Lifelong learning is the facilitation of learning, growth, and development across the life span. It has also been referred to as lifelong education, and it is typically seen as reflective of a “learning society” or a “knowledge society.” Examples of lifelong learning include retraining adults for new jobs and new industries, informal and nonformal learning, leisure learning, activism, and continuing education. Lifelong learning is a concept embraced by most educators based on the belief that learning and growth will continue across the life span as a hallmark of adulthood; its goal is to make education accessible and involve individuals throughout the life span.
The concept of lifelong learning is at least three decades old, becoming a popular concept in the 1960s and 1970s and reemerging the 1990s. As John Field observed, lifelong learning in the 1960s and 1970s was a humanistic and even radical concept, but since the 1990s, it has become increasingly based on economic needs and conservative in its implications. Since the 1960s, many industrialized countries have seen a continued increase in adult participation in lifelong education, and in some cases, the participation has increased faster than participation in formal education programs.
Although the first major work on lifelong education was Basil Yeaxlee’s Lifelong Education, published in 1929, it was not until the 1970s that international organizations began to advocate the ideas of lifelong learning and the learning society. And only since the 1990s have these concepts received attention in national policy.
Lifelong learning is the notion that all adults should have access to ongoing education. Researchers have long advocated the value of lifelong learning as important in professional and vocational accomplishment in an age of increasing complexity. It is viewed as a mechanism to assist individuals in obtaining the capabilities and knowledge that allows adaptation to different work situations and career and life stages. In this sense, adult and continuing-education programs form an essential link in the overall framework of lifelong learning. As William Maehl observed, lifelong learning is a functioning system of values, policies, organizations, and processes intended to provide individuals with access, opportunities, and services to support their learning from infancy to old age. Lifelong learning is viewed as broader than adult education because of its “cradle-to-grave” focus, which incorporates both public schooling and adult and continuing education.
The objective of lifelong learning is to help adults build the skills and knowledge to help them adapt to life stages and changes. Adult continuing education is an essential and popular part of lifelong learning; indeed, adult and continuing-education enroll more individuals than K-12 and higher education combined in the United States. Although lifelong learning is often thought of as an adult enterprise, its advocates recommend that lifelong learning begin early in the public schools.
Malcom Tight outlined Arthur Cropley’s concepts underlying lifelong education that facilitate lifelong learning:
- Lifelong learning would last the whole life of each individual.
- Lifelong learning would lead to the systematic acquisition, renewal, upgrading, and completion of knowledge, skills and attitudes, as became necessary in response to the constantly changing conditions of modern life, with the ultimate goal of promoting the self-fulfillment of each individual.
- Lifelong learning would be dependent for its successful implementation on people’s increasing ability and motivation to engage in self-directed learning activities.
- Lifelong learning would acknowledge the contribution of all available educational influences, including formal, nonformal, and informal.
Tight noted that these concepts suggest key features about lifelong learning, including that lifelong learning is justified by keeping pace with change, linked to economic and social requirements, dependent on individuals taking charge of their learning, oriented toward self-fulfillment, and reliant on the involvement of educational providers.
D.W. Livingstone identified three dimensions of lifelong learning, including formal schooling, continuing education, and informal learning. Livingstone also noted that there are different approaches to lifelong learning, including instrumentalist, transformative, and inclusive facilitative. Instrumentalist learning is usually designed and controlled by groups with power. For instance, organizational management dictates much of the formal learning that occurs in the workplace. Knowledge sharing in this context serves the productivity needs of the organization but might ignore the needs of the individual. Transformative approaches are initiated by the less powerful to initiate social change. For instance, labor unions might organize training programs to help workers resist management activities. The third approach, inclusive facilitative, designs educational programs that are representative of groups or cater to individual adult learners, such as joint labor-management education or self-directed learning.
The quest for lifelong learning is characteristic of advanced capitalist societies, and although it may have begun with a more humanistic and emancipating intent, lifelong learning today has shifted more toward the vocational in a knowledge economy. The very shift from the more traditional term lifelong education to lifelong learning indicates a move toward a more work- or worker-based view and away from the humanistic perspective.
The Global Learning Society
A learning society is defined as one in which nearly all social institutions have a learning dimension and a responsibility for individual growth and development. The “information age” has made continuous learning more important than ever. In the United States, the Lifelong Learning Act was intended to provide hope to those who are in economically difficult or disadvantaged circumstances, including people who are unemployed or workers whose jobs are becoming obsolete. Lifelong learning is a necessary step toward making the lives of all people more rewarding and more productive.
The Devors Commission in 1996 called for the creation of a global “learning community,” with lifelong learning as a key concept. Lifelong learning is becoming more important to policymakers concerned with globalizing economies. The importance of a learning society is evident given the pace of technological and social change that must be kept up with in order to function effectively in life.
Lifelong learning helps individuals, and the global economy depends on it. Indeed, employers’ investments in lifelong learning, particularly the instrumental form, have increased dramatically. As reported by Livingstone in 1983, approximately 25 percent of U.S. employees reported receiving training after being hired. In 1991, over 50 percent reported having received training during the prior two years. By 1993, over 70 percent of employers were offering some type of training. Today, at the start of the twenty-first century, nearly all major employers must invest in employee learning and development to stay competitive in the global economy.
Livingstone considers the interest in lifelong learning in advanced capitalist societies to have taken a “quantum leap” since the 1970s, based on the increasingly pervasive general assumption that people will have to intensify their learning efforts to keep up with the rapidly growing knowledge requirements of a new “knowledge economy.” John Holford and Peter Jarvis suggested that adult educators have become seduced by the fact that many policy documents and much of the academic literature convey a sense of inevitability that there is no alternative to lifelong learning because societies that do not become learning societies have no future. They argue that seduction into the inevitability of a learning society may prevent educators from being critical and constructive and urge that lifelong learning must incorporate the wisdom of adult and continuing education.
Although lifelong learning is widely advocated for economic goals, many advocates believe that it should involve more than strictly instrumental purposes. Some lament that learning has become more of an economic activity than a life activity. Lifelong learning continues to be a fundamental process for adults. It is imperative for educators to ensure that it honors the learning and wisdom of adult education in a fast-paced, technology-driven world that can easily lose its focus on humanistic learning goals in favor of more instrumentalist ones.
- Field, J. 2001. “Lifelong Education.” International Journal of Lifelong Education 20:3-15.
- Holford, J. and Jarvis, P. 2000. “The Learning Society.” Pp. 643-659 in Handbook of Adult and Continuing Education, edited by A. L. Wilson and E. R. Hayes. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
- Livingstone, D. W. 1999. “Lifelong Learning and Underemployment in the Knowledge Society: A North American Perspective.” Comparative Education 35:163-186.
- Maehl, W. H. 2000. Lifelong Learning at Its Best: Innovative Practices in Adult Credit Programs. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
- Strain, M. 1998. “Towards an Economy of Lifelong Learning: Reconceptualising Relations between Learning and Life.” British Journal of Educational Studies 46:264-277.
- Tight, M. 1998. “Lifelong Learning: Opportunity or Compulsion?” British Journal of Educational Studies 46:251-263.
- 1996. “Learning: The Treasure Within.” Report to UNESCO of the International Commission for the Twenty-first Century. New York: Author. Yeaxlee, B. 1929. Lifelong Education. London, UK: Cassell.