Lifelong Learning: Who is Left Behind?

Source: Jason Goodman, Unsplash

Lifelong learning is considered crucial for workers to adapt to an ever-changing labor market. However, access to lifelong learning is not distributed evenly. Disadvantaged groups such as women, low-income people, older adults, and people with little previous education face barriers that make them less likely to participate in and/or benefit from lifelong learning than their less vulnerable counterparts. To remedy this, policymakers should focus on making lifelong learning accessible for all, and promote programs that are designed to meet the needs of disadvantaged groups.

By Chloë Haynes and Kevin Hempel | July 2023

“Lifelong learning” has been a buzzword among policymakers since the 1960s. But what is it, exactly? The answer is somewhat vague. UNESCO defines lifelong learning as “a process that continues throughout life to address an individual’s learning needs.” Anything from cooking classes to adult literacy courses to vocational skills trainings falls under the lifelong learning umbrella. Lifelong learning can be formal, such as in a classroom environment, or informal, such as teaching oneself a skill online. A key aspect of lifelong learning is that it is voluntary and self-motivated, not compulsory. For the purposes of this article, we will focus mainly on the professional aspect of lifelong learning and its role in contributing to a more skilled, adaptable labor force.

Lifelong learning has been a major focus of policymakers in recent years. Rapid technological advancement has created an ever-changing job market, requiring workers to regularly learn new skills to stay competitive. Besides providing workers with better job opportunities, proponents of lifelong learning argue that it has the potential to foster personal development and enrich people’s lives.

During her 2019 candidacy for European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen declared that the “best investment in our future is the investment in our people” and stressed the need to “empower people through educational skills” and bring down barriers to learning. The European Parliament adopted two resolutions in 2015 and 2017 stressing the need to “develop or upgrade skills for life and jobs” through education and lifelong learning. Similar practices have been adopted around the world, including low- and-middle-income countries, with UN agencies such as UNESCO and the ILO working to introduce and strengthen lifelong learning initiatives.

Not Everyone has Equal Access

Unfortunately, the benefits of lifelong learning are not evenly shared. One’s ability to benefit from or even participate in lifelong learning is affected by factors such as socioeconomic status, level of education, age, and gender. It is already recognized that those who are economically better off, have stable jobs, and have a strong educational background are more likely to engage in lifelong learning. Groups that are less likely to participate in and/or benefit from lifelong learning include:

  • Women
  • Low-income and working-class people
  • People with less previous education
  • Older adults

This reality indicates that lifelong learning, while necessary, tends to mainly benefit those who are already advantaged. Far from benefiting the workforce as a whole, adult education as it currently stands may actually be increasing existing inequalities. To remedy this, it is important to identify the major barriers to lifelong learning for disadvantaged groups and determine effective solutions to make lifelong learning a possibility for everyone.

What are the Common Barriers to Lifelong Learning?

The following factors contribute to lower lifelong learning participation rates by vulnerable groups:

  • Time constraints. Lifelong learning requires free time, which is a luxury that not everyone can afford. For instance, women often face the dual pressures of working outside the home and caring for the family. Women are much more likely than men to report family responsibilities as a reason for not engaging in adult education or training programs. Similarly, economic pressures force many low-income groups to work long hours and/or multiple jobs to make ends meet, leaving no time for learning outside of working hours.
  • Cost. Adult education and skills courses can be expensive. For example, many popular data analytics courses can cost hundreds to thousands of dollars, which is not feasible for most lower-income people. A study in Singapore indicated that many people would take courses if they were free, but non-learners reported that getting their basic needs met was more crucial than paying for courses. Moreover, even when programs are free or subsidized, the opportunity cost (i.e., taking time off work and losing income during the training) can prevent participation.
  • Low levels of previous education. For lifelong learning to be successful, it needs to start early. Quality education in one’s formative years increases the ability to learn later in life. Crucial cognitive skills and the ability to quickly process new information are developed during childhood, and people who do not have a strong educational foundation often find it more difficult to learn as an adult. Family dynamics and socioeconomic background ties into these as well; adults with less educated parents are least likely to participate in adult literacy programs. This reinforces the cycle of highly-educated people from highly-educated backgrounds being more likely to participate in and benefit from lifelong learning.
  • Self-perception and attitudes toward learning. Mental barriers to lifelong learning are just as salient as structural ones. For instance, those who had a bad childhood experience with formal education are less likely to take up learning as an adult. Low self-esteem and a lack of confidence in their ability to learn hinders many people from even trying. This is especially applicable to older adults. The study in Singapore mentioned earlier also found that the “I am old” attitude deters many older people from taking courses. One participant explained that she does not take these courses because “our brain after this age is much slower.” Others saw no point in learning new skills at their age. In addition to older adults, studies on Mexican native women and British working-class women found that many low-income women do not participate in adult education programs because they find them irrelevant to their daily lives.

Beyond Participation: How Beneficial is Lifelong Learning for Vulnerable Groups?

For members of vulnerable groups who are able to participate in lifelong learning, results are often mixed. Participation in a skills course or adult education program does not necessarily lead to upward mobility. For example, in South Africa, young low-income people are encouraged to become lifelong learners. However, the country has low job growth so their efforts do not necessarily lead to better employment. In order for people to materially benefit from lifelong learning, there have to be jobs for them to move into. In a similar vein, training programs with higher female participation rates often confine women to lower-paid, lower-status jobs rather than providing them with opportunities for advancement. Essentially, even when training is offered it does not always translate to gains in the labor market.

When assessing benefits, we also need to consider the type of lifelong learning practiced. For example, while some studies have shown that men and women participate in lifelong learning activities at more or less equal rates, they also indicate that men are more likely to participate in vocational and technical training while women are more likely to participate in trainings related to community education and care. Therefore, from a labor markets perspective, broad participation rates cannot be the only measure of lifelong learning effectiveness. To be truly equitable, vocational training programs need to be inclusive of and geared toward the needs of women and other vulnerable groups.

Of course, other groups can experience benefits. Older adults who obtain qualifications later in life have been found to have higher employment rates than those without a recent qualification. A caveat to this is that many older workers are motivated to participate in skills training out of fear of losing their jobs, while younger workers are more likely to participate in training to obtain higher pay and promotions. Thus, for older people, this form of lifelong learning may be seen as a necessity rather than purely self-motivated.


A Way Forward – Making Lifelong Learning More Inclusive

To ensure that adult learning programs benefit all, program designers should focus on making them as accessible as possible, including by making them gender-responsive. As identified by the OECD, a key element in achieving this is program flexibility. Flexibility in time, place, delivery mode, and content can significantly reduce the barriers to access for vulnerable groups. Allowing learners to study when and where it suits them instead of having to follow stringent class schedules gives people who are most affected by time constraints, such as women and low-income workers, the opportunity to gain valuable skills while juggling work and family responsibilities.

Tailoring training programs to adult learners’ needs and to the labor market is crucial to maximizing the program’s benefits. The World Bank identifies several methods for boosting employment outcomes. Instead of simply providing training, courses should also provide certificates for skills that employers look for, as well as referral letters and information about jobs and networks. This will increase people’s employability after completing the training, particularly for vulnerable groups who may have less access to information than those who are already in stable professions. Combining training with cash or capital is also effective in reducing barriers for low-income people and helping them find employment.

In sum, promoting lifelong learning is vital to helping workers adapt to a constantly changing labor market. However, for many people it is not as easy as it seems. For workers who do not have the time or resources to pick up a skills course, the accessibility gap in lifelong learning can be another determinant of inequality. Rather than simply emphasizing the importance of lifelong learning, policymakers should take intentional steps to make programs work for vulnerable groups.


About the authors:

Chloë Haynes is a second-year graduate student at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and a Research Analyst with Prospera Consulting. You can follow her on LinkedIn.

Kevin Hempel is the Founder and Managing Director of Prospera Consulting, a boutique consulting firm working towards stronger policies and programs to facilitate the labor market integration of disadvantaged groups. You can follow him on LinkedIn and Twitter.