Table of Contents

Adult Learning in Modern Societies

Adult Learning in Modern Societies

An International Comparison from a Life-course Perspective

eduLIFE Lifelong Learning series

Edited by Hans-Peter Blossfeld, Elina Kilpi-Jakonen, Daniela Vono de Vilhena and Sandra Buchholz

As industrial societies increasingly evolve into knowledge-based economies, the importance of education as a lifelong process is greater than ever. This comprehensive book provides a state-of-the-art analysis of adult learning across the world and within varying institutional contexts. The expert contributors examine the structures of formal and non-formal adult learning in different countries, and investigate the levels of success those countries have experienced in encouraging participation and skill formation.

Chapter 4: Adult Educational Participation and Implications for Employment in the US Context

Cheryl Elman and Felix Weiss

Subjects: education, education policy, politics and public policy, education policy, social policy and sociology, comparative social policy, education policy, sociology and sociological theory


Much as other eduLIFE nations, the US has witnessed increasing life course (temporal) complexity in educational participation and skills training. Prior to 1970, only a small proportion of the US population pursued formal education beyond secondary school (Torche 2011), and most human capital gained in adulthood occurred on the job (Becker 1964). However, US adults over age 24 now routinely pursue formal education, especially at the postsecondary level (Elman and O’Rand 2004; Bozick and DeLuca 2005; O’Rand, Hamil-Luker and Elman 2009; Maralani 2011). Just what has motivated this shift in the US? Most adult education is work-related. Labor market demand-side arguments stress recent shifts in work arrangements and job skill requirements, e.g., workers (re)train to keep or regain employment as employment becomes increasingly competitive and insecure (Elman 2011). Employers offering “good jobs” with high wages and benefits increasingly expect workers to have the technological expertise and flexibility to change job tasks and work arrangements (Smith 1997; Kalleberg, Reynolds and Marsden 2003). In contrast, a larger and growing share of US employment involves “bad jobs”, i.e., low-skilled work with limited wages and benefits (Kalleberg 2000) including limited access to on-the-job training in skills that might lead to better jobs and higher wages (Veum 1995; Loewenstein and Spletzer 1999). As on-the-job training has become selectively targeted to high-skilled workers over the last few decades (Brown 1990; Lynch 1991; Knoke and Ishio 1998; Yang 2006), marginally-skilled but low-status workers have turned to formal education or outside-of-firm skills-training, often vocational in nature (Lynch 1991; Veum 1999; Elman and O’Rand 2007).

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