the Learning Generation

Investing in education for a changing world
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Education and skills are essential for the realization of individual potential, national economic growth, social development and the fostering of global citizenship. In the coming decades, as technology, demographic change and globalization reshape the world we live in, they will become ever more important.

Economies will rise or fall depending more on their intellectual resources than their physical resources. The valuation of companies will depend more on human capital than physical capital. The pathway to growth for developing economies will depend less on traditional forms of export-led growth and more on education-led growth.

And yet the world today is facing a global learning crisis. If current trends continue, by 2030 – the date the international community has set for attaining quality secondary education for all – less than 10 percent of young people in low-income countries will be on track to gain basic secondary level skills. The costs of this learning crisis – unemployment, poverty, inequality and instability – could undermine the very fabric of our economies and societies.

But there is a better vision for the future of global education and young people. Indeed, it is possible to ensure that all children and youth are in school and learning the skills they need to be successful in work and life.  Based on research from the Education Commission, this vision is achievable within a generation if all countries accelerate their progress to that of the world’s top 25 percent fastest improvers in education. This report proposes the largest expansion of educational opportunity in history and outlines the reforms and increased financial investment required to achieve it.

Why Invest Now and the Costs of Delay

a generation of adults without skills needed

Today’s generation of young people faces a radically changing world.

Half of the world's jobs – around 2 billion – are expected to disappear due to automation by 2030.

In some countries, up to 80 percent of today’s jobs could be lost.2
New technologies that are disrupting industries and changing the nature of work will increase the demand for high-skilled labor and make many low- and medium-skilled jobs obsolete.

Young people in developing countries will face the greatest challenges in the years ahead. With many of the world’s low-skilled jobs most susceptible to automation, developing economies will be at greater risk of technology-induced unemployment. In the past, many developing economies achieved growth by moving farm workers into factories. In the future, new growth models will need to be found, but these will require higher levels of skills than developing economies are currently set to offer. Changing global demographics will exacerbate this challenge with the greatest population increases occurring in countries currently lagging furthest behind in education. By 2050, African countries will be home to a billion young people.

Already some 40 percent of employers globally are finding it difficult to recruit people with the skills they need.3

If education in much of the world fails to keep up with the rising demand for skills, there will be major shortages of skilled workers in both developing and developed economies as well as large surpluses of workers with poor skills. This skills gap threatens to have far-reaching economic, social, and political repercussions. The growing skills gap will stunt global economic growth and reverse progress toward ending extreme poverty. Without action to give young people the education and skills they need to compete, more than a quarter of the population in low-income countries could still be living in extreme poverty in 2050.

The impact of poor education on health will be equally severe.

Projections suggest that by 2050, the number of lives lost each year because of a failure to provide adequate access to quality education would equal those lost today to HIV and malaria, two of the most deadly global diseases. By 2050, population growth would be at least 15 percent higher than if all children were learning – a critical factor in development as a whole.

If inequality in education persists, the implications for global stability are also dire.

Historical analysis shows that inequality fuels unrest and when educational inequality doubles, the probability of conflict more than doubles. Unrest is likely to be greatest where the gap between youth expectations and daily realities is widest. Population movements could further compound these pressures. Today, the number of people displaced by conflict is at an all-time high and migration from conflict, climate change, and economic strains is set to increase. The number of international migrants, many of whom will have been denied the opportunity to acquire skills, is estimated to grow to around 400 million people by 2050. With education critical to resilience and cohesion, the dearth of skills will increase vulnerability to shocks and the risks of instability across the world.

Where economic, technological, demographic, and geopolitical trends collide with weak education systems, the risks of instability, radicalization, and economic decline are at their greatest. If the world does not equip all young people with the skills they will need to participate in the future economy, the costs of inaction and delay could be irreparable.

The Unfolding Learning Crisis

Quality education is the most critical factor in closing the skills gap and one of the most important in determining a child’s future success.

Yet, education in many developing countries is not improving and children are instead falling dangerously behind.

Today, 263 million children and young people in the world are out of school, and the number of primary-aged children not in school is increasing. For those children who are in school, many are not actually learning. In low- and middle-income countries, only half of primary school children and little more than a quarter of secondary school children are learning basic skills. The Education Commission projects that if current trends continue, by 2030 over three-quarters of a billion young people in low- and middle-income countries will not be on track to acquire basic secondary-level skills. In low-income countries, only one out of 10 will be on track (see Figure 1).  Without urgent change, more than 1.5 billion adults will have no education beyond primary school in 2030.

Figure 1: A Global Learning Crisis: The expected learning outcomes of the cohort of children and youth who are in school in 2030

Figure 1: A Global Learning Crisis: The expected learning outcomes of the cohort of children and youth who are in school in 2030

Source: Education Commission projections (2016)


The case for investing in education is indisputable. Education is a fundamental human right. It is critical for long-term economic growth and essential for the achievement of all of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. A dollar invested in an additional year of schooling, particularly for girls, generates earnings and health benefits of $10 in low-income countries and nearly $4 in lower middle-income countries (see Figure 2). Around one-third of the reductions in adult mortality since 1970 can be attributed to gains in educating girls and young women.

The value of education will only continue to increase because it is education that will determine whether the defining trends of this century – technological, economic, and demographic – will create opportunity or entrench inequality. Meeting the global challenges facing humanity today and in the decades to come will without exception depend on how countries improve their education systems.


Source: Jamison, Dean, and Marco Schäferhoff. 2016. “Estimating the Economic Returns of Education from a Health Perspective.” Background Paper for the Education Commission. SEEK Development.

Creating the Learning Generation