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What Motivates Adults to Learn:A rapid evidence review of what drives learning new skills in the workplace

Executive Summary

Societies everywhere are undergoing deep transformation, and this calls for new understanding of what enables and drives adults in work to learn new skills. Longer lifespans, ‘Industry 4.0’1 disruption and the need for higher-skilled workforces each point towards substantial career changes taking place during people’s working lives. There is an urgent requirement to foster individuals’ capabilities and competencies that societies and economies need. Many more workers will find that their roles (and skill sets) have to be adapted to working alongside increasingly capable machines. This means shifting focus from literacy and numeracy skills to work environments and on new approaches to learning for economic prosperity, social equity and societal wellbeing. Emerging technologies are widely expected to have disruptive consequences for workers and workplaces. The estimates of jobs under immediate threat from automation vary considerably from a lower end of nine per cent to a higher end of 12 per cent (Arntz et al, 2016). Even though many jobs contain tasks that will become automated, it does not follow that those entire jobs will disappear (OECD 2019a; 2019b). Demand for the job (and, therefore, the worker) may continue but with a modified set of task responsibilities, reflecting the higher importance of automated processes augmenting human activities in the role (and vice versa). While a lot of predictions are about the negative impact of automation on jobs, it is important to remember that people with digital skills will be crucial to ensuring the transformation of organisations so that the digital revolution can happen at all. Strack et al (2017) write that “talented employees who are able to use existing digital technologies and adapt to evolving methods and new approaches [will be important]. Without these employees, companies will struggle to benefit as they should from the latest advances — everything from Industry 4.0 and robots to artificial intelligence, data science, virtual reality and new digital business models.” In an increasingly complex digital world, policymakers need to consider how best to help people upskill in a technical, ethical and social sense.


To address Nesta’s research questions within the project parameters, we have adopted a rapid evidence assessment (REA) method of literature analysis. The REA uses stringent search criteria and screening methods to reduce the volume of material for analysis and speed up the process compared to other systematic review methods (Thomas, Newman & Oliver, 2013). Therefore, an REA involves some trade-off between available resources and the level of rigour (Speirs, Gross & Heptonstall, 2015). In this REA, we conducted around 1,000 searches, resulting in a shortlist of 282 sources of evidence that were reviewed in full, of which 65 were selected for inclusion in this report.

Key Findings

Our review focuses on two main lines of enquiry. The first identifies conceptual factors that impact on adult workers’ motivation to learn generally, and in relation to learning digital skills. The second explores the strength of the evidence base of approaches and policy interventions that have demonstrated impact.

Resource Details
Resource author
Dr Deirdre Hughes OBE;John Higton; Alex Beard; Dr Guy Birkin; Andrew Corley; Chris Milner
Type of resource
Studies and Reports
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