Adult lifetime skills: a literature review

A literature review on adult lifetime skills.

What do we know about the impact of current skills provision on equalities? Is there any Scottish specific evidence?

Key points

  • The literature relating to the impact of current skills provision on equalities is sparse. The majority of studies found are small scale and qualitative in nature or secondary analysis on large-scale datasets. Only one Scottish specific example was found, focusing on older workers.
  • Where literature was found this was often focused on the barriers to lifelong learning or adult education and training that different equalities group face. For example, digital barriers and barriers to online learning were cited in the literature.
  • Looking at the evidence on sex in particular, affordable childcare is seen to be a potential barrier for women's participation in work, study or training. Occupational segregation is one theme that emerges in the literature around skills and sex.
  • Where literature was found on age, this tends to focus on older workers. Workplace flexibility and targeted training opportunities are highlighted as key strategies by which to achieve success in upskilling older workers.
  • No specific research was found on the impact of skills provision on race / ethnicity, and the research evidence on disability was similarly sparse.


This section explores what the literature tells us about the impact of current skills provision on equalities. It highlights barriers to training and lifelong learning as the key equalities theme in the literature before looking at whether there is any specific literature on: sex; age; race; disability; and any Scottish-specific literature.

Barriers to training and lifelong learning for equalities groups

In general, only limited literature was found on the impact of current skills provision on equalities. Where literature was found this was often concerned with the barriers to lifelong learning or adult education and training that different equalities groups face.

Hall et al's (2021) adult participation in learning survey 2021 provides some results on the barriers to learning for different equalities groups. It is an online survey, partly funded by the Department of Education, which has a nationally representative sample of 5,054 adults aged 17 and over across the UK (Scotland specific results were not available). The survey found that:

  • You are 1.5 times more likely to take part in learning if you are from a higher socio-economic grade than a lower grade.
  • People who completed their education at age 21 or above are twice as likely to participate in learning than those who left education age 16 or lower.
  • Younger people are more likely to participate in learning than older people.

Hall et al (2021) group the barriers to learning as situational and dispositional barriers. Situational barriers, such as cost / money, childcare, work / other time pressures, lack of digital equipment, are more likely to be raised than women than by men (44 per cent compared to 35 per cent). Respondents from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds are also particularly likely to experience situational barriers (49 per cent compared to 39 per cent from white backgrounds). By social grade, those in the AB group (upper and upper-middle classes and middle classes) are less likely to experience situational barriers when compared to all other categories.

Dispositional barriers, such as awareness, motivation and confidence, are also more likely to be raised by women than men (54 per cent compared to 50 per cent). They are also more likely to be raised by those in the DE social grade (semi-skilled and unskilled working class and the unemployed) (60 per cent compared to 49 per cent across all other social grades).

In addition to this quantitative evidence on the barriers to learning that different equalities group face, Pennacchia et al (2018)'s qualitative research also highlights some differences by equality group. Through their 37 in-depth interviews with learners and non-learners they found whilst all participants were able to discuss at least one barrier they faced to taking up learning, the most disadvantaged learners were more likely to describe multiple barriers to learning (such as cost, time and childcare, as well as confidence and motivation). These groups included: people in receipt of benefits, disabled people and people with health conditions, single parents, and participants whose first language is not English.

One barrier cited in the literature that is faced particularly by different equalities groups is digital barriers such as barriers to online learning (Eynon, 2021; Kanwar et al, 2019; and Hughes et al, 2019). For example, Eynon and Malmberg (2021) used results from the Oxford Internet Survey (a nationally representative sample of 1,818 people aged 18 and over in Great Britain, conducted face-to-face in people's homes in Spring 2019) to examine patterns in the uptake of lifelong learning via the Internet. They found that social structure (measured by age, gender, socio-economic status, education and where a person lives) remains an important factor in understanding patterns of uptake and outcomes of online learning. Their analysis found that: those who are younger, from higher socio-economic groups and who are more educated report higher levels of digital skills and take up more online learning activities. FutureLearn (2022), in their survey of 2,000 UK adults aged 16 and over, find that a third of respondents would choose online platforms to learn new skills, with barriers to learning cited in the research as including disability, socio-economic background, race, gender identity and sexuality.

One equalities type which is cited in the literature as facing multiple barriers to lifelong learning is by socio-economic status. For example, in their evidence review, the Government Office for Science (2017) finds that socio-economic status is a powerful predictor of participation in later life education, with those in poorer or less educated groups less likely to participate. Higher socio-economic groups are more likely to engage in informal and formal learning, partly because of prior experience of learning but also because individuals with no qualifications are more likely to cite attitudinal barriers such as lack of confidence, lack of interest and feeling too old to learn, as well as barriers to learning relating to cost and time.


This section looks at whether any specific literature was found on skills provision and sex. The literature search derived very limited specific results but one theme emerging from the literature on skills, workplace learning and sex / gender was occupational segregation.

For example, Close the Gap (2016) provide a briefing paper on gender and the workplace, arguing that occupational segregation is a labour market challenge which requires early intervention strategies around providing, for example, affordable childcare, so that women can work, study or train. Occupational segregation is defined as horizontal segregation, which clusters men and women into different types of education, training and work; and vertical segregation or "the glass ceiling", where men and women do different levels of work.

Webb et al (2018) also highlight occupational segregation as a challenge in their evidence review on job progression in low pay sectors. They find that women predominate within low-paid occupations, often exhibiting few opportunities for training and progression, with a gender pay gap that favours men. They recommend that employers encourage job shadowing and secondments as one way in which to facilitate horizontal movement which could ultimately lead to higher paid work.

Another theme in the limited literature around skills provision and sex is the benefits and barriers to training for men and women. Massing and Gauly (2017) use data from the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) to investigate gender differences in training across 12 countries. They find that in all countries, except Belgium and the Nordic countries, men are more likely than women to participate in training. They also find that in almost all countries, women compared with men have a higher probability to report family responsibilities and a lower probably to report high workload than financial reasons as barriers to training. Having young children is related to less participation in training across all countries, excluding the United States.


Like sex, the literature search returned limited evidence on the impact of skills provision on age. Where literature was found this tends to focus on older workers.

For example, the OECD (2018) examines the best ways in which the United States can promote the employability of workers throughout their working lives, including how employers can be supported to retain and hire older workers. Examining evidence from across OECD reviews, they find that the skills of older workers in the United States is relatively good (compared with other OECD countries). While older workers tend to perform less well on information-processing tasks, they have interpersonal skills that are called upon to plan, supervise and influence others. They recommend that firms employing older workers should accommodate older workers' needs, with workplace flexibility and targeted training opportunities key strategies by which to achieve success in upskilling older workers.

Desjardins et al (2019) reiterate that a flexible approach is helpful in motivating people to engage in learning and to develop and maintain literacy skills into older age. They analyse data from the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) and find that adults who attain higher levels of qualifications in mid to later life are associated with a greater probability of being employed, participating in continued learning and scoring higher on the PIAAC literacy scale when they are older.

Narushima et al (2018) conducted a small scale study of 416 adults aged 60 years and over in Canada, looking at the benefits of lifelong learning for older adults. Although a small scale study, it provides some interesting insights into lifelong learning and wellbeing for older adults. Their results indicate that older adults' participation in lifelong learning is independently and positively associated with their psychological wellbeing.

DWP also commissioned a small scale study to investigate the attitudes and behaviours of employers around the recruitment, retention and retraining of older workers. Adams et al (2017) conducted qualitative research (interviews) with 50 employers in the UK, including 2 interviews in Scotland. They found that employers in their study valued the benefits of a mixed-age workforce and generally stated that they already have one. Employers typically described older workers as loyal, reliable, committed and conscientious, with valuable business and life experience to offer the organisation. With regards to training, employers in the sample said that they offered equal training opportunities and did not target any training specifically at older workers. Some said that older workers were potentially harder to train and the impact of training was potentially smaller. Some employers in the sample also expressed the opinion that older workers were less likely to need and request training. Adams et al (2017) present some policy implications as a result of their research, including that: employers may be open to communications that focus on how to ensure that their flexible working policies meet the needs of older workers; and both employers and older workers would benefit from more employers sharing best practice examples of the advantages of a mixed age workforce and the benefits that older workers can bring to the workplace.

With regards to policy implications for older workers, the OECD 2021 "Skills Outlook" publication provides some interesting examples of policies that encourage employers to train older workers. They note that:

  • in Luxembourg, private-sector companies can receive training aid totaling up to 15% of the yearly amount invested in training; 35% of salaries of trained employees are paid by subsidies for certain workers, including those aged over 45.
  • In Slovenia, the Comprehensive Support for Companies for Active Ageing of Employees Programme provides financial incentives for employers to prepare action plans and strategies to ensure better management of older (over 45) workers, as well as financial incentives for the upskilling of older (over 45) workers. Capacity-building workshops are organised to build the skills of human resource managers and chief executives in managing an ageing workforce (OECD, 2021).

The OECD (2021) also highlight an example of a policy aimed at increasing training participation of older adults through targeted career advice and guidance:

  • in the Netherlands, workers aged 45 years and over can participate in subsidised career development guidance that helps them to understand the future prospects of their current job and give them insight into their skills profiles and career opportunities. Participants develop a personal development plan that describes the actions that should be taken to ensure they remain employed until retirement age.

Race / Ethnicity

No specific research was found on the impact of skills provision on race / ethnicity. However, it is worth re-iterating Hall et al's (2021) analysis (discussed in the barriers section above), which found that people from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds were particularly likely to experience situational barriers such as cost and money. Despite this, Hall et al (2021) also found that white people are less likely to take part in learning than people from BAME backgrounds.

Statistics on the attainment of school leavers are worth highlighting here, showing that, in 2020/21, 94.7% of Asian-Chinese school leavers had one or more pass at SCQF Level 6 (Higher) or better. This compares to 66.0% for all school leavers (Scottish Government, 2022). Meanwhile, labour market statistics for Scotland by ethnicity show that in January to December 2021, when compared to the white groups, minority ethnic groups were more likely to be:


The literature found on the impact of skills provision on disability was similarly sparse. Leonard Christie (2019) conducted in-depth telephone interviews with seven working age disabled people, as well as a small quantitative survey with 503 UK employers. Although there are limitations due to this small sample size, meaning that the results cannot be generalised to the wider population, their research provides some insights into the challenges and barriers facing disabled people throughout their working lives. Around two thirds of employers in their survey said that the costs of workplace adjustments are a barrier to employing a disabled person. Their research also found that working more flexibly is a central element of retaining disabled people in the labour market who would otherwise be forced to leave their job due to their disability. Addressing digital skills gaps and having access to innovative technology were also highlighted as ways in which to develop inclusive workplaces. They suggest that better awareness of artificial technology among employers would be helpful, including its capacity to enhance independent working for disabled people. The authors recommend artificial technology training as a core training component for employers.

Scotland specific literature

The literature search returned only one specific Scottish example for skills provision and equalities, focused on older workers. This was a report by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD, 2022b) while aimed to help employers improve their understanding of older workers (defined as those aged 50 plus), enabling them to create better jobs and more fulfilling working lives. The report draws upon statistical analysis of the Annual Population Survey and Labour Force Survey, presenting UK data and Scottish data where sample size allows. The CIPD (2022b) note that one challenge for Scotland is that its population and workforce is ageing and as a consequence employers will need to improve how they attract, manage and develop workers as they get older. They report findings from the Labour Force Survey (LFS) which shows that there is a clear relationship between perception of career progression opportunities and age, with 22% of the oldest employees strongly disagreeing that their job offers good opportunities for career progression (based on UK data, APS January to December 2020). They use LFS UK data to show that older workers participate in less off-the-job training than younger workers and argue that skills investment needs rebalancing, with lifelong learning given more prominence. They also recommend using Individual Learning Accounts for older workers, which they say offer flexibility and individualisation, supporting learners throughout their working lives.



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