (1964), p. 355


‘Learning a living’ becoming critical as technology displaces workers

Employers and employees need to prepare for automation and its aftermath, experts say

By Terry Pender   –   Jan. 29, 2018

As work is automated more jobs will be created that require different skills, and corporations that want to thrive must help their employees prepare.

That message was delivered by David Mallon, chief analyst at Bersin, Deloitte Consulting, during a Skype presentation Tuesday that kicked off The Future of Work and Learning, a series of events and workshops organized by Manulife, Communitech, the University of Waterloo and Deloitte.

Big data, analytics and artificial intelligence are expected to displace large numbers of workers in sectors of the economy that so far have largely been untouched by automation. Estimates vary, but it is expected technology will displace millions of Canadian workers in the next 12 years.

“How can we ensure our region can continue to grow and thrive?” Michael Doughty, chief executive officer of Manulife Canada, said while introducing Mallon.

Over the next four months a series of workshops and events will explore how work and workplaces are changing, and how employees and employers can best adapt. To drive home his message of change, Mallon used a phrase from Canadian information theorist Marshall McLuhan — the future of work is about “learning a living.”

Mallon, who is based in Seattle, said studies in the United Kingdom by Deloitte looked at sectors of the economy before and after widespread automation. One of the main observations is that just about every job was impacted in some way even if it was not eliminated. Source:

Robots in an automobile assembly plant

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