Lifelong Learning


Lifespan Perspective
Recurrent Education


Learning across the lifespan

Principal Metaphors

Lifelong Learning is inattentive to descriptions of knowledge, and teaching. Metaphors from all perspectives are encountered in its literatures, with common links drawn to Cognitivism, Gestaltism, and Non-Trivial Constructivisms. That said, the following generalities seem to apply across all relevant frames:
  • Knowledge is … scope of possible actions and interpretations
  • Knowing is … functioning adequately
  • Learner is … a living human
  • Learning is … a continuous, lifelong process
  • Teaching is … N/A




The core assertion of Lifelong Learning is that learning is constant; it is present in every activity and every interaction. The perspective is typically introduced as a reaction to the notion that formal education (i.e., school and similar settings) is the main location to learn and the workplace is the main place to apply learnings. The discourse also reflects broadened learning expectations of the modern citizen, who can expect to live longer and deal with unforeseeable evolutions in technology, employment, distractions, politics, and so on. Associated discourses include:
  • Biographical Learning (Peter Alheit, 1990s) – the theory and study of the relationship between biography and one’s learning, as well as the use of one’s life history perspective in the learning process.
  • Continuous Learning – principles and practices associated with ongoing development of knowledge and skills in response to evolving circumstances. In professional contexts, Continuous Learning is sometimes used as a synonym to “professional development” or “inservice training.”
  • Personality Development – an umbrella term used to describe and collect discourses that address processes and consequences of self-creation, including tactics of distinguishing one’s self from others’ selves, sites of collective identifications, life-altering events, and ever-evolving contexts across the lifespan. Associated discourses include:
    • Positive Adult Development (Michael Commons, 2000s) ­– a model of constructive and lifelong personal development in element that is structured around six processes: hierarchical complexity (i.e., sequenced levels), knowledge, experience, expertise, wisdom, spirituality
  • Transitional Learning (Danny Wildemeersch & Veerle Stoobants, 2000s) – focused on moments when one faces unpredictable changes in one’s life that bring new responsibilities, trigger unanticipated choices, and compel the creation of new meaning and new self-understanding
A notable category of discourses associated with Lifelong Learning includes those that focus on aging:
  • Activity Theory of Aging (Implicit Theory of Aging; Lay Theory of Aging; Normal Theory of Aging) (Bernice Neugarten, 1960s) – the hypothesis that aging processes can be slowed by deliberately maintaining a high level of social activity
  • Cognitive Aging – changes to awareness, memory, judgment, and other mental functioning that occur across the lifespan, especially in old age
  • Continuity Theory (Continuity Theory of Aging) (R.C. Athley, 1970s) – the assertion that older adults will continue with the same activities and relationships that they engaged in earlier in life, modified as necessary to accommodate evolving abilities and circumstances
  • Disengagement Theory (Disengagement Theory of Aging) (Elaine Cumming, William Earl Henry, 1960s) – the assertion that withdrawal from social engagement is a natural part of aging
  • Disuse Theory of Aging – the hypothesis that decline in mental abilities associated with aging can be attributed in large part to decreased engagement in tasks that require the sorts of reasoning and memory measured by most psychological tests
  • Gerontology (Ilya Ilyich, early 1900s) – the multidisciplinary study of aging, attentive to biological, cognitive, psychological, social, and cultural aspects of aging
  • Later Life Adjustment – mental and physical adaptations necessitated by aging, especially those associated with diminished capacities and loss of relationships
  • Scaffolding Theory of Cognition and Aging (J.O. Goh, D.C. Park, 2000s) – a proposal to explain why many people are able to maintain high standards of performance on complex cognitive tasks, despite age-related declines in neural and physical functioning. The theory suggests that additional neural resources are brought to bear.
  • Socioemotional Selectivity Theory (Laura Carstensen, a990s) – a perspective motivation and aging that suggests one’s priorities shift away from future-oriented goals and toward emotionally meaningful activities and relationships as one grows older
  • Successful Aging – more a description or aspiration than a perspective or attitude, the avoidance of maintenance of cognitive capacity and healthy activity (and avoidance of illness and injury) through the aging process
  • Wear-and-Tear Theory of Aging – a biology-focused theory of acting that suggests the weakening of cells and tissues is due to accumulated damage (from use, toxins, and injury)
Notably, theories of aging are subject to the same Nature vs. Nurture debates as theories of learning:
  • Genetic Programming Theory (Planned Obsolescence Theory) – an umbrella category that includes those theories that regard aging as genetically predetermined
  • Variable Rate Theory – an umbrella category that includes any theory that describes aging as an individually specific phenomenon that is influenced by both genetic and non-genetic (e.g., context, diet, exercise, disease) factors


More an attitude than a theory, over the past few decades Lifelong Learning has become a mantra inside and outside of formal educational settings – driven in large part by dramatic evolutions in career landscapes and in part by greater variety in leisure activities. Not long ago, when adult work lives were spent in single careers, schooling was typically characterized as preparation for the adult (work) world and non-work pass times were not seen as sites for significant learning. Such imaginings are currently untenable, now that work lives are expected to span multiple careers and hobbies can have intense learning demands. Consequently, Lifelong Learning is perhaps better understood as a recognition of a cultural shift than a grand insight – a shift that has been greatly enabled by information technologies.

Authors and/or Prominent Influences

Knud Illeris

Status as a Theory of Learning

Lifelong Learning is not a theory of learning.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

Lifelong Learning is not a theory of teaching, although it is reflective of significant shifts in focus and attitude in formal educational settings over the past few decades.

Status as a Scientific Theory

Lifelong Learning is better described as an observation or elaboration than a scientific theory. Even the more developed versions, in which Lifelong Learning is presented as a comprehensive educational strategy that incorporates formal learning into other relevant activities, the discourse presents itself more as a "source of advice" than a "domain of research."


  • Activity Theory of Aging (Implicit Theory of Aging; Lay Theory of Aging; Normal Theory of Aging)
  • Biographical Learning
  • Cognitive Aging
  • Continuity Theory (Continuity Theory of Aging)
  • Continuous Learning
  • Disengagement Theory (Disengagement Theory of Aging)
  • Disuse Theory of Aging
  • Genetic Programming Theory (Planned Obsolescence Theory)
  • Gerontology
  • Later Life Adjustment
  • Personality Development
  • Positive Adult Development
  • Scaffolding Theory of Cognition and Aging
  • Socioemotional Selectivity Theory
  • Successful Aging
  • Transitional Learning
  • Variable Rate Theory
  • Wear-and-Tear Theory of Aging

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2023). “Lifelong Learning” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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