Adult lifetime skills: a literature review

A literature review on adult lifetime skills.

What are the benefits of, and barriers to, lifelong learning?

Key points

  • Literature on the benefits of lifelong learning was plentiful, with the evidence showing that there are economic and social benefits of lifelong learning, as well as wellbeing benefits for the individual.
  • The economic benefits of lifelong learning are cited as including higher earnings and positive labour market outcomes, while wellbeing and social benefits include increased self-confidence and increased social capital.
  • Literature on the barriers to lifelong learning was also forthcoming. Barriers are highlighted as dispositional (where an individual's attitudes and expectations limit participation); situational (where an individual's personal circumstances limit participation, being unable to afford training for example); and institutional (where structural and organisational factors limit access to training).


This section presents findings from the literature on the benefits of, and barriers to, lifelong learning. Before exploring the benefits and barriers, it is worth defining lifelong lifelong learning according to the literature.

Definition of lifelong learning

The OECD (2021) state that lifelong learning starts in childhood and youth, and continues throughout adulthood and old age. It encompasses formal learning in settings such as training centres, as well as informal and non-formal learning gained from colleagues, for example. This is echoed by Kanwar et al (2019), who states that lifelong learning covers learning "from the cradle to the grave".

In the literature, lifelong learning is often used interchangably with adult learning, adult education and lifetime skills.

Benefits of lifelong learning

The review found plentiful literature on the benefits of lifelong learning. The literature highlights lifelong learning as part of the solution to a range of pressing issues such as net zero climate change policies, recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, and supporting retraining needs in the context of artificial intelligence and rapidly changing economies and labour markets (Pember et al, 2021). The literature also finds that there are economic, wellbeing and social benefits of lifelong learning.

There is a considerable literature on the economic benefits of lifelong learning, with benefits including higher earnings, increased productivity, positive labour market outcomes and motivation of the workforce (see for example, Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, 2021; ICF Consulting, 2015). A UK Government commissioned evidence review on the benefits of learning across the life course, cites evidence that adult learning leads to gains in productivity, as well as lower staff turnover. The review documents evidence showing that learning across the life course increases employment levels, tax revenues and leads to greater acceptance of innovation (Schuller, 2017). Desjardins (2019) echoes these findings, concluding that adult education has a positive impact on several labour market outcomes, including enhancement of employment and career prospects, of performance and earnings, of job satisfaction and commitment to work, and of innovative capabilities.

There is also some evidence of the health and wellbeing benefits of lifelong learning. Schuller (2017) cites evidence from the early 2000s that adult learning is linked to a range of health benefits including smoking cessation, uptake of cervical screening and life satisfaction. Through secondary data analysis of the Understanding Society dataset, a longitudinal survey of a nationally representative sample of UK residents age 16 and above, Tregaskis and Nandi (2018) find that the intensity of job-related training makes a difference to life satisfaction. They found that high intensity job-related training had positive effects on life satisfaction for those who were employed, for young people, and for those living in highly deprived areas. They also cite literature which shows that participation in workplace learning and adult learning can lead to increases in learners' wellbeing.

The 2021 Adult Participation in Learning Survey reiterates the wellbeing benefits of lifelong learning for the individual. A survey of just over 5,000 adults aged 17 and over in the UK finds that the benefits of learning include increased self-confidence and improved health and wellbeing (Hall et al, 2021).

The social benefits of lifelong learning are also evident in the literature, including increased social capital, social cohesion, civic and democratic participation (Schuller, 2017). (Social capital is "the networks of relationships among people who live and work in a particular society, enabling that society to function effectively" (Oxford Dictionary Online). Social cohesion is "where people from different communities feel free and happy to mix together" (Oxford Reference Online) and civic and democratic participation is "a process in which people take collective action to address issues of public concern" (Wikipedia).) Schuller (2017) cites evidence to show that the education of adults positively influences the educational achievement of their children and their children's health. The review notes that adults who participate in learning are more likely to engage with their children's education and improve their outcomes.

At the community level, adult learning has been found to improve community cohesion (see for example, Hughes et al, 2017). One example of improved community cohesion is through reducing reoffending rates. A European Commission study of adult learning policies found that participation in adult learning reduces reoffending, with a reduction in reoffending resulting from participation in learning and improved skills and competences (ICF Consulting, 2015). For example, Gordon and Weldon (2023) in (ICF Consulting, 2015), examined the reoffending rates of adult inmates who participated in adult learning while imprisoned in West Virginia. The study found that inmates who participated in both general education development and vocational training reported a reoffending rate of 7% while the general rate of re-offending for those inmates who did not participate in learning was 26%.

Barriers to lifelong learning

While the benefits of lifelong learning are well recognised in the literature, there are also barriers to individuals undertaking lifelong learning and workplace training. This is particularly true for specific groups as explored in the equalities section of this report. Like the benefits of lifelong learning, literature on the barriers to lifelong learning was also forthcoming.

The UK Government's Department for Education (DfE) commissioned qualitiative research to understand adults' experiences of, and decisions, about learning in England. Through in-depth interviews with 70 learners and focus groups with 16 adults currently not participating in learning, they found that difficulties with childcare, transport, course fees and equipment, and a lack of flexible working can all be barriers to learning (Kantar Public and Learning and Work Institute, 2018). An attitudinal typology emerged, with the researchers finding six types of learners based on their purpose for learning: lifelong learners, defiant learners, outcome-focussed learners, tentative learners, exhausted learners and stuck in the status quo learners. Lifelong, defiant and outcome-focussed learners had a strong and clear purpose for learning and described being more able to overcome barriers to their learning. Tentative, exhausted and stuck in the status quo learners lacked a strong and clear purpose for learning and were less able to overcome barriers.

Reporting the results of an evidence review on adult upskilling and retraining in the UK, the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (2021) find that barriers which may prevent participation in, and the delivery of, adult education include: dispositional barriers (where an individual's attitudes and expectations limit participation); situational barriers (where an individual's personal circumstances limit participation); and institutional barriers (where structural and organisational factors limit access to training). The occurrence of dispositional, situational and institutional barriers is echoed by Pennacchia et al (2018) and Hall et al (2021). In the Adult Participation in Learning Survey 2021, Hall et al (2021) grouped barriers experienced by learners into: situational (arising from an adult's personal and family situation, including cost / money / can't afford it; work / other pressures); dispositional (relating to attitudes, perceptions and expectations of adults, including feeling too old, an illness or disability, lack of digital skills / confidence for online learning); and institutional (difficulties or issues with learning or tutor). For adults who had not participated in learning within the last three years, the most commonly cited barrier was feeling too old, followed by cost / affordability, work or other time pressures and being put off by tests and exams.

In their qualitiative research, Pennacchia et al (2018) found that often the barriers experienced by adults are multi-layered and interrelated. Some of the key barriers highlighted in their in-depth interviews with 37 participants were cost, childcare, awareness of opportunities and employer support.

In addition to cost, further barriers highlighted in the literature include lack of time and attitudinal barriers (Government Office for Science, 2017). Attitudinal barriers, including lack of confidence, lack of interest and feeling too old to learn, were particularly apparent for individuals with no qualifications. Through an evidence review, Hughes et al (2019) echo the importance of motivational barriers, finding that motivations to learn can be intrinsic (driven by personal goals) and extrinsic (subject to social and cultural expectations).



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