Meet Jensen: Putting empathy at the heart of policy-making

At 36, he was made redundant from his job working for a logging company in rural Denmark.

Like his dad before him and many of his friends, he had been in that job since he left school at 16.

Jensen found that due to new machinery, demand for his labour was scarce, so he decided to retrain in another industry.

At the time, Bilka (the supermarket) was opening a new branch in his town and looking for entry-level shop-floor workers.

He signed up and was trained to work on the tills. That was 4 years ago.

Jensen has just found out that Bilka are investing more into self-checkout machines and that he is again at high risk of redundancy.

Feeling disheartened and low on motivation Jensen is currently looking around to retrain for yet another entry-level position that will sustain him and his young family.


Over the last month, Jensen’s persona has travelled with our team to the OECD Forum in Paris and to our recent event in Copenhagen, in partnership with the Think Tank DEA. At both events, policy makers and future of work experts explored the challenge of designing inclusive lifelong learning policy and services for Jensen, and other workers with a similar story.

Jensen’s story reflects a reality faced by many working adults today, and illustrates the complex nature of lifelong learning. The labour market is set to be radically transformed within the next 20 years. In light of this, the need for governments to create inclusive and sustainable policies that embed lifelong learning across the skill system is becoming an increasingly pressing and urgent challenge throughout northern Europe.

Using Jensen’s persona in our workshops has proved an impactful way to bring some of the most pressing struggles presented by a rapidly changing labour market to life. Personas are one of a range of tools we use in our interactive workshops to support governments and policymakers to apply design thinking in their work.

This approach transforms conversations about an inclusive future of work from an abstract concept to a tangible challenge. As a result, conversations are richer and encourage empathy towards Jensen’s situation.

Instead of asking "How might we motivate working adults to learn new skills?" his presence reframes the conversation to "What might motivate Jensen to learn new skills? How does he feel at this time in his life? What are the barriers he faces, and how might we overcome them?"

These questions have sparked debates, a wide range of ideas and plenty of reactions.

“Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.”

Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO

A Range of Reactions

1. Recognition that Jensen needs both ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ skills

All of our workshop participants acknowledged that in order to be prepared for jobs of the future, maintain his current job or grow into a new role, Jensen needs opportunities to learn new ‘hard’ or technical skills. These might include basic digital skills, computer programming or software knowledge.

However, everyone also recognised that this painted an incomplete picture, as Jensen was likely to feel disheartened, demotivated and lacking in confidence as a result of his experiences.

Having low self-confidence has a negative impact on a person’s perception of their abilities as a worker and a learner, making it extremely difficult and intimidating for them to return to a learning environment.

In order to embrace the concept of becoming a lifelong learner - someone who has ownership and an understanding of their own skills and is motivated to learn new skills - Jensen would also benefit from developing ‘soft skills’. For example, communication, self-motivation and leadership.

To address Jensen’s impaired sense of self, and provide him with the approval and encouragement that he needs to build these soft skills, participants put forward a number of practical suggestions including:

  • A mentoring or coaching service
  • A career counsellor, to support Jensen to identify his interests and possibilities
  • Applying for an adult apprenticeship to learn new skills on the job; this may be better suited to his learning style

Many also suggested that whilst Jensen’s basic skills need to be boosted in the short term, he needs to be inspired and motivated to complete further education or vocational training in the long term, in order to be truly future-proofed.

2. Our own perception of Jensen affects how we respond to the design challenge

Someone noticed that the conversation was focused on Jensen’s limitations. Why weren’t we talking about his strengths and possibilities?

The fact that Jensen has only aimed for entry level positions to date suggests something about how he sees his own capabilities. Related to this, the language around skills and lifelong learning is often exclusive and inaccessible to workers like Jensen, who do not necessarily perceive themselves as adult learners.

We must also recognise how we perceive Jensen. Equally, governments and policy-makers must acknowledge the role they have to play in empowering working adults to reach their full potential, and design the skills policy and services that support them to do so.

Recognising that family context and socio-economic background can act as barriers to adult motivation to learn requires governments to design systems that provide flexibility for those who want or need to upskill and re-skill, no matter their circumstance. Our recent report gives policy makers practical guidelines for how to design such systems, and provide wraparound support to workers.

3. There is simply not enough information

How much can a short biography really tell us about Jensen?

Although based on a real person, we should not assume anything at all about his learning capabilities, for example. As Policy Lab UK, the unit responsible for bringing new policy techniques to the departments across the UK civil service, explain, "It is important not to create stereotypes of users...but to find archetypes and empathy towards their causes".

It was suggested that in order to truly understand his needs, we would need to interview Jensen at the very least. That said, policymakers often have even less to go on when designing services or policies.

Furthermore, there is a ‘Jensen’ but there are also a lot of other workers who we may make similar assumptions about. When generating personas or archetypes we need to regularly test these assumptions by conducting thorough user research.

Putting empathy at the heart of policymaking

Putting Jensen at the centre of the conversation highlighted the challenges and complexities in designing services to suit the diverse range of needs of working adults. We recognise there is certainly no one-size-fits-all approach to policy design; especially in response to an issue as complex as driving intrinsic motivation to learn.

However, Jensen’s participation in the conversation helped us to generate ideas with empathy as the starting point. This stretched participants in their thinking, and made for notably richer idea generation.

Fundamentally, by putting ourselves in Jensen’s shoes, we can realise that all of the actors within the skill system have a role to play in supporting working adults to be motivated to learn new skills.


Genna Barnett

Genna Barnett

Genna Barnett

Programme Manager, Data Analytics Practice

Genna is the Programme Manager for the Data Analytics Practice at Nesta.

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Juan Casasbuenas

Juan Casasbuenas

Juan Casasbuenas

Curriculum and Content Manager

Juan was a Curriculum and Content Manager supporting the Digital Frontrunners and Global Innovation Policy Accelerator programmes.

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