Blog | 08 Apr, 2022

Lifelong learning and the fourth industrial revolution

David James


It is still widely accepted that today’s technological advances require a strategic approach to lifelong learning, by increasing the volume and flexibility of human capital to deliver greater individual and shared prosperity. After all, education is often regarded as one of the few ‘levers’ available to governments.  This view is increasingly questioned, though it feels like the worst time to be questioning it! Surely, if we are in the midst of a fourth industrial revolution (4IR), where technological change has become more disruptive and accelerated even further, then expanding lifelong learning is even more urgent?

The problem is that connecting lifelong learning and the 4IR is so widely found in policy documents and media commentary, that it becomes easy to believe we all think it’s a good thing and all agree about what each concept means.  This blog, and the working paper on which it is based, aim to clarify these concepts and then try to find a positive way they can be used together.

Lifelong learning is sometimes traced back to ‘lifelong education, put forward by both the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) and the Council of Europe in the 1970s, though it has earlier roots as well. Concepts of lifelong learning usually have three parts: they are about enabling (a) greater economic participation, (b) individual development, and (c) social cohesion and democratic participation.  These goals can pull in different directions, and lifelong learning policy and practice vary depending on how the parts are held together, and which of them is prioritised through the allocation of resources and incentives. Recent years have seen a tendency for the first goal to take precedence in both policy and practice.

The 4IR is a more recent concept, popularised by the World Economic Forum. It also combines three elements, namely:

  1. The identification of rapid technological development, some of it in unprecedented forms.
  2. The assertion of a human developmental/historical narrative emphasising the inevitability of technological progress.
  3. The statement of a set of values and propositions about appropriate responses to harness the potential for economic growth and individual wellbeing.

We argue that there is plenty of evidence for the first of these, but the second and third elements of the 4IR are of a different order, being more questionable, if not ideological in supporting the big business agenda for change. They place private business and market competition above all other realms of life and insist that economic growth will solve all problems.  Innovation and creativity is encouraged, but Trauth-Goik (2020:17) claims that the WEF agenda is ‘misaligned with the long-term interests of the species and planet’.

Towards a progressive concept of lifelong learning

Our analysis involves trying to understand both of the major concepts a little better in order to see what opportunities there might be to take a fresh approach.  We argue that despite the in-built tensions in the concept of lifelong learning, and despite problems associated with the narrative around the 4IR, there are new ways to bring them together. 

We acknowledge that discussions about the 4IR rest on important, valid, and well-evidenced technological changes, but in our view these changes are quite often over-interpreted, woven into an unhelpful ideological narrative.  For this reason, it is essential to separate out the three elements we have identified.  Yet despite this weakness, we do suggest that the 4IR is helpful in reimagining lifelong learning – as a provocation, catalyst, or impetus. Peters (2020) notes that many policy responses to technological change are conservative, seeking to preserve society as it is, with education or lifelong learning seen as the answer. However, a different starting point is possible.  What if we begin with the question: what sort of lifelong learning provision and participation would help achieve a sustainable economy and society that can empower its citizens?

As Kurt Lewin once said, ‘there’s nothing so practical as a good theory’ (Lewin, 1943). A hard look at the concepts leads us to offer some principles of procedure that can be translated into many different structures and activities. Doing so could be a valuable first step in rethinking lifelong learning so that it transcends an individual employment-focused discourse on meeting the changing needs of the industry.  The goal here could be a progressive conceptualisation of lifelong learning that is responsive to the changing nature of work without losing sight of more fundamental issues for humanity.    

Professor David James is a Professor of Sociology of Education, at Cardiff University. Connect with him on Twitter @d_avid_james


Lewin, K. (1943) ‘Psychology and the process of group living’. Journal of Social Psychology 17, 113-131. Reprinted in The complete social scientist: A Kurt Lewin reader, (Martin Gold, Ed) (1999) (pp. 333–345)

Peters, M. A. (2020). Beyond technological unemployment: the future of work. Education Philosophy and Theory 52 (5), 485-491.

Trauth-Goik, A. (2020). Repudiating the Fourth Industrial Revolution Discourse: A New Episteme of Technological Progress. World Futures 77 (1).

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