The right to lifelong learning: Making it a reality for all in Europe

Lifelong learning can empower individuals, support sustainable economic growth and contribute to just societies. That is why the EU is focused on making it a right for all, writes Maya Ivanova of the European Commission

The right to lifelong learning is an investment in our future – an investment that pays dividends many times over by helping people to maintain and acquire skills, to participate fully in society and to manage successfully transitions in the labour market. Today, European Union (EU) countries are firmly committed to making the right to lifelong learning a reality for all. The road ahead hides hurdles, but also opportunities. Having embarked on a journey towards universal access to lifelong learning, the EU can offer insights valuable beyond the continent.  

The world of work is undergoing a fundamental shift. Although it is not easy to picture exactly the jobs of the future, understanding the driving forces that shape our tomorrow can help us prepare for the challenges ahead.

Emerging digital technologies and our shared commitment to a greener economy will transform jobs and tasks across sectors. Some existing jobs will disappear or change, new ones will be created. For instance, thanks to the green transition, forecasts project the creation of around 1 million new jobs in the EU by 2030. More than 350 skills needed in such green professions have been identified. New jobs can also be expected in digital sectors, which already have a large number of vacant positions: software-related professions are the most constrained by shortage in the EU labour market. While vacancies increase, the share of working-age population in the EU is projected to decrease from 64.6% in 2019 to 54.8% by 2100.

Jobs for life are increasingly uncommon. People change jobs and careers to pursue new opportunities, but also out of necessity. Indeed, our evidence from examining millions of job vacancies across Europe shows that adaptability to change as the most requested skill set.

In order to adapt to change, individuals need a strong foundation of basic skills to build on. Basic digital skills, in addition to literacy and numeracy, are key on the jobs market, and will become a must for citizens’ engagement in society. This could exacerbate existing inequalities and leave vulnerable groups behind. The danger is real: 21.6% of adults in the EU had not completed upper secondary education in 2019, and around 40% are at risk of digital exclusion.

Recent events have also led to noticeable changes. The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated existing trends and brought about new ways of working and learning, making resilience and adaptability key for a changing working environment. The large displacement of individuals due to war also affects the labour market, creating a diverse workforce in need of guidance and tailored support.

The current and future challenges are significant, as are the opportunities. Individuals wonder what will happen to their jobs. Employers ask themselves how to attract and retain talent, with 77% of employers indicating difficulties in find employees with the required skills. Policy-makers seek to understand how our societies can harvest the benefits of a changing world of work in a fair manner.    

There is no simple answer to these questions but enabling a culture of lifelong learning is a fundamental step in the right direction. Learning at all stages of life and in all forms helps to successfully navigate through predictable and unpredictable shifts at the workplace, and opens up new opportunities, including for those most in at risk of marginalization.  

EU policies recognize the potential of lifelong learning: it empowers individuals, supports sustainable economic growth and contributes to just societies. Over the years, EU countries have intensified their cooperation, developed common principles for adult learning and agreed on priorities and actions. Despite this progress, the challenge persists. In 2019, only one in ten adults in the EU participated in training. Unfortunately, the participation rate of low-qualified, inactive and unemployed Europeans was even lower.

To tackle those issues, EU leaders took a number of decisive steps. In 2017, they proclaimed the European Pillar of Social Rights, establishing the right to quality and inclusive education and training and lifelong learning for all as its first principle. In 2021, they further deepened their pledge via thePorto Declaration, committing to the EU-level target of at least 60% of adults participating in learning every year by 2030.

These are important milestones towards a much-needed skills revolution. The recognition of access to lifelong learning as a right establishes a common vision. The agreement on a target allows to steer and to measure progress. Together, they create a strong foundation for action and cooperation across institutions and countries in Europe.

EU efforts now focus on making the right to lifelong learning a reality for all. Individuals need the right up-skilling and re-skilling tools. But what are these? Empowering individuals to take up training means addressing the obstacles that prevent them to do so in the first place. Not everyone has the means to follow a training course, not everyone is equally motivated and not everyone is sufficiently aware of available training opportunities.

The 2020 European Skills Agenda, a strategic framework of 12 actions, aims to tackle these obstacles with innovative responses. Examples include our initiatives on individual learning accounts and micro-credentials, which call upon EU countries to offer individuals financial and non-financial support for training and to expand the training offer by shorter, bite-sized and reliable training options.

The lessons learnt from the development of these policies can inspire countries beyond Europe to ensure training for all.

Maya Ivanova is Policy Officer for Skills and Qualifications in the Skills Agenda Unit of the Directorate-General for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion, European Commission

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