The world has undergone the worst health crisis in a century coupled with a deep shock to the economy and society. Unfortunately, it is only the last – and the worst – of a series of highly disruptive crises the world has experienced in the past 20 years. The recovery plans many countries are putting in place offer a unique opportunity not only to heal the scars of the crisis but also to address key underlining challenges the pandemic has once again highlighted.

For at least a decade, lifelong learning has been considered essential for individuals and societies to navigate a rapidly changing world of work shaken by globalisation, technological and environmental changes as well as demographic changes. In the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is essential that lifelong learning becomes a reality to all individuals since the crisis has further accelerated the transformation in our economy and skills needs.

Individuals’ ability to adapt and thrive in a fast-evolving world rests on their having acquired strong foundation skills, the willingness to learn and a habit of learning (otherwise known as lifelong learning attitudes). These skills and attitudes are vital for them to absorb and expand the knowledge and skills required to navigate new labour-market needs and life circumstances. However, walking the talk of lifelong learning requires a change in mindset: from a vision of learning that is compartmentalised in different phases of life to a process that evolves during all life. The idea that learning only pertains to the young is outdated, and does not meet the demands of societies and labour markets in a constant state of flux. Lifelong learning should start in childhood and youth and must continue throughout adulthood and old age. It should involve formal learning in official settings like schools or training centres, but also informal and non-formal learning (such as learning from co-workers and workplace training), and unintentional learning derived from spontaneous social interactions. Yet, today many adults do not participate – or wish to participate – in workplace learning, and the pandemic further reduced their opportunities to do so.

Thriving lifelong learning systems place learners at the centre. They combine a plethora of learning methods and learning providers, which requires strong accountability and monitoring to promote inclusivity. Not only does a diversified provision of learning opportunities ensure quality, it can also help inform individuals’ choices, thereby bolstering their motivation to participate in lifelong learning. Diversified learning systems can spur innovation, leading to the creation of successful learning programmes. However, such initiatives can only be brought to scale through strong co-ordination, knowledge management and information sharing.

This edition of the OECD Skills Outlook shows that public policies can and should play a key role in facilitating effective and inclusive lifelong learning, but much remains to be done. Policies that promote high-quality education, effective vocational education and training, and continuous work-based training generate opportunities for skill development in everyday life. Above all, they help create a culture in which learning is a habit and all individuals are motivated to continue learning, regardless of their current circumstances.

The pandemic forced education systems worldwide to quickly adapt and devise alternatives to face-to-face instruction. As a result, teachers and students have relied on remote teaching and learning on an unprecedented scale. Children’s attitudes towards learning play a key role in sustaining learning when regular classroom instruction cannot take place, and parents and teachers have played a fundamental role in helping them develop these crucial attitudes. Policy interventions also helped parents, teachers and schools worldwide make the most of digital learning. They will continue to do so in the future, to prevent early school leaving and ensure that the cohort of children affected by school closures during the global lockdowns will still be able to thrive.

At the same time, although estimated learning losses are highly heterogeneous across sectors and correlate with the extent of shutdowns in economic activities, they are also determined by the competencies workers already possessed – especially their digital skills, and their ability to engage in remote learning and remote working. Therefore, the pandemic likely resulted in fewer learning opportunities for disadvantaged and low-skilled workers – who, in turn, are most likely to need retraining.

Despite the uncertainty the pandemic has created in people’s lives, more than ever in the recovery skills will make the difference between staying ahead of the wave or falling behind in a world in constant flux. It will be crucial to invest part of the resources devoted to the recovery to lifelong learning programmes, involving all key stakeholders and with a specific focus on vulnerable groups – young people and among them the NEET (neither in employment, education or training) and the low skilled whose jobs are most at risk of transformation.

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