Adults’ Motivation for Lifelong Learning

28. maijs, 2003


Knud Illeris

Uzstāšanās konferencē "A Human Touch - Adults Learning with a Difference" 2003. gada 11. maijā

During the last decade the catching issue of Lifelong Learning, which was once launched as a project of emancipation, has more and more been integrated into the labour market and employment policies of governments and international organisations such as the EU and OECD. The most important concrete result of this has been a rapid increase in adult education programmes and incentives for adults to join them. In some cases these incentives almost assume the character of compulsion.

The Danish Adult Education Research Project (1997-2000) has been dealing with the broad adult education systems mainly serving lowly educated and unemployed adults. In the project we have consistently sought to investigate current adult education from the perspective of the learners. Empirical activities have comprised observation of teaching sessions and daily life and individual and group interviews of participants.

Basically most adult learners approach education in very ambivalent ways. The majority of participants enter the programmes because they are more or less forced to do so, and not because of an inner drive or interest. In practice they typically develop a variety of psychological defence strategies to avoid learning which challenge their identity and usual personal ways of thinking, reacting and behaving. Thus the time when adult education was mainly a voluntary activity for people to enrich and empower themselves is over, and the issue of adults’ motivation for lifelong learning seems to a core challenge of adult education today.

The Adult Education Research Project

In the modern so-called Knowledge Society an almost boundless importance has been ascribed to education and lifelong learning. Tony Blair has delivered the most significant evidence for this by proclaiming “education, education and education” as the three most important endeavours of the British New Labour government, and a continuous stream of documents from international policy agencies such as the EU and OECD have massively supported this standpoint (e.g. EU 2000, OECD 1996).

In consequence adult education has grown explosively during the latest 5-10 years and today, at least in Denmark, has developed into mass education: No one can today expect to pass through adulthood without being involved in some sort of education, usually several times, and adult education has also taken over the most basic feature of children’s schooling, namely that it is compulsory, if not by law then by necessity.

This situation has inevitably caused that also the ideology and practice of adult education have changed. Earlier the implicit background of adult education was usually that it was a voluntary activity, in which the participants involved themselves because they experienced a need or desire to learn something in subjects and fields of their own interest (e.g. Knowles 1975). Therefore a positive motivation and aims in the direction of emancipation, enlightenment and empowerment could be assumed (e.g. Mezirow 1991). But now the majority of participants turn up because they have to, they are forced or pressed to come, either directly by employers or authorities, or indirectly because the alternative would be social and economic marginalisation.

In the so-called “Adult Education Research Project” we have by observation and interviews investigated the three popular adult education systems in Denmark, i.e. the “Adult Vocational Training” system (offering mainly short practical training courses), the “Adult Education Centres” (offering secondary school level courses and exams for adults), and the “Day High Schools” (serving mainly unemployed adults who need to start a new career).

We have deliberately chosen the perspective of the learners, focusing on their accounts, experiences and evaluations of the educational situation and setting and the process that led them to participate (Ahrenkiel & Illeris 2000, Illeris 2000, 2003a). Our results in many ways contrast both the official administrative and the general ideological conception of adult education. At the same time the investigation has pointed to big differences connected with the participants’ employment situation and perspectives, between various age groups and to some extent also gender differences, whereas class differences seem to blur because the majority of participants irrespective of their background tend to be part of an expanding societal class or group of people who are at risk of being marginalised.

Ambivalence and identity

In general we have found that most adults approach education in very ambivalent ways. Generally their motivation is closely related to the need to keep their jobs or improve their possibilities of getting one. They hope for and demand enrichment and involvement but also fear being humiliated or challenged above the level of their personal thresholds. They are sensitive and vulnerable. While they hope for help and support in a critical life situation, they doubt that it is possible. They are sometimes ambivalent in a way that almost splits them apart.

These circumstances lead to participants telling about their reasons for being involved in adult education in most contradictory ways. On the one hand they usually emphasise that they have chosen to start an educational programme because they want to learn something; on the other hand most of them are only attending the courses because they have to. In some stories the social motives are dominant, but they are always mingled with other motives for qualification or personal development and with elements of passive resistance and perplexity.

Sanne is a married woman in the middle of her 40s, the daughter of a skilled worker. She did quite well at school, but left after 9 years, worked for 20 years as a dentist’s assistant, fell out with him and got an unskilled job in the electronics industry. After some years here she has been pressed to take part in a series of courses in order to improve her professional skills and knowledge and thereby become a more all-round and flexible employee. She says:

“I cannot stand courses. I always have butterflies in my stomach when something new is going on. I hate it. I need security. I was incredibly negative, I was annoyed, I was mad, thought it was just a lot of bullshit. Also because it is really not something I can use at all. I thought it was a waste of time and money. I thought it was simply ridiculous. I was madly frustrated about it. […] I am quite sure that the company takes note of whether one is willing to go to courses or not. For instance, our shop steward up there says that if we don’t go to courses we are not suited for the company. That’s it. We must be fit for all of it, all of us. I won’t be able to just count on them letting me sit here and play around with the tasks I know. […] But …I did it, and I am glad that I did it. I think I have learnt something. […] I think it has been fun and exciting. But I certainly don’t approach a course with a positive attitude, I admit that, and no matter what course.” (Ahrenkiel et al 1998, p.64-65).

Motivations are rarely straightforwardly positive or negative but seem to be a mixture of social, personal and/or technical elements with a focus on the concrete skills that the adults expect to gain. At the same time there is a great deal of desperation or resignation in most statements. And when telling about their everyday lives, their life histories, and the values that they have been orienting their lives towards so far, it becomes evident that the actual approach to adult education is very ambivalent and even confused. The mixed attitudes are not just produced by the outward elements of economic power and control. It is evident that the broader social and economic conditions these participants are currently facing have consequences for their very identities.

Maria, an unemployed woman of 39 with an academic background, has deliberately chosen a day high school course to prepare for a new and less ambitious career. She describes her situation in the following way:

“When I started it took me unawares that the common denominator for people coming here was that they had been ‘activated’ [by the municipal administration], and all the frustrations that that situation involves. And it takes up a lot of time, incredibly much, and it has done so from the first day. There are incredibly many discussions in classes about the labour market and about how frustrated people are, and a heap of examples of how unjustly they feel they have been treated. It is a storage facility for people that they don’t really know what to do with.” (Ahrenkiel et al 1999, p. 62).

Identities at risk

Viewed from the perspective of learning, it is an integral part of life for children and young people that they are developing and therefore have to learn new things all the time. In my recent book on “The Three Dimensions of Learning” (Illeris 2002a), I discuss, among other things, fundamental differences of learning in relation to life ages (Illeris 2003b). Whereas children’s learning necessarily is uncensored and confident, adults want to take responsibility and personally decide, consciously or unconsciously, what to learn and not to learn – and youth, in this connection, is the stormy and troublesome stage at which one gradually learns and wins the ability and right to manage one’s own learning.

But most of the adults that enter the educational institutions have not freely chosen to do so. They have had stable jobs and family-lives, but some or all of this is challenged or has already changed. This means that the identities they have developed are also challenged. What they conceived of as stable factors in their lives has become uncertain or simply no longer exist. They have to find new life orientations, but in contrast to younger people they have to develop these new orientations on top of some they have already established. Thus for them the development of a new identity simultaneously means discarding parts of the old identity, and the latter is often a process that is far more difficult and causes much more pain than the former.

In recent years there has been an on-going discussion about the concept of identity. The traditional understanding that a person’s identity is developed and formed during adolescence as a relatively stable perception of who he or she is and how he or she is perceived by others (cf. Erikson 1968) has been fundamentally challenged. The main arguments are, on the one hand, that identity is basically not a personal but a social formation, depending on social relations and constructs (e.g. Shotter 1993, Gergen 1994), and on the other hand that in late modernity a stable identity is both inconvenient and impossible as the outer world is always in movement and changing (e.g. Giddens 1991, Usher 2000). Therefore identity today tends to be seen as something much more changeable and unstable: a person may take on different identities in different situations, or there is only a limited stable core identity and in extension of that a zone of more fluid layers (Illeris 2002b).

However, the majority of the participants in adult education still have grown up at a time when the formation of what was conceived as a stable identity was both a possibility and an ideal. What today is interpreted as inflexibility, was recognised as stability 20 years ago. For people who managed to build up a stable identity at that time, it is hard to face the fact that today this very identity may function as armour preventing the mobility that has become necessary. The formation of a stable identity is usually accompanied by the formation of a strong identity defence. What has been build up with so much trouble and sacrifice, is not so easily broken down.

In our research project we have seen many adults who try to use elements of their old identity under circumstances where it no longer fits. They talk about their old trade and the qualifications needed there, etc. They gradually realise that in adult education today it is something else that matters – but what? The problems of identity are part of the baggage participants bring with them into the adult education institutions. The breakdown of biographical continuity – the uncertainty or loss of their job, of family-relations, and maybe of political, cultural, moral or religious orientations means that they are very anxious about the future and of their social identity. Their former experience does not seem to be relevant.

At the same time the discourse of the possibilities of modernity also dominates the educational institutions. When they were young these adults did not expect everything to be possible – they just got married, got a job and generally did as they were expected to do. Now they are suddenly told that everything is possible and that it is their own responsibility to succeed. But in reality everything is certainly not possible for them, and they are not sure what the purpose of education is when their prospects are so doubtful. Are they just being kept busy at the educational institutions because they are not needed in the labour market or are they actually qualifying themselves for a new and stable situation? In the educational institutions they may be talked to as responsible adults who are able to make their own decisions about what is relevant for them to do, at the same time as being placed in the position of vulnerable children who have to be taken care of and not over-challenged.

Anna, a day high school participant in the middle of her 30s, puts it like this:

“Many of the frustrations people bring here, including myself – I am also unemployed – are confirmed by the way one is treated as a pupil. […] Some feel even worse than when they started. […] These grown-up people are stripped of their personal responsibility in a number of areas where they very well could be involved and allowed to take responsibility and make actual decisions right here.” (Ahrenkiel et al 1999, p. 157).

On their way most participants learn to play the role of interested learners, but they are still very uncertain about the rationality and sense of the educational project. What happens in the adult educational institutions cannot be understood without realising that most participants deep inside are questioning the fundamental meaning of the situation. Adult education can very often be characterised as the compulsion to develop without a clear perspective.

Employment perspectives as the key factor

The most important general factor behind the ambivalence described is no doubt the employment situation and perspectives of the participants. For those who are unemployed without any realistic possibility to get any sort of job the ambivalence tends to develop towards resignation and despair. But it is remarkable how long many people are able to keep up at least a tiny hope of just a simple and temporary part time job although their odds are minimal – e.g. women in their late 50s hoping for some sort of dishwashing or canteen job. And as long as the hope survives they will also do whatever they believe may better their chances, even when their ambivalence is overwhelming because they at the same time know how unrealistic their efforts are. At IT courses many elderly people are heroically struggling with their computers to qualify for jobs that they will hardly ever obtain.

Birthe, a divorced woman of 59 who has been fired from her job as a sales agent after more than 20 unexceptionable years and has found it impossible to get a new job, is now attending a computer course. She says:

“You see, I have no higher education, so it is a sort of feather in my cap if a can get that ‘PC licence’, and I also hope that I can get to use it somehow. And if not, then I have at least the same product at home – Microsoft – and I am the secretary of an association that I took part in starting myself. Who knows, maybe I can get some sort of a writing job at home, that there will be some company saying: ‘Can you sit (at home) and send out some mail for us?’ I know it has been done.” (Ahrenkiel et al1998, p. 31-32).

Another group of participants are in the situation that they have a job but know that if they do not succeed in developing better professional and/or personal qualifications they will be fired. They will usually immediately focus on the professional qualifications, because they are more concrete, and because it is less humiliating to be in lack of practical than of personal skills. But if teachers take up the discussion, they know very well that it is usually the personal qualifications that are crucial, and they will really do their best in this respect, although it may be very confusing for them what it really is about. In contrast to this participants who are employed and do not feel any uncertainty about keeping their job will very often be proof against any talk about personal qualifications. Especially men tend not to accept such issues if they are not in a situation which makes it unavoidable.

The most flexible group as to the employment situation is, no doubt, those who are unemployed but with realistic chances to qualify for a job that they consider as acceptable and satisfying. In this situation people can be at the same time very goal directed and broad minded, really doing their utmost and being sensible to any challenge or advice.

Adult education: Storage and control, job preparation or emancipation?

Thus the main result of our investigating adult education from the perspective of ordinary learners who are alien to such concepts as lifelong learning and lifelong education is that if it is given to or forced upon participants who have not mentally accepted and internalised a wish or need to acquire the knowledge, skills, attitudes or qualities in question, it will tend to be a waste of human and financial resources.

I started the paper by questioning the emancipatory power of adult education, especially in relation to the broad layers of adults with brief schooling who today comprise the majority of adult education participants, and I have further described the background to this questioning. What, then, are the necessary conditions that would make it possible for the participants to learn something of importance and develop themselves in a direction which could be termed emancipatory?

The first and fundamental condition is no doubt that the problematic situations and ambivalences of the adults in question are recognised and taken seriously. They are certainly not showing up in the schools just to improve and develop themselves and to realise old dreams of knowledge and understanding. They are fundamentally sceptical – school is not a positively valued word to them – but almost always there is also a vague element of hope in their attitudes, hope for some sort of help and support to get out of the problematic and unsatisfactory situation that has forced them to go back to school again.

Any emancipatory endeavour must necessarily try to satisfy and link up with such elements of hope. And at the core of these elements is nearly always a burning, but hardly expressible wish to get some work, maybe only part-time, maybe not very enriching, but just about any meaningful job that makes it possible to feel like an acceptable member of society once more. (I must here stress that the situation is different for the youngest adults who do not feel it degrading and humiliating to live on public benefits to the same extent).

Whether one likes it or not adult education has become an integrated part of labour market policy, and the participants clearly also regard it as such. So any emancipatory notion must be combined with serious endeavours to procure realistic job possibilities for the adult students. However, this is not a question of pedagogics or educational strategies; it is a political issue of very high priority in today’s welfare societies.

Therefore educators, and especially educators with emancipatory notions and orientations, cannot hope to pursue their goals solely by good and progressive educational activities. They will have to inform and to agitate about the everyday conditions of adult education and the situations and attitudes of the students; they will have to seek alliances with progressive politicians and labour market agents; they will have to accept compromises; and they will constantly have to find out how to optimise their endeavours in relation to changing conditions that are always insufficient.

Knud Illeris
Professor of Educational Research
Roskilde University, P.O.Box 260, DK-4000 Denmark
Phone +45 46 74 26 65, Fax +45 46 74 30 70
E-mail: knud@ruc.dk


Ahrenkiel, Annegrethe – Illeris, Knud – Sederberg, Marie-Louise – Simonsen, Birgitte (1998): Voksenuddannelse og deltagermotivation (Adult education and motivation). Copenhagen: Roskilde University Press.

Ahrenkiel, Annegrethe – Illeris, Knud – Nielsen, Lizzie Mærsk – Simonsen, Birgitte (1999): Voksenuddannelse mellem trang og tvang (Adult education between desire and compulsion). Copenhagen: Roskilde University Press.

Ahrenkiel, Annegrethe – Illeris, Knud (2000): Adult Education between Emancipation and Control. In Knud Illeris (ed.): Adult Education in the Perspective of the Learners. Copenhagen: Roskilde University Press.

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Illeris, Knud (2000): Lifelong Learning as Mass Education. In Colin Symes (ed.): Working Knowledge. Sydney: Conference Procedings 10-13 December, University of Technology Sydney.

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Illeris, Knud (2003a): Adult education as experienced by the learners. International Journal of Lifelong Education, vol. 22, no. 1, pp 13-23.

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Usher, Robin (2000): Impossible Identities, Unstable Boundaries: Managing Experience Differently. In Knud Illeris (ed.): Adult Education in the Perspective of the Learners. Copenhagen: Roskilde University Press.


This paper is an abridged and revised edition of the article in the International Journal of Lifelong Education: Illeris 2003a.

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