It’s hard to believe, sometimes, that 2020 is still not over. This year has unleashed what feels like a decade’s worth of disruption and change. Microsoft described the year as “two years of digital transformation in two months”—and that was way back in April.

The main driver of this is the COVID-19 pandemic, which has presented the world with a public health crisis on a scale not seen in generations. The pandemic’s impact on businesses was sudden and extraordinary. As my Accenture colleagues have written elsewhere, the crisis made every business into a healthcare business.

Another recent Accenture study, this one drawing on input form 15,600 workers across 15 different industries, found that COVID-19 has presented new imperatives for talent leaders to provide trust, safety, and purpose for the workforce.

But focusing exclusively on the short-term impacts of the pandemic is risky. That’s because the pandemic is accelerating the impact of trends and technologies that were already rewriting the rules of entire industries.

“Almost overnight, the COVID-19 crisis widened a performance gap—between those organizations that invested in technology innovation at scale before the pandemic and those that did not—into a chasm.”

–Accenture CEO Julie Sweet

Moments of crisis—and opportunity

Many different industries are rapidly approaching tipping points. New digital technologies, demographic shifts, and new competition are combining to form a perfect storm of disruption.

Revolutionary new tools like artificial intelligence, distributed ledger technology, extended reality, cloud computing, and quantum computing are at the heart of this change. These technologies are progressing from inception to maturity in less than 10 years. Klaus Schwab, found of the World Economic Forums, argues they are pushing the world into a new industrial revolution—one characterized not only by massive change but by massive change at extraordinary speed.

As they hit the market in rapid succession, these “New Digital Age” technologies are compounding one another’s impact, creating combinatorial opportunities for innovation and disruption. One of the most striking impacts of this change is that technology is not only automating repetitive tasks, but also those that require cognitive thinking. Machines are rapidly acquiring the skills to perform routine tasks, putting some workers at risk of being left behind.

Businesses can’t afford that. Five different generations are part of the workforce right now, but the OECD projects that between 2011 and 2029 no fewer than 78 million baby boomers will have retired. Relatively fewer people are in the pipeline to replace them.

The need for businesses to do more with a proportionally smaller workforce, and the need for the workforce to master new skills at an ever-increasing rate, can be thought of as a race. In fact, this situation has often been described as the “race against the machine,” or a “race between education and technology.”

And the stakes in this race are high. Economic analysis from Accenture shows that America could forgo $975 billion in economic growth in the next decade if it can’t meet the demand for new skills in the New Digital Age.

It’s time to empower the workforce

This all puts pressure on conventional ways of training the workforce and on general business operations. Coming to grips with this moment of change requires more than purchasing new technology.

With the pace of change, the level of competition, and the stakes of disruption all climbing, the only solution is for firms to embrace lifelong learning.

For individual firms, winning the race can unlock new revenue streams, business models, and talent sources. It can drive competitive advantage. Failing to keep up, on the other hand, can mean forfeiting market strength.

So how can financial services firms keep up? Incremental changes to education and corporate learning systems won’t cut it. The time is now to build a culture of lifelong learning.

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