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Benjamin Cucchi
Why lifelong learning is (still) a bluff
May 04, 2023
4 Minutes

Do you think of yourself as a lifelong learner? Are we already applying lifetime learning strategies effectively? Statistics show that your answer to these questions is most likely “Of course!”. However, research suggests that you may be misguided. This viewpoint raises other questions that must be addressed, such as what we all mean by the expression “lifelong learning” in itself. And, at the end of the day, how are we going to pull it off?

The lifelong learning myth

If you talk to anyone about lifelong learning, they’ll agree that we’re talking about something important for the future of work and personal development – and that we’re already in the era of lifelong learning. It’s like a collective myth: everyone believes that now, more than ever, we must continue to work on honing our talents as technologies and processes evolve and change. However, approaching the issue from a different angle, we can begin to wonder: Is lifelong learning just a story that we all choose to believe in? 

By the numbers:

of American adults consider themselves lifelong learners (Lifelong Learning and Technology, 2016)

of European adults should be participating in training every year by 2030, according to The European Pillar of Social Rights Action Plan (2021)

of interviewed employees would be more willing to stay in companies that invest in their professional development (LinkedIn’s Workplace Learning Report, 2018)

This data sounds reassuring and encouraging. However, when it comes to companies and training, are they really creating an environment that fosters lifelong learning? What do we even refer to with this expression? Why do we have the feeling that, in the end, while agreeing on the importance of it, companies are not doing anything to make it happen? Let’s deep dive.
Back to reality

So, 73% of American adults thought they’re lifelong learners. That’s quite a lot, isn’t it? But what’s the definition of lifelong learning used in this context? According to the original report by Pew Research Center, lifelong learners are people who “have participated in at least one of a number of possible activities in the past 12 months to advance their knowledge about something that personally interests them”. The list includes reading a magazine and attending a conference or a sports club, for example. However, we need to bring the lifelong learning framework into the context of the 21st century – the era of reskilling and upskilling.


Are we sure reading a bunch of articles counts as lifelong learning in today’s competitive work and training scenario? Is this enough in the information era? Or is lifelong learning better described as – like Associate Dean of the College of Business Manuel London sums it up – a purposely designed process to empower people to manage their own learning in a variety of contexts throughout their lifetimes? And here’s why the actual count of active lifelong learners is much lower than previously anticipated.

By the numbers:

of European adults (aged 25-64) actually did some kind of lifelong learning in the previous 4 weeks in 2021(Eurostat’s Adult education survey (AES), 2021)

<5% of adults participate in education and learning programmes in one third of the world’s countries; even in countries where lifelong learning is more widespread, participation rates do not exceed 50% (UNESCO’s fourth Global Report on Adult Learning and Education, 2019)

And even those who understand that we are in the age of reskilling and are putting considerable investments into L&D (Learning and Development), most of the time they are doing it ineffectively. Consider that, globally, in 2019 organizations spent $370.3B in training (Size of the Training Industry, 2021). However, what’s the point if only 12% of employees apply the new skills they learned in their training courses in their jobs? (Workplace Learning Report, 2015)

“The illiterate of the twenty-first century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”.
Alvin Toffler
Lifelong learning’s challenges

Why are we failing as lifelong learners? Are we already doomed? Well, no – not yet at least. And we have the tools to reverse the situation and create an effective lifelong learning culture. There are many challenges ahead, and understanding them is crucial to transform the lifelong learning myth into an effective reality.

A new and more inclusive learning environment

First of all, the right environment needs to be created for lifelong learning to happen. This means allocating dedicated time and resources and it cannot happen, for example, if managers are not invested in the professional and personal development of their employees.

By the numbers

of the surveyed talent manager groups identified getting employees to make time for learning as their number one challenge in 2018 (LinkedIn’s Workplace Learning Report, 2018)

of talent developers considered getting managers to prioritize learning as their number one challenge in 2020; it was the second in 2018 (LinkedIn’s Workplace Learning Report, 2020)

41% of HR staff considered the lack of resources as the real problem for implementing effective training programs (CompTIA Workforce Learning Trends, 2020)

Lifelong learning also faces an inequality problem, failing to reach those who need it the most: lifelong learners seem to be mostly from developed countries and already educated,. UNESCO’s fifth Global Report on Adult Learning and Education (2022) states that “disadvantaged and vulnerable groups such as Indigenous learners, rural populations, migrants, older citizens, people with disabilities or prisoners […] are deprived of access to learning opportunities”. The right environment for lifelong learning needs to be an inclusive one.

A new teaching and learning mindset

On the other end, we also have to think about how we approach lifelong learning as learners. The problem can be in the mindset: a fixed mindset is one where you don’t see learning as an opportunity for personal growth. So, maybe the first thing to do is to understand (and help others understand) why continuous education is crucial not only for professional development, but also for personal flourishing. This takes a growth mindset – one that allows you to think of your abilities as able to be developed through effort. 

To achieve this aim, three elements are needed:

  • Building dedicated post-university programs, which at the moment there are not enough of.
  • Creating a culture of learning in the workplace – not by chance, this always remains in the top 5 priorities of almost all of LinkedIn’s Workplace Learning Reports.  
  • Tailoring lifelong learning programs to new jobs (and consequently new skills) that will be needed in the future.
“For most people, it’s likely that the job they’re in now will not exist in the future—or at least not in the same form. So leaders need to provide ongoing momentum for people to use their agency to decide for themselves, “What am I going to do next?”
Lynda Gratton

Finally, lifelong learning may require a reboot in terms of instructional design. Although acknowledging that it is not possible to repurpose the conventional school approach at all levels of learning, we continue to do so – or, in some circumstances, make it worse. Consider your typical training course: A collection of unrelated resources with no internal coherence or purpose in the professional lives of workers cannot be deemed effective learning – yet this is exactly what adults receive! True lifetime learning includes structured and tailored learning paths, as well as lifelong learning communities.

Contrary to the distorted perception we have of it, lifelong learning doesn’t reach as many people as it should, especially the people who most need it - due to lack of time, resources, managers’ interest, bad instructional design and a fixed mindset from the learner’s side.
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