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What Is Lifelong Learning?

Read our article to uncover the benefits of lifelong learning and how you can adapt it as part of your personal or professional development.

Sasha El-Halwani

Many people think learning stops when they leave school or university, but this doesn’t have to be the case. Lifelong learning creates opportunities to develop skills beyond the classroom. In the workplace, it can allow employees to gain new skills and grow in their careers. Meanwhile, employers can reap the benefits of a workforce that’s continually refreshing and building its skills.  

This article considers lifelong learning in all its forms, why it’s important and how to build lifelong learning skills.

What is the significance of lifelong learning?

Lifelong learning can play an essential role in keeping our brains active and helping us develop skills to overcome personal and professional challenges. It can also drive motivation at work and keep people interested and engaged in what they’re doing.

Employers also need to prioritise lifelong learning because as business needs evolve, so too do ways of working. Digitalisation and automation, for example, are reducing the shelf life of skills and making continual upskilling imperative. In 2023, the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs report found that organisations expect 42% of business tasks to be automated by 2027. This is making cognitive skills—analytical thinking, problem-solving, leadership and social influence—that much more valuable.

Changes in career learning

In the past, career learning was typically an in-person initiative that involved training days, seminars and conferences. Now, a range of skills can be developed through a variety of learning methods. These include on-the-job learning, coaching and mentoring, as well as online training hosted on learning management systems. Some learning can lead to larger recognised accreditations, but this doesn’t always have to be the case. Micro-credentials are verifiable proof of specific skills or competencies that are typically awarded at the end of a short learning activity.

A larger focus on upskilling and learning development 

A staggering 95% of HR professionals responding to a Fosway Group research project identified the availability of talent as their most significant business challenge, sending reskilling, upskilling and employee retention up the strategic priority list compared to 2021. “Being a learning organisation” was ranked joint top of the priorities for HR organisations, cited by over a third of respondents.

The talent shortage is impacting businesses everywhere. ManpowerGroup’s 2022 survey reported a 16-year high, with 75% of companies reporting difficulty finding the talent they need.  

A shift towards programmatic learning

ManpowerGroup’s 2022 survey revealed five in-demand soft skills, including problem-solving, creativity and critical thinking, as mechanisation reduces demand for some technical skills.  

The challenge for learning and development (L&D) is that these skills aren’t necessarily learnt through short, one-off courses. People need to build them up over time—practising, refining and developing them. Along the way, they benefit greatly from regular feedback and coaching.  

This is what comprehensive, blended programmatic learning is ideally suited to do. It’s commonly led by in-house subject matter experts, supported by technology, and works in tandem with opportunities to apply learning in a practise and feedback loop. Modern learning platforms can play important roles in powering programmatic learning experiences. They enable adaptable and personalised learning pathways, assessments with feedback, and learning in the workflow, allowing for real-world practice.

A rise in competency-based learning

Competency-based learning (CBL) recognises that people learn in different ways and at different speeds. What matters is what someone learns, not how long it takes them to learn it. 

With CBL, learners only move on to the next topic when they have shown they’ve understood the previous one. If they need help, they can be given access to supplementary material to build their knowledge before they’re ready to move on. CBL can work well in apprenticeship programmes because it enables learners to draw on knowledge and skills they already have, move on quickly and spend more time on new areas. 

What are the different types of lifelong learning?  

Learning happens in many ways, some more structured than others. It allows us to grow, which can lead to changes in our personal and professional lives.

In and outside of the workplace, people can benefit from:  

1. Formal learning

As the name suggests, this type of learning is run on a schedule and often follows a predetermined path through a course. It is often assessed and may result in formal recognition in the form of a qualification or accreditation. It tends to offer little scope to deviate and, for example, explore adjacent topics of interest.

2. Informal learning

This is less structured, often self-directed learning that may not be assessed. It typically happens more spontaneously and may draw on a range of sources, including online videos and tutorials, periodicals and knowledge sharing between colleagues.  

3. Continuing professional development

Many professions require an element of continuing professional development (CPD) for practitioners to continue their work. It could involve formal and informal elements, but if it’s associated with an accreditation, learners must ultimately demonstrate a pre-defined level of competency.

4. Personal learning

This type of learning is often more related to a passion or an interest. Yet, while it may not directly correlate to what someone does at work, we shouldn’t underestimate its value. It can build essential skills that people can apply in other areas of their lives. Plus, it nurtures a stronger, more resilient passion for lifelong learning.

What are the benefits of lifelong learning? 

1. Upskilling

It’s often said these days that we must run just to stay still. Nothing stays the same, which is why we always need to adapt and grow our skill sets.

In 2022, Ofcom, the UK’s communications regulator, announced it was consulting on a change that would no longer require telecom providers to support fax machines. For young people entering the workforce, this could be a non-issue. They’ve probably never sent or received a fax and may not even know what it is. However, older members of the workforce remember when faxing was a staple means of communication.

The moral of the story is that people must continuously upskill to move with the times. Lifelong learning is essential in keeping skills fresh and people ready to be productive and successful in their careers.

2. Employability

As individuals add to and improve their skills, it can become easier for them to secure the kinds of roles they’re aiming for. Prospective employers are more likely to be impressed by candidates who demonstrate an appetite for self-improvement and a commitment to keeping their knowledge up to date.

3. Fulfilment and motivation 

For many people, finding enjoyment and purpose at work is about balancing comfort with challenge. Knowing how to do something can be a reward in itself, but doing the same thing over and over again can also become boring. “Familiarity breeds contempt,” as the saying goes.

Lifelong learning can help us break the monotony. When we learn continuously, we always discover new things. We feel motivated to hone new skills, which can ignite new passions and add variety and interest to our lives

4. Health and well-being 

Research from the Vienna University of Economics and Business revealed that education, not income, is a better predictor of a long life. Similarly, the University of California has provided evidence that learning promotes brain health.

How we learn can have a positive impact on our lives, too. Learning can be a social undertaking, whether coming together in in-person groups or engaging with each other online. This helps us develop social connections, expand our networks and foster relationships.

5. Relevance and relatability  

The only constant is change. Even though we’re all familiar with the expression, change can still be jarring and uncomfortable to go through. Maintaining a learning mindset can help. It helps us adapt our attitudes as conditions evolve and adopt new technologies, practices and perspectives more quickly.

How to build lifelong learning skills 

Whether through a structured CPD programme or an informal mentorship, we can all incorporate lifelong learning into our lives. Here are a few tips to help you do that:

Set goals  

We often stand still because our goals seem too big. Breaking them down into smaller, more achievable tasks makes it easier to identify learning opportunities that will help you get there.

For example, if you aim to manage the team you now work in, think about the people and technical skills you’ll need. You may find that there are training programmes outside of work that can support you, or maybe there are opportunities to become a mentor to a junior colleague.

Make time  

A lack of time is one of the most common reasons people don’t pursue professional development. This is another spot where breaking goals down into smaller chunks can help. Perhaps there’s a short, asynchronous course you can chip away at over a month or so that will earn you a micro-credential at the end.

Think about the best way you can accommodate learning so that you stick with it. If you make unrealistic demands of yourself, you’re less likely to hold to them.

Do what interests you  

Learning isn’t just about a vocation or a career. We’re most likely to maintain learning if the subject matter interests us. Even if what you’re learning has nothing to do with your work, remember that skills can transfer. Let’s say you’d like to learn how to sew. Not only will you need to adopt new technology, but you’ll also be improving your focus, patience, attention to detail and problem-solving skills.

Be open to opportunities  

The opportunities for us to learn are all around. Often, it’s simply a case of recognising them. Pay attention to announcements and noticeboards at work and in local newspapers. See what others in your network are doing. If something captures your attention, ask the person about it.

What we’ve learnt 

Lifelong learning provides many benefits to individuals who embrace it and to companies that encourage it through a culture of continuous development.  

There are different types of lifelong learning. Some require structure and planning and result in accreditations, while others are more informal and self-directed. Each can occupy a valuable place in a person’s life for professional and personal advancement.  

A learning platform provides a cohesive learning environment through which individuals and companies can manage, organise, track and report on learning progress. This is ideal in our modern age, where learning happens in person, online, socially and through access to a range of resources. Find out more.

Written by:

Sasha El-Halwani

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Table of Contents

  1. What is the significance of lifelong learning?
  2. Changes in career learning
  3. What are the different types of lifelong learning?  
  4. What are the benefits of lifelong learning? 
  5. How to build lifelong learning skills 
  6. What we’ve learnt