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Busting the myth of low motivation in low-skilled workers

Should low-skilled workers continuously adapt to the needs of the labour market to ensure their own employability? Pia Cort and Kristina Mariager-Anderson of Aarhus University break down preconceptions of ‘unmotivated’ low skilled workers.

Should low-skilled workers continuously adapt to the needs of the labour market to ensure their own employability? Pia Cort and Kristina Mariager-Anderson of Aarhus University break down preconceptions of ‘unmotivated’ low-skilled workers.

How can people find motivation for lifelong learning (LLL)? Low-skilled people have been and are still a particular concern in LLL policies as they are more at risk in the labour market and upskilling is perceived as the solution to their risky position. In the representation of low-skilled workers and their need to be motivated for learning, policies tend to represent the low-skilled as the problem: they are often portrayed as having low aspirations, lacking confidence and self-esteem, being inactive, if not criminal. The problem of being at risk becomes a psychological and educational problem.

The preoccupation with low-skilled people and their reluctance to be lifelong learners is apparent in surveys and research projects attempting to identify low-skilled workers’ barriers to learning: Are low-skilled workers unable to do what is right according to policies? Should they continuously adapt to the needs of the labour market and ensure their own employability? This policy narrative of ‘unmotivated’ low-skilled workers needs to be questioned.

A complex phenomenon

A Cedefop project focusing on the work narratives of low-skilled people showed that motivation among them is more complex than depicted in LLL policies:

  • Motivation is there! The work life narratives of low-skilled workers in Denmark showed that motivation for learning is indeed present and many low-skilled workers strive to construct meaningful work lives by integrating interests or key values into their work life. Motivation may not always be linked to education or work but oriented to other areas of life such as hobbies or family. Common to the narratives is an effort to reconcile intrinsic motivation, be it for outdoor life, football or social justice, with a choice of career.
  • Low-skilled? The narratives showed that people who are in low-skilled positions are often not low-skilled: either they have acquired informal skills through their jobs which equals skilled qualifications or they have a qualification. But, due to the employment situation or circumstances in the family they have had to take up a low-skilled position in order to earn a living or balance work/life.
  • Motivation as a societal narrative: The concept of motivation has been integrated into the societal narrative of job and education: everybody has to be motivated for LLL in order to stay afloat in the global economy. If people fail, individual motivation is the problem, not the labour market and its incessant and indisputable demands. The global labour market is perceived as a natural force where it falls upon the individual to strive to survive through education, which, however, may no longer be a safe float as more jobs become precarious.

Decentring motivation

The analysis points to motivation as a concept which needs to be decentred and nuanced:

  1. Motivation is not just extrinsic, as often conceptualised in employment and education policy based on 'carrot and stick'; nor does motivation necessarily have to be intrinsic in order for people to engage in an activity.
  2. It is necessary to draw out the assumptions underlying understandings of ‘problems of motivation’ by looking for alternative understandings, and be critical of political categorisations of people, especially when categorised as ‘unmotivated’, ‘inactive’, or as ‘non-learners’ (Honey, 2000).
  3. Finally, we need to turn the looking glass around and instead of focusing on the problem of low-skilled workers’ motivation; we need to look at the problem of a labour market which is capitalising on the increased competition among nation states to attract capital and companies and in this quest are undermining considerations for workers’ wages, working and living conditions.

Pia Cort,, Associate Professor at the Department of Education at Aarhus University. Her research areas include the role of transnational organisations in education policy, especially the EU and processes of Europeanisation; the connections between education policy and practice; vocational education and training from a comparative perspective; and the policy of lifelong learning.

Kristina Mariager-Anderson,, Associate Professor at the Department of Education, Aarhus University. Her research focuses on the areas of adult education, vocational education and training and career guidance especially targeting low-skilled adults. Her particular research interest is the cross field between adult education and career guidance.

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