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Lifelong Learning and the World of Work

John Halliday

University of Strathclyde, UK

Paper Presented at the European Conference on Educational Research, Lahti, Finland 22 - 25 September 1999


This paper addresses the issue of how lifelong learning, globalisation and economic advancement might be related. It is critical of the argument that there is now an increasingly homogenous global economy that is knowledge based and that unambiguously requires a high level of cognitive skills in its workers. Rather it is argued that changing economies are likely to remain diverse and that the familiar distinction between low and high skill routes to economic success is misleading. This distinction serves to entrench an unhelpful separation of mental from manual skills and a mistaken conception of learning as something anterior to and distinct from work.

It is accepted that economic considerations can never be the sole determinant of lifelong learning opportunities that ought to be provided. Nor ought such considerations be the main determinants as if life, work and education could be considered in isolation from one another. Equally deficient however are strategies for lifelong learning that neglect the fact that certain opportunities are more expensive to provide than others and that the ability to take up any opportunity requires some degree of economic success. Ultimately the ways in which people, communities and governments balance competing claims for resources will be one of the principle concerns of policies to encourage lifelong learning in the future. While the paper is critical of certain types of policies to encourage lifelong learning and the theoretical assumptions on which they are based, it does provide some positive practical proposals and an outline of a conception of lifelong learning that could underpin them.


Interest in lifelong learning may be seen as part of a shift in interest from schooling to learning after school. It is increasingly recognised and found to be unacceptable that schooling fails so many students and that those who go on to higher education receive an unfair share of educational resources. Educational elitism is now politically unacceptable and programmes of lifelong learning seem to offer the possibility that social exclusion can be countered when multiple chances to become educated are available. The possibility depends however on lifelong learning being seen not as a compensatory device to deal with failure at school but as the norm for everyone. The idea that globalisation produces such rapid changes in the world of work that learning must be ongoing to cope with it offers a way of normalising programmes of lifelong learning.

First I attempt to deconstruct this normalisation. I argue that the ‘skills talk’ (Johnson 1998) of the 1990’s tends to suggest that education is a kind of investment that is subject to cost benefit analysis in a similar way to any other kind of investment. This suggestion coheres with the discourse of globalisation because that discourse depends upon the rapid transmission of digitised capital. So there is a mutually reinforcing set of discourses and arguments trading on the idea that programmes of learning enable the development of skills which form investments for a prosperous future.

This suggests that the world of work is changing so rapidly that individual prosperity and enhanced national economic performance can only be secured if the rate and frequency at which people learn changes rapidly too. The rewards of such performance are supposed by some governments to enable further and more widespread learning. This in turn encourages further improvements in economic performance and so on into a virtuous circle of investment in learning (Giddens 1998, p. 108) leading to increases in real, human and social capital (Bourdieu 1986).

Typical accounts of the idea can be found in many places (Commission of the European Communities 1994, 1997, OECD, 1973) One such is given in the Green Paper Opportunity Scotland (Scottish Office 1998, p. 4). Here interest in lifelong learning is coupled with the belief that, in the midst of change, there is a need to

‘update continually the skills of the workforce and better equip people to manage their own future. … people at all levels need to use learning opportunities to keep pace in the jobs market and to ensure that Scotland is equipped to compete in the global economy. (ibid.)’

But how do people at all levels use learning opportunities to keep pace in the jobs market? Only it seems by investing in their own skill development. The paper goes on

People who update their skills and learn new ones will get better paid jobs and achieve more success in their chosen fields of work. (p. 28)

But of course they do not choose their fields of work in this presumed rapidly changing jobs market, their fields of work are chosen for them by economic considerations beyond their control. The discourse of investment in skills is retained however through the idea that there are core and transferable skills.

It is clear that Scotland needs a workforce which is highly proficient in both core transferable skills and specialised sector based skills. (p. 28)

The metaphor of a vocational product is sustained through the idea that skills may only be acquired through some sorts of investment. It seems however that some Scots are not convinced by these ideas.

Involving adults in lifelong learning is our greatest challenge. … Some people perceive difficulties and barriers relating to their personal circumstances or previous low attainment at school. Others simply never think about learning at all. (op cit. p. 8)

Are these people ignorant and/or misguided or is there something wrong with the conception of lifelong learning presented in the Green Paper? In Britain, at any rate, there is a degree of uncritical acceptance of this conception. Although as Coffield notes,

Behind the high flown rhetoric, lifelong learning the learning society and the learning organisation are all being propounded to induce individuals to become more or less willing participants in learning for life and to bear an increasing proportion of the costs of such learning. (Coffield 1998, p 11)

He goes on to argue that lifelong learning can be seen as the latest form of social control. If he is right then it is hardly surprising that Scots resist such control even though they might be induced to learn through schemes which all seem to involve generally well-paid professionals trying to enrol generally less well paid people or even poor people within formal educational institutions.

Braverman (1976) argues that one of the main purposes of formal education is to provide many thousands of jobs for generally middle class people supposedly training working class people for jobs for which training as an activity distinct from the job itself, is not really required. It is not necessary to concur entirely with Braverman to question whether money is well spent on schemes such as the above. It is however necessary to question whether much current rhetoric of lifelong learning serves to reinforce an instrumentalist conception of education in which learning is seen as the acquisition of qualities of dubious value which are then supposed to serve as the means to fulfil someone else’s aims.


One way of challenging such an instrumentalist conception is to question the economic argument based on globalisation that is often put in support of it. It seems obvious that companies will locate in those parts of the world where the rate of return on their investment is maximised. Capital can be transmitted from one place to another almost instantaneously in digital form on the telecommunications network. Information too flows round the world via the Internet. Even though there is a reaction against it, there is an increasing homogeneity in global culture towards such institutions as fast food outlets, supermarkets and shopping malls. As a result of these trends there is a tendency to discuss globalisation as if it was something new and all embracing. Yet all of these trends except for the digitalisation of information and capital were features of colonial expansion in the late 19th century too.

Certainly it is now easier and cheaper to move materials, people and information around the globe than ever it was. This means that there is no longer such a competitive advantage to be near human, physical or economic resources of any kind. Therefore it is easy to appreciate the argument that the key to economic advantage must be the value that can be added to these resources and the assumption that more skilled people are best able to add value. Hence increasing investment in education and training are seen as the only hope for economically advantaged nations to maintain that advantage and less advantaged nations to improve (Field 1998, p. 10).

One problem with such a strategy is obvious. If every nation, group of nations or individuals is adopting it, then there will be no competitive advantage, merely better educated or trained people engaged in an ever-increasing spiral of ingenious schemes to manufacture demand and then satisfy it. A further problem is that it neglects the importance of traditional though perhaps unglamorous forms of work to many areas of economic life. Yet another problem with this strategy is that it assumes that those possessing most knowledge or skills should be paid to educate those having less knowledge and skills (Macrae et al 1997, p. 500). Within the discourse of rapid change through globalisation however, such skills and knowledge must be obsolescent.

What is going wrong with this argument is something to which Hartley (1998) among others has drawn attention. There is a constant tension between government attempts to control learning and cultural forces that make such control counter-productive. For example at a time in which post-fordist modes of organising industrial and commercial activity suggest that there is a need for flexible working practice, some governments pre-specify through national curricula what individuals should be able to do long before those individuals ever have to perform in the way specified. .

It is easy to see why this mistake might be made. First it gives an illusion of control as if national governments could anticipate the effects of global capitalism and local contingency to plan to fill the job vacancies that are going to arise in the future. Second the strategy involves a minimal shift in thinking and practice from what has become conventional within formal education. Nevertheless if the argument of this paper is correct the mistake should be rectified on economic grounds alone. That is quite apart from the dire social and personal consequences of trying to enforce the view that learning should be a preparation for work or life when for many people it turns out to be no such thing. I challenge the view that globalisation is so pervasive an influence on the learning opportunities that ought to be on offer that all such opportunities should be structured around what is arguably the most easily globalised commodities – information and finance. I argue that it is only concepts that can be economically digitised that potentially take on a global appearance and it is only places where there is a communications infrastructure in place that can realise this potential. That excludes from the direct influence of globalisation many values, places and economic systems. I discuss each of these before drawing some implications for policy.


As MacIntyre (1981) argues, there are values internal to all practices – values that are embedded within the practical knowledge that gives some people their prime sense of identity as a joiner or nurse for example. But practical knowledge is not digitisable. However many propositions or pictures are composed to try to illustrate the values that are internal to a practice, those pictures and propositions can never be equivalent to the practical knowledge that is acquired through working with others in contextually specific ways. There is always a gap between prescriptions for and illustrations of action and action itself. There is always room for asking the question ‘show me how to do it’ of someone with superior insight and ability who can be trusted to care about my learning. The very notion of teaching depends upon there being a shared sense of trust and caring that cannot be exchanged as external values.


Globalisation may well be tending to suggest that the nation in which people live is irrelevant to their economic well being. Yet according to Ashton and Green 1998:71, in most countries the largest part of economic life is still served by national companies. Moreover there is no uniform pattern of economic growth across the globe. Even though the gap in growth between the ‘North’ and ‘South’ remains large there are parts of both that have narrowed the gap. For example many Asian economies have grown rapidly while the opposite is true of some Eastern European countries. Moreover it would be misleading to suggest that there is even uniform patterns of growth within countries or even within towns. And the same is true for wages, prices, rates of unemployment and so on.

Castells (1996) explains this lack of homogeneity through the idea of a network society and the idea is discussed in the paper. If societies are viewed as comprising overlapping networks not free from physical space and subject to globalising tendencies, then there can exist within very short distances quite remarkable disparities of wealth and influence. The nodes at which networks do or do not overlap determine which physical places are economically and culturally prosperous and which are not. Nowhere is this more obvious than in cities where areas of wealth and poverty seem to exist in close proximity without any obvious rationale for this spatial relationship.

All this makes the work of national governments difficult. The burdens of a collective lack of identity and civil society are placed upon them and this induces what Habermas (1973) has called a legitimation crisis. The introductions of national curricula, programmes of lifelong learning and courses in citizenship may be seen as a vain attempt to hold on to the idea that the members of a nation can share a set of common values. Such values might be supposed to enable people to live peacefully with one another even though quite disparate levels of wealth and influence are apparent to them. But people have multiple identities and may have more in common with foreign nationals than their neighbours. Certainly people retain something of a sense of identity through the places they inhabit and the work that they do but those places and that work may have more in common with places and work in quite distant locations than those that are near.

Economic Systems

It is widely believed that paradigm shifts in economic systems that took place during the post-agricultural and post-industrial periods are similar to economic changes that are now taking place as a result of the impact of information technology. Yet as Singleman (1978) shows, the overall effect of these shifts has been a decline in agricultural jobs and a rise in service-sector jobs although there are big differences between the rates of decline and increase in different countries. The idea that the so-called information revolution has resulted in a further paradigm shift in economic systems is not supported by empirical studies.

A perusal of the jobs studies conducted within the OECD countries between 1950 and 1995 shows that the most noticeable feature is the rise in unemployment from 10 million in 1950 to 35 million in 1995. As one of the reports acknowledges this figure is probably misleadingly low because of the numbers on training schemes or who are not registered (OECD 1994). Patterns of unemployment are far from even however. For example Japan and North America have kept a low rate of unemployment compared with Europe. The types of employment in different countries and the rates at which those types are changing are not uniform either. Nor as Robinson (1997a, p. 28) argues, in the OECD countries, is there evidence of acceleration in ‘the pace of change in the structure of employment by industry and occupation.’ While the percentage of the workforce occupied as producers of information has doubled in the period quoted, no more than 10% of the workforce in any country is presently employed in this sector. Whereas about 25% of the workforce are steadily employed in the distributive services and 10% of the workforce are steadily employed in personal services. There is stability too in the percentages employed in the transformative industries such as building.

Of course the very framing of these employment categories decontextualises the work that is actually done and may conceal similarities between types of work and learning to work that cuts across categories. A more detailed look at types of work reveals why it is unlikely that percentages employed in each employment sector will change dramatically. It also reveals why the putative link between skill formation and economic prosperity is tenuous.

O’Donnell (1981) states that there are between two and five million adults not fully literate in Britain who nevertheless perform a variety of jobs perfectly adequately. He goes on to argue that people can be trained on the job as it were without spending time in formal learning organisations. This argument is of course supported by the situated learning theorists that were quoted earlier. Recent evidence from Steedman et al (1998) indicates that there is now an over qualification of people in the workforce for the jobs they are expected to do. The lack of even very basic skills such as literacy and numeracy does not according to Robinson (1997b, p. 2) raise a high level of concern among employers. Moreover he argues that high earnings still tend to be achieved by those with non-vocational or academic qualifications. Ashton and Green (1996, p. 3) conclude that ‘it is incorrect to assume a linear and automatic connection between skill formation and economic performance’. Indeed there may be a strong economic case for business to place strict limits on the amount spent on raising the skill levels of the workforces in certain parts of the industrialised world. This case follows logically from the idea of a network society. It is simply wrong to claim a universal link between economic performance and lifelong learning conceived as an ongoing form of skill acquisition. The formation of policy on lifelong learning must turn away from such a putative link and consider what it ought to do about a networked society.

Implications for Policy

This paper may appear to have only negative implications but knowing some ways not to proceed does narrow the options for knowing ways that are worth pursuing. If the arguments of this paper are correct then support for the idea of lifelong learning as a form of vocational preparation should be dropped. There are good reasons to provide opportunities for people to learn those practices that enable the transmission of a cultural inheritance that has withstood the test of time including those periods when it appears as if a paradigm shift in the rate of change is taking place (Pring 1995, p. 180). Such a transmission enables people to maintain a critical perspective on their lives and to consider those fundamental questions of value that characterise an educational ideal.

It is worth remembering that economic inclusion is a precondition of any other form of inclusion. It is little use having policies that encourage social inclusion through lifelong learning when people are so economically disadvantaged that their efforts are spent trying to eke out a living. Such eking must be inefficient because those people are trapped in a cycle of deprivation that excludes them from the very resources that would enable them to move out of that cycle. It is worth remembering too that some learning resources are much cheaper to provide than others. Books for example are cheaper than professional teachers. Sometimes it is cheaper to provide the resources for people to learn informally rather than to learn from professional teachers within formally supported institutions such as colleges.

Along with several other countries, the UK devotes about 5% of GDP to education which amounted to some 30 billion in 1998. Of this approximately 5 billion was devoted to vocational further education. It is hard to estimate what in addition is spent on vocational primary secondary and higher formal education systems but it is likely to be considerable. What this paper argues is that those resources currently used to support the idea of a vocational preparation during and after school should be redirected. A radical shift is now needed away from the personal banking concept of lifelong learning towards the societal banking concept in which businesses, formal educational and other institutions complement each other in providing learning opportunities across a range of practices and a range of induction into those practices. One intention behind such inductions is that people are better able to communicate with each other in deciding democratically what ought to be done and how best to do it. If it is accepted that societies will become increasingly networked, then there may well be good arguments for making the activities of those networks more open to scrutiny through programmes of lifelong learning. In essence such programmes enable people to understand how networks are formed and how to talk with those whose affiliations appear different.

Globalisation and the associated networking within it will proceed in ways that no government can predict. That is despite attempts made by governments acting together to regulate global capitalism and in particular financial markets. While it will never be clear precisely what set of policies will best encourage lifelong learning in the maximalist sense, it is clear the direction they should take and the kind of considerations that are not relevant or unhelpful. Support for the idea of a vocational preparation as a prime concern within policies for lifelong learning should be dropped. That is not to say that learning all kinds of things cannot have a specific vocational pay-off. Just the opposite but such learning does not always or often have to be formally planned as an activity distinct from other activities.


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This document was added to the Education-line database 22 September 1999