Towards a basic income for lifelong learning

shut­ter­stock: Monkey Business Images

We are living in times of rapid change: climate change, digi­tal­iza­tion, the COVID-19 pandemic, the looming systemic compe­ti­tion with China, global migration, and the realign­ment of glob­al­iza­tion are changing our world. Each of those poses their own chal­lenges, but they also mutually reinforce each other.

Change is a char­ac­ter­istic of the modern age. But the current change is faster than before, and it comes with inse­cu­ri­ties for broader parts of the popu­la­tion. There is an increasing desire for consis­tent security and belonging. To be able to risk change, a certain “security corridor” is needed. This is what we call “security in times of rapid change.”

Politics must play a role

Politics must provide people with security in times of rapid change. Therefore, politi­cians are called upon to find answers. The answers should include two things: First, they must offer solutions to the chal­lenges outlined, and second, they must give people “security in times of rapid change.” This security, which allows people to be in control of and shape their own lives even in phases of rapid change,– is also important for democracy. In this way, democracy can (and must!) prove that it is capable of acting (Center for Liberal Modernity, 2019).

How can security in times of rapid change be achieved? The mega­trends described above have a massive impact on our economy and the way we live and work.  Studies show that over 50% of all existing jobs will change in the next ten to 15 years, and some will no longer exist. The Covid-19 pandemic accel­er­ated processes that started before, espe­cially in tech­nology adaption (see, for example, World Economic Forum 2020).

This makes education and lifelong learning even more important areas than ever before. While there are lots of policy instru­ments to foster primary and secondary education, lifelong learning is not the focus of poli­cy­makers in most countries. It is mostly left to indi­vid­uals and companies, who do a lot – in Germany, they finance 2/​3 of lifelong learning activ­i­ties alone. But this is not enough: Climate change, digi­tal­iza­tion, systemic compe­ti­tion, and the recon­fig­u­ra­tion of glob­al­iza­tion will cause tremen­dous struc­tural changes in the ways we live, work, and produce. It will, for most citizens, no longer be enough to be trained and then remain in one occu­pa­tion for their entire working lives.

We need a basic income for lifelong learning

What is needed is a broad initia­tive to foster lifelong learning. We, therefore, propose making massive invest­ments in this area and granting every citizen a basic education income for lifelong learning. This instru­ment can be designed differ­ently for each country. I will describe it for the case of Germany.

The basic education income proposed here combines a legal right to further education with a concrete financing instru­ment. It grants every adult citizen up to three years of state-financed further education. This instru­ment allows people to change careers during the course of their working lives and enables them to learn something completely new or to renew their compe­ten­cies in certain areas. They can decide on their own in which area they want to specialize if they want to learn something completely new or even do a bachelor’s or master’s degree.

A legal right to contin­uing education should apply to all people of working age. A legal enti­tle­ment is enforce­able; it gives citizens a strong position vis-à-vis the state. A right to contin­uing education anchors the issue in people’s minds.

People need the chance to change careers and to learn something new

The demand for a legal right to contin­uing education is wide­spread, both polit­i­cally and in the profes­sional community in Germany and beyond. However, it is of little use if it is not linked to concrete instru­ments. Central to this is the question of financing.

The Center for Liberal Modernity, therefore, has proposed a basic income for lifelong learning and has modeled it on the German case. It should be available to all people between the ages of 25 and 65, i.e., during their active working phase, for job-related or profes­sional further education.

They should be able to take advantage of this basic education income for up to three years over the course of their working lives, either in whole or in part. Part-time training would be possible, but the initial training and purely company-based further training would be excluded, as well as training courses that are solely for private devel­op­ment and cannot be used for work. These restric­tions are justified because the basic education income would be financed from tax revenues (see below). In such financing, a balance must be found between added value and indi­vidual benefit.

We propose a basic amount of 1200 euros net per month. This amount would allow low-income earners to make very few cuts but would force higher-income earners to spend part of their savings to maintain their standard of living. This can be justified because it is a state invest­ment with an impact on society as a whole, but it can also have positive effects for the indi­vidual ­– less unem­ploy­ment, a higher lifetime income, more life satis­fac­tion. In addition, supple­ments would be provided for children or impair­ments, e.g. 200 euros per child. Social security contri­bu­tions and course and material costs would also be covered. A minimum claim period of three months at a time would ensure that the admin­is­tra­tive costs and benefits of contin­uing education are not out of proportion.

In order to make lifelong learning acces­sible to broader sections of the popu­la­tion, a number of other measures are needed in addition to a legal enti­tle­ment and a simple financing instru­ment, including acces­sible consulting, quality checks, and main­streaming of the market for further education. These would help to make contin­uing education more acces­sible, and to ensure and improve the quality of the programs. It is important for the idea of a legal right that people are not bound to the guidance given. They are free to decide whatever training they want to make within the portfolio of the basic income for lifelong learning.

States should invest heavily in further education

It is difficult to foresee exactly what the costs of a basic education income would be. It is still unclear to what extent it would be taken up if it were a simple, easy-to-under­stand, and available instru­ment. We assume that far more people would opt for substan­tial, job-ready training than they do now if a basic income for lifelong learning were available. This is evident on the cost side, but also on the benefit side. The fact that contin­uing education can help signif­i­cantly in coping with the upcoming struc­tural change in our economy and working world justifies govern­ment invest­ment to a much greater extent than before.

For Germany, the economic research company Prognose calcu­lated two scenarios that assume that each year one percent of those entitled to it – around 367,000 people – take up a basic education income for an average of four and seven months respec­tively. Including living expenses, course costs, and social security contri­bu­tions, the calcu­la­tions arrive at a range of between 7 and 14 billion euros annually (Center for Liberal Modernity 2021).

A basic education income would be a strong govern­ment invest­ment in minds. But the political and social consensus is necessary. The call to establish a legal right to contin­uing education must also be widely shared polit­i­cally. The basic income for lifelong learning would be a strong invest­ment in the future – an invest­ment that also entails costs. However, these costs could be offset, at least in part. What is the value? It will empower people to take care of their own lives and career, help to prevent unem­ploy­ment, foster economic growth and inno­va­tion, help regulate migration and help stabilize democracy by providing policies that empower citizens.

A basic education income can help not only to cushion struc­tural change in the labor market but also to make it possible to shape it – both polit­i­cally and indi­vid­u­ally. This can lead to lower spending on (long-term) unem­ploy­ment and thus to higher tax and social security revenues. These two effects would also help to amortize the costs of a basic education income in the medium term.

A basic income for lifelong learning would help democracy to deliver

A basic income for lifelong learning has great potential. It is a flexible instru­ment that allows for quick reactions to changes in the economy, skill sets, and the labor market. Tying a financing instru­ment to a citizen’s right to contin­uing education offers a way to galvanize compre­hen­sive political support for the contin­uing education sector. By being unbu­reau­cratic, easy to under­stand, widely applic­able, and linked to non-binding but competent guidance, the instru­ment has the potential to signif­i­cantly increase partic­i­pa­tion in contin­uing education. What’s more, it promotes partic­i­pa­tion in contin­uing education and, beyond that, in society.

This also has reper­cus­sions for our democracy: if people feel they can take respon­si­bility for their own lives, their approval of democracy increases. The argument also works the other way around: democracy is only successful in the long term if it “delivers,” i.e., gives people the oppor­tu­nity to develop. It must offer people “security in times of rapid change,” even and espe­cially in times of major change. A basic education income can be a building block for this.

The proposed instru­ment is a suitable model for developed countries with a solid basic education and financial resources. Here, states can invest larger amounts also in further education. But it is also a model that can be applied to different national and supra­na­tional contexts. The G20 can promote such an instru­ment, create funds to finance it, and allocate the money to the areas where it is needed most. The chal­lenges described in the beginning, namely climate change, digi­tal­iza­tion, and global migration, are affecting the Global South and devel­oping countries even more.

Thus, the inter­na­tional community can take on respon­si­bility and create funds to foster lifelong learning worldwide. The basic income for lifelong learning can be a model for such funds.

This can be used in addition to the much-crit­i­cized micro­credit system (see Chliova et al. 2015 for a meta-analysis). While micro­cre­dits start with the under-finan­cial­iza­tion of people, a basic income for lifelong learning assesses the skills people have or can obtain. Both are much needed, espe­cially in devel­oping societies and both help empower people to lead their own lives.



Center for Liberal Modernity (2021): Basic Income for Lifelong Learning. Proposal for a new financing of contin­uing education. German: Zentrum Liberale Moderne (2021): Das Bildungs­grun­deinkommen. Vorschlag für eine neue Weit­er­bil­dungs­fi­nanzierung.

Center for Liberal Modernity (2019). Security in Tran­si­tion. Social Cohesion in Times of Stormy Change. German: Zentrum Liberale Moderne (2019). Sicher­heit im Wandel. Gesellschaftlicher Zusam­men­halt in Zeiten stür­mis­cher Verän­derung.

Chliova, Myrto; Brinck­mann, Jan; Rosen­busch, Nina (2015): Is micro­credit a blessing for the poor? A meta-analysis examining devel­op­ment outcomes and contex­tual consid­er­a­tions. In: Journal of Business Venturing 30(3), pp. 467–487.

World Economic Forum (2020): The future of Jobs Report 2020.

This article was first published in the Global Solutions Journal Issue 8. Link:


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