Benefits of Lifelong Learning

“Participation in learning has positive effects”. Finding empirical evidence for this deep rooted belief is the main task of the research on the “Benefits of Lifelong Learning”. As yet, this field of research is not based on any standard theories or research approaches, but is characterized by various theoretical strands and a range of methodological approaches (Schuller, Bynner, Green, Blackwell, Hammond, Preston & Gough, 2001). But while there have been serious studies undertaken into the benefits of schooling, further and higher education, relatively little attention has been paid to the benefits of learning in adult life, especially those of the so called liberal adult education, where learning activities are based on personal interest related reasons (Desjardins, 2003). When focusing on the benefits of Adult Education empirical studies point out a wide range of benefits in various fields (for examples see Desjardins 2003; Manninen 2010). The main purpose of the BeLL study was to investigate the individual and social benefits perceived by adult learners who participated in liberal adult education courses. Benefits of lifelong learning were defined, refined, and explored in ten European countries. The BeLL study aimed to expand the knowledge base on liberal adult education in general and the respective liberal adult education landscapes in the ten participating European countries, The findings on the perceived benefits of learning were to be interpreted against this background.

Economic Benefits of Adult Education

Studies in Canada (Desjardins, 2003), UK (Feinstein et al., 2004), Austria (OEIB, 2008) and Germany (Timmermann, 2010) demonstrated that adult learning can improve employability and income. The existing studies focus on the economic return to work-based training and to employer provided training, which indicates that this can have significant impact on earning and the employment situation of individuals, for example reduce the risk of unemployment. In particular, groups such as migrants, women from ethnic minorities, etc. which are less likely to be in employment may benefit economically from their participation in Adult Education.


Health comprises physiological, mental as well as psychological dimensions and includes positives health and ill-health (Hammond, 2004). The impact of learning on health is mainly positive and can occur in various ways. However, there seems to be an indirect connection between learning and health. Hammond (2004; also Manninen 2010) found that learning can promote the development of psycho-social qualities (self-esteem and self-efficacy, sense of identity, purpose and future, communication and competences as well as social integration) that improve “well-being, mental health and the ability to cope effectively with change and adversity, including ill-health”. Feinstein et al. (2008) bring several studies together that illustrate the scope of learning benefits. They state that education “is a positive force for people’s health” (ibid, p. 13). Learners with a history of mental health difficulties state an improvement of mental health due to participation in learning.

Family life

Additionally, family life can benefit from learning. Generally it “has an influence in sustaining, gradually strengthening and improving family relationships” (Brasset-Grundy, 2004, p. 97). To put it more precisely, learning can have a positive impact on the children’s learning, on parental ability and family relationships (Brasset-Grundy, 2004). Similarly, Feinstein et al. (2008) state that education can improve communication within families what leads to less divorces and early parenthood. Emphasize is also put on the effects of parental education on the children’s performance in education. A longer educational period does not guarantee good parenting, but in parenting courses parents of young children gained self-esteem and confidence which were then passed on their children.

Civic participation and civic and social engagement

Feinstein et al. (2008) argue that education can have a positive influence on societal cohesion and citizenship. Regarding societal cohesion, the main contributions of education are greater trust, more civic co-operation and lower levels of violent crime. Additionally, the individual engagement in education is a predictor of engagement in public life because “the more students are engaged in their education, the more willing they are, on average, to play a positive role in public life” (p. 20). Adult education leads moreover to an increase in racial tolerance and a greater likelihood of voting. Preston (2004) analyzed the impact of adult education on participants’ civic lives and on the formation of values, particularly tolerance. He found that learning can have an impact on informal and formal civic participation. Concerning informal civic participation, it has helped individuals to build, maintain, dismantle, reconstruct and enrich their social networks. Additionally, the formation of values can be influenced by learning. For example changes in tolerance, understanding and respect were reported by respondents. Civic and social engagement (CSE) as learning outcome has been analyzed by the OECD (2007). Four factors of learning that foster CSE have been identified: content, development of competences, cultivating values, attitudes, beliefs and motivations, and increasing social status. However more years in education do not automatically mean higher levels of CSE. There are more variables, such as curriculum, school ethos, and pedagogy that shape CSE. But learning environments that lay stress on responsibility, open dialogue, respect and application of theory and ideas in practical and group-oriented work seem to be more successful in fostering CSE than other forms of learning.

Attitude Change

It was found (Feinstein et al, 2003) that adult learning is associated with more “open-minded” perspectives on race and authority, greater understanding of people from different backgrounds, challenging previously held beliefs and with a sustaining effect on non-extremist views. Especially academic oriented courses are most suited for opening minds and generally link adult learning to increased racial tolerance, a reduction in political cynicism and a higher inclination towards democratic attitudes.


The Centre for Research on the Wider Benefits of Learning claims that people with no qualifications are more likely to be persistent offenders (Feinstein et al, 2008). It is stated that success or failure in learning is strongly related to propensity to commit crime. Schuller (2009) believes that general education and training reduces the risks of people engaging in criminal activity and re-offending.

Poverty Reduction

Adult Education has been also cited as a key in reducing poverty levels around the world (UNESO-UIL, 2009 in EAEA, 2010) as it has the capacity to positively affect many dimensions of poverty. Results show that Adult Education has a role to play in nurturing the skills and knowledge necessary to both reducing the risk of poverty but also for providing the capacity to withstand poverty-inducing pressures (Motschilnig 2012). EAEA (2010) underlines the empowering role that Adult Education can have in times of crisis, providing a stable community, a chance for reorientation, a safe place and social recognition. Also, the UK the Inquiry into the Future of Lifelong Learning (IFLL) (Sabates, 2008) concludes that participating in adult learning can help substantially to reduce poverty through enhancing employment prospects, improving health levels of poor people and giving better chances of acquiring the tools needed to run their own lives. Therefore it should be a part of any approach to reducing poverty, as multiple initiatives are needed to lift people out of poverty.

Well-being and Happiness

A significant body of recent research has explored the relationship between adult learning and well-being. Bertelsmann Foundation (Schleiter, 2008) thanks to a survey found that 35 percent of the people interviewed see a strong correlation between Lifelong Learning with happiness and well-being. The Centre for Research on the Wider Benefits of Learning (Preston and Feinstein, 2004) provides some evidence of effects on subjective well-being and links adult learning to increases in self-confidence and self-worth. Similar results were found in a Finnish study (Manninen, 2010). Direct effects of adult learning relevant to well-being are, for instance, self-efficacy, confidence or the ability to create support networks. In one study (Field, 2009) four-fifths of learners aged 51- 70 reported a positive impact on areas such as confidence, life satisfaction and their capacity to cope. Feinstein et al.’s longitudinal analysis found that learners were more likely to report gains in self-efficacy and sense of agency than non-learners. (Feinstein et al, 2003).

Further research questions

Some conclusions can be made from the analysis of the above-mentioned research about the specific benefits of adult learning. Probably due to the fact that in formal education system the data is easier to collect as well as to record the qualifications achieved, most studies focus on formal learning. Less consideration is paid to non- and informal learningand little research exist on general and leisure related adult learning. Moreover, there is no empirical evidence on how and which types of learning approaches are most effective and generate more benefits for adults.


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