Older people embrace lifelong learning for personal growth

According to a recent AARP study on lifelong learning, 55% of Americans age 45 and older are actively learning new things.

Study the detailed intricacies of the story. Play a musical instrument. Knead the dough while immersing yourself in the science of breadmaking. Trying to keep pace with technological breakthroughs. These passion projects and individual interests are just some of the activities that lifelong learners engage in to stay mentally sharp and intellectually stimulated as they age.

The study asked participants to reflect on personal definitions, experiences, motivations, and pitfalls of learning motivated by personal gain and self-improvement as opposed to work and career advancement, and it found a wide range of areas of interest. The most popular were history, food and drink, mental health, basic technology, food and nutrition.

While 42% of adults aged 45 and over identify themselves as a “lifelong learner”, many more say they intend to engage in learning as they age, according to the study. If those who indicate they would engage in lifelong learning in the future did so, the lifelong learning market would equate to over 92 million people spending around 6 .9 billion dollars a year.

Invest in learning

The size of the lifelong learning market is considerable, already representing $5.6 billion annually. That equates to every lifelong learner currently spending an average of $75 a year on interest.

In the popular area of ​​learning a new technology, with a potential 43.3 million adults ages 45 and older interested, the average person is likely to spend around $60 a year. In other areas of interest, people are willing to spend even more, including $120 per year to learn a new sport or physical activity, and $100 per year to develop a new skill or pursue a passion project.

Independent and self-managed

Learning is personal, the study reveals. Three-quarters (76%) learn best by reading on their own, and the majority (71%) choose to read or gather information on their own, then find opportunities to apply their new knowledge.

Yet 72% turn to the Internet, and YouTube in particular, when looking for new information. This is especially true when it comes to researching information about a new technology (66%) or developing a new skill (63%). Because the research was conducted amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the findings reflect recent growth in online engagement, including things like video conferencing, the researchers noted.

Engagement in learning is particularly high among those with passion projects and those interested in new technologies.

Cognitive Health: Staying Mindful

As people seek education, the main drivers are to acquire new knowledge and stay mentally sharp. Learners are less often motivated by social pressure, and both men and women view learning as part of controlling their personal well-being, with the vast majority (83%) believing it to be vitally important to keep his brain active. Similarly, 54% are motivated to stay sharp or promote brain health.

This concept of cognitive health inspires many to already identify as a lifelong learner, but it also motivates others to express a desire to learn something new in the future.

Yet there are significant engagement gaps between being interested in learning something and currently pursuing new knowledge. For example, while 41% want to learn basic technology skills, only a quarter of people are actively learning these skills. Similar engagement gaps are found among those with the most popular interests. But an engagement gap exists even among those with the least popular interests. For example, only half of the 20% who say they want to play a sport actually do so.

The study revealed some gender differences between women and men, with women having more and varied interests than their male peers. Yet the engagement gaps between a desire to learn and active learning are high for both men and women, with more than two-thirds of men (68%) and women (69%) planning to engage in lifelong learning in the future. Learning a new technology is the top area of ​​interest for non-learners, with 32% saying they plan to get into this business.

For those who are currently engaged in learning, the likelihood that they will continue as lifelong learners is high. This drive to learn more is significant, with 97% of current learners intending to continue learning in the future.

Barriers: cost, time and ageism

Although intentions to stay mentally engaged in new challenges are high, there are potential pitfalls. Ageism, cost and time constraints are the main obstacles. A quarter of people (26%) cite cost as preventing them from achieving learning goals, but income does not make a difference in learning engagement as both high and low income people engage in learning at about the same pace.

Lack of time is particularly concerning among adults aged 45 to 49, who say family obligations come first. Among people aged 60 and over, however, fear of ageism is becoming a factor, with 16% saying their age makes them feel uncomfortable. This internalized ageism leads to seeing oneself as too old and can impact attitudes towards learning new things.

The ageism of others is also a barrier for some, with 7% saying others make them feel uncomfortable because of their age. Active learners are more likely to name fear of ageism as a barrier than those not currently engaged in learning (18% vs. 13%).


The online survey of 1,516 Americans ages 45 and older was conducted September 24 through October 4, 2021 for AARP by Research Strategy Group, using the Dynata online panel. Data was weighted by age, region and ethnicity to reflect the US population 45 and older.

For more information, please contact Brittne Kakulla at [email protected] For media inquiries, please contact External Relations at [email protected]

Suggested quote:

Kakulla, Brittne. Lifelong learning for adults aged 45 and over. Washington, DC: AARP Research, March 2022. https://doi.org/10.26419/res.00526.001