Policy paper 273


For the last two years, EU leaders have been working to curb the adverse social and economic repercussions of the health crisis, particularly through the introduction of short-time work schemes to protect workers and jobs. The latest available figures suggest that we are on the road to recovery: the EU unemployment rate is at its lowest level since 2008[1] and the growth rate is set to exceed 4% in 2021 and 2022, according to the European Commission’s forecasts.[2] However, beyond its short-term effects, the COVID-19 crisis will likely have a long-term impact on employment in the EU. The pandemic, and the European recovery strategy, are stepping up the digital and environmental transitions, alongside the swift and far-reaching changes already underway on the labour market. Some jobs will cease to exist, many will be significantly changed, while many others will be created. Ahead of this, there will be a growing need for people to retrain or upgrade their skills so that they can retain their job or find a new one, while meeting the new requirements of companies and the labour market. However, currently only 38% of European adults take part in training each year.[3]

Even though the pandemic has shone the spotlight on the skills challenge, this is far from being a new development. From the 1960s, Jacques Delors has called for the right to lifelong learning. Much more recently, on a European level, the very first principle of the European Pillar of Social Rights proclaimed in 2017 sets out each person’s right to “quality and inclusive education, training and life-long learning in order to maintain and acquire skills that enable them to participate fully in society and manage successfully transitions in the labour market”.[4]

To mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Delors Law on vocational training in France, we will look back over Jacques Delors’ actions and views concerning lifelong learning. This endeavour aims in particular to stimulate current debate and considerations regarding the skills challenge in Europe, while the Commission pursues the implementation of the European Skills Agenda, with upcoming proposals on individual learning accounts, micro-credentials and the development of digital skills.

This paper will firstly review Jacques Delors’ career through the lens of his action in favour of lifelong learning. We will then identify the main motivations behind this commitment which, as we will see, remain just as relevant today. In section three we will pinpoint the major ideas which shaped, punctuated and structured his holistic vision of lifelong learning and will conclude by considering the role of the different continuing education stakeholders with a view to implementing these ideas.

[1] Eurostat, Labour force survey in the EU, Unemployment by sex and age, annual and monthly data.

[2] European Commission (2021), Summer 2021 Economic Forecast, 7 July

[3] European Commission (2020), European Skills Agenda for sustainable competitiveness, social fairness and resilience, 1 July.

[4] European Commission (2017), European Pillar of Social Rights,, p. 11.