Lifelong learning


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Lifelong learning is crucial.
Lifelong Learning should be seen as Schooling for All.

There are more people in school today than at any time in human history. This is an obvious fact. At the same time, we need lifelong learning opportunities. This is because learning throughout one’s life has become a necessity. That's not just for learning’s sake, but for economic needs as well. In today’s labor market, people need to learn how to learn; to re-learn; unlearn; and learn again.

We have been living through nothing short of a 'Schooling Revolution'. Education has long been considered one of the most powerful instruments for reducing poverty and inequality, and for laying the basis for sustained economic growth. More and better schooling investments raise national income growth rates.  Perhaps this is way we see global average schooling levels increase. In 1950, the average person has six years of schooling in high-income countries; it is more than 10 years today. It was less than two years in Africa in 1950; it is more than five today. East Asia went from two to seven years between 1950 and 2010: more than a 200% increase. Globally, in 1900, the average person had less than two years of schooling; just two years by 1950; but more than seven by 2000.  It is projected to raise to 10 worldwide by 2050. This is a more than five-fold increase in a century and a half.

Education: The Great Equalizer?

Education is the great equalizer, wrote the American educational reformer, Horace Mann in 1848. As we receive more schooling, opportunities improve and access to well-paying jobs increase.  Our earnings rise and earnings differentials fall. In this way, education contributes to equality. Throughout the 20th century, education raised earnings and equalized opportunities.

In the 21st century, educational expansion is contributing to income inequality. Higher levels of education throughout the world, an unprecedented educational expansion, especially for higher education, are contributing to earnings inequality. The differences in earnings between more and less educated are rising. Demand for skills is outpacing supply, thus maintaining the earnings advantage of the highly educated.


One reason why educational expansion is coinciding with rising inequality might be due to technological development.  Technology, automation and artificial intelligence all raise the demand for schooling. But technology also makes certain skills obsolete, while putting a premium on other skills and raises the overall demand for skills. This is leading to a race between education and technology, a concept first introduced by Nobel Prize winning Dutch economist, Jan Tinbergen.

If automation implies a race between education and technology, then who is winning? In most of the 20th century education was clearly winning. But today, the ability of workers to compete is handicapped by the poor performance of education systems in most countries. At the same time, there is demand: The returns to schooling are high in most developing countries, and growing skill premiums are evident in much of the world.

What can be done

Our school systems are not keeping up. Neither in terms of numbers nor in quality. More schooling is necessary, but at high levels, and with higher levels of quality – in terms of what students actually learn and can do. But new skills are needed, too.

The three biggest policy priorities that governments, investors and the development community should be doing to prepare for the future include:

  1. Focus on basic skills, early development, and measure and improve early reading – as well as teacher development, appropriate learning environment, modern education management system
  2. Give opportunities to workers to invest in relevant skills for labor market that make them benefit from, and remain immune to, automation – and allow them to re-invest, re-skill, throughout their lifetimes
  3. Use evidence from labor market returns to education to implement financial innovations - and use future earnings to finance higher education

This is not easy.  Even ensuring the fundamentals is difficult. In developing countries there are more than 250 million children out of school. Another 250 million are in school but cannot read. In fact, 53 percent of children in low- and middle-income countries cannot read and understand a simple story by the end of primary school. In poor countries, the level is as high as 80 percent. Therefore, step one is to focus on early reading success.

Moreover, we need to invest in relevant skills. That is, in addition to cognitive skills, we need:

  • Problem-solving skills – to think critically and to analyze
  • Learning skills – to acquire new knowledge
  • Communication skills – including reading and writing
  • Personal skills – for self-management, making sound judgments and managing risks
  • Social skills – for collaboration, teamwork, management, leadership, resilience and conflict resolution

Learning – or learning to learn skills – matter a lot for building a system of lifelong learning. But how close are we?

The World Economic Forum coined the term 4th Industrial revolution. If we are moving towards 4.0, then what is the analogy to education? Are we at 1.0? Are we still in the system based on the schoolhouse and teacher? Are we at 2.0? Where we have collaboration, smart use of technology, with the teacher as facilitator? Or have we moved to 3.0? Connected, personalized, open access education? We certainly aren’t at 4.0 if that means lifelong learning driven by autonomy and purpose. Of course, some systems have some elements of higher order education and have evolved from traditional schooling; but certainly not all, and not for everyone.

Lifelong Learning should be seen as Schooling for All. It is for all, and for all time, and everywhere (ubiquitous). It has to be about quality, but beyond test scores; and towards self-realization. It is preparation for the world of work; indeed, for the uncertain world of tomorrow.

Lifelong learning is human capital.

Prof. Arup Barman
February 13, 2020

Life ling learning can influences on happiness and peace. If peace to re-stored then lifelong learning (LL) can be weapon for restoration of peace. If people goes wants to way from from crimes and sin, then, time spent through education and learning can be th best tool. Life long learning is way for peace and prosperity. How to insert an attitude for LL at level of units is a serious dillema.

February 14, 2020

Good points. Yes, there are many benefits to lifelong learning. As you say, the challenge is to instill the learning process early on. Thank you. Harry

George Hamusunga
February 13, 2020

This is true, the problem is that governments are providing education which is devoid of technological skills that enhance self-employment and job creation. For developing countries like Zambia that are endowed with so many natural resources, education need not train people to be employed because there are no jobs. Instead, it should provide our people with technological skills that are required to harness our natural resources and create employment. Fortunately, Zambia has now realized the importance of investing in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education. This year alone, Zambia has dedicated 15 secondary schools to the provision of STEM education.

February 14, 2020

Thank you. In addition to technological skills and STEM, we need to teach problem-solving skills and learning skills, so that students become self-learners and can adjust to the changing labor market environment.

Aysit Tansel
February 13, 2020

Very well. I enjoyed reading this and find it useful. How about a system where life long learning can be organized? How should it be?

February 14, 2020

Dear Aysit, thank you. A lifelong learning system – with emphasis on the word system – is needed. How to get there is the challenge. We tried, many years ago, to articulate how that might be done in the book, Lifelong Learning in the Global Knowledge Economy (…). Perhaps we need to revisit that and see if it is still relevant. I will try to summarize what we thought then, and what might still be relevant today, in the next blog. Thank you, Harry

Tabit Cornelius Daga
February 14, 2020

Good Education is global tool for development but the most importance is the moral backing to Education that gives room for credibility
Education today can be examine from Regions to Regions and Continents to Continents and to what extend has education imparted in the life of the citizens in ; Moral or Religious concepts , Technology concepts to transformation to real life . Only change people change the world today , if we do not have change people then the aspect of the concepts of morality is absent to the change , which is the prerequisite to all system of Education for Sustainability. Morality is contentious due to conceptual differences and life learning base on learners base approaches in education and replication of technology from one region to another will be very in imperative , this will create jobs and mitigate conflicts and create peaceful cohabited environment , since only change people change world. As i am a Student Teacher level 600 , option Electronics , Department of electrical and power engineering from the University of Bamenda Cameroon and CEO of INTEGRATED DEVELOPMENT AGENCY IDA FOUNDATION , for Health and Human development .
Thanks for conversation .

February 18, 2020

Thank you for your interest and thoughts. I believe that critical thinking is key for making the types of judgements you refer to. Thank you, Harry

Professor Stuart Billingham
February 18, 2020

This is one of the best analyses of lifelong learning and its role in social and economic development I have ever read. Truly great stuff Harry - and should be read by all with a passion for lifelong learning and with economic growth and development. That means you Prime Minister, Mr President....
My only doubt is whether continuing to use the term "schooling" will help us achieve these goals. I appreciate it is a term well known and understood in different cultures but it resonates with what happens to younger people and not with what happens to all of us throughout our lives. And "lifelong learning" is a term which universally brings blank expressions when people ask me "So, what are you a Professor of, Stuart?" and I reply "Lifelong Learning". Generally, I resort to "Education", which is true but also not true at the same time. "Lifelong Learning in the Global Knowledge Economy" raised many salient issues but, in my view, side-steped the most crucial - what should be our universal conceptual language so as to have the most impact. I am sometimes accused of "fiddling while Rome burns" in my preoccupation with this issue. I think my record of interventions speaks otherwise.
Anyway, I would welcome the opportunity to work with you Harry, and The World Bank, to try and solve this conundrum. It is critical for our success with this agenda, in the interests of so many, many people, across the globe in the coming years.

February 18, 2020

Dear Professor Billingham, thank you for the thoughtful comments. I agree that language tends to confuse issues on this topic. So we rely on common words like education, which evoke the image of the school and this confines our attention. But when we use lifelong learning, many would agree it is more useful, but for some it leads to questions such as “are you talking about adult education?” I think we need a mind shift, but it will take time, so I agree let’s keep talking and making the salient points. Thank you for the kind words and offers. Harry

March 06, 2020

Thank you Prof. Patrinos A. Harry for this blog and our imagination is certainly tweeked for the sequel.
I reckon 'Schooling for All' sits in the wider context of Lifelong Learning. The society as a whole, is all a learning zone.
School education especially in the younger years plays perhaps the most critical role in determining the individual outcomes. From in-class to integration in one's society and ability to withstanding shocks of life. Well handled it brings the magic of what may seem as natural acceleration in adulthood. And sadly if not, higher chances of stagnation, tripping and ease in being disoriented.
All the same, even without a good start, there still has to be hope.

March 09, 2020

Thank you for this insight. You are right that lifelong learning starts early, very early, and needs to be done right.

Seadya Ahmed
March 06, 2020

Great, insightful, and well-written. I enjoyed reading this and find it useful. Can I share it on my blog? I would like my blog readers to read it too!

March 06, 2020

Hi Seadya, I'm one of the World Bank blog editors. I'm glad you enjoyed Harry's latest blog entry. Please go ahead and share it with your network.

Many thanks!