The prospect of “intelligent machines” destroying jobs and displacing millions of workers has become a topic of great public concern in recent years. PwC estimates that up to 30% of today’s jobs in OECD countries could be automated by the mid-2030s[1], and many other consultancies and government studies confirm a similar outlook. The sheer pace at which this technological disruption is transforming labor markets means that workers will change jobs (or even careers) several times during their life. But what’s less clear is what new jobs will spring up in the future, and if there will be enough to replace the ones that are lost.


Faced with these uncertainties, we can no longer rely on the current model of loading up on knowledge and skills at school and university and expecting them to last a lifetime. Instead, it’s imperative that we embrace “lifelong learning” in order to re-tool ourselves for new employment opportunities as previous jobs grow obsolete.


But although the clamour for lifelong learning is growing, there’s been little in the way of a meaningful policy response. In most countries, the problem is that investment in adult education is heavily concentrated on 18-24 year olds attending universities and technical colleges. For example, in the US annual government spending on students in non-college adult education represents 0.7% of spending on students studying at university![2]And according to the independent “Inquiry into the Future for Lifelong Learning” in the UK[3], 86% of the annual £55 billion investment in adult education by government, employers, and individuals is focused on the 18-24 age cohort. The UK government funds £26 billion of the total adult education investment, but only £1.5 billion of it is spent on workers 25 years of age and above.


Annual Investment on Adult Learning by Age Cohort in the UK (£ billion)[4]

Annual Spend on Adult Learning by Funding Source in the UK (£ billion)[5]  

Taking lifelong learning from rhetoric to reality will require significant investment. So far, a few initiatives have been launched in other countries. For example,the SkillsFuture Credit pilot program in Singapore offers direct subsidies of S$500 to citizens over the age of 25 to take a program from a pre-approved list of 18,000 courses. In 2016, the program was used by over 126,000 Singaporeans and the government is considering expanding investment in the program. In France, Personal Training Accounts enable workers aged 16 or over to acquire rights to up to 24 hours of training per year in an account that remains valid throughout their career.


Although Singapore and France have taken steps in the right direction, a much more radical re-allocation of resources seems to be warranted. A proposal that may come closer to matching the scale of the challenge, has recently been put forward by the UK’s Liberal Democratic Party. Under their scheme, every UK citizen over 18 would gain access to a Personal Education and Skills Account (PESA).[6] The government would make three contributions of £3,000 each to PESAs at ages 25,40 and 55, which amounts to a six-fold increase in its current £1.5 billion spending on training over 25s. Workers and their employers would also be able to make tax-free contributions, with the government adding 20% on top. The funds could be used to pay for education and training courses delivered through accredited providers and workers would also receive career guidance sessions to help meet a career goal.


And where could the funds for substantive lifelong learning programs come from? In countries like the US and the UK, there seems to be an obvious opportunity to re-allocate spending from traditional university programs whose costs have skyrocketed. In the US, annual tuition fees at public universities rose from an average of $3,190 in 1987 to$9,970 in 2017 (indexed to 2017 prices), saddling students with excessive debt and placing a large toll on the public purse.Moreover, the practical employment value of these expensive qualifications is increasingly being called into question. According to Gallup, between 2015 and 2019 the proportion of Americans who had a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in higher education fell from 57% to 48%.[7]And in a poll conducted by IpsosMORI for the Sutton Trust, only 65% of under-16s in the UK think it is important to go to university, compared with 86% in 2013.[8] It seems that the public trust in universities is falling fast.


If we are to get serious about lifelong learning, universities and technical colleges will need to re-invent themselves. In his new book, A New U[9], education critic Ryan Craig argues that institutions of higher education should provide “faster + cheaper”programs with a greater focus on work experience and job skills. The resulting savings in traditional tertiary education would free up public funds to be re-deployed on lifelong learning programs. Craig believes that these offerings should be job-focused“last mile programs”, bear strong connections to employers, and focus on developing technical and job skills that land high-demand, high-wage jobs as a direct outcome.


A combination of schemes like PESAs and reforms to adult learning programs would catapult students into the workforce with much less debt and provide a flexible means to finance the many career transitions that lie ahead.



[2] annual spendingon public universities is approximately $284 billion; spending onnon-college adult education is approximately $2 billion