Adult learning is an increasingly important form of education in globalized and aging societies. The aim of this article is to examine adult learning from a life-course and cross-national perspective. The focus of the analyses is on the predictors of participation and the labour market outcomes following from participation in adult learning related to the labour market. The central question of the study addresses effects of adult learning on social inequality: does further education reduce or increase the gap between the socially advantaged and disadvantaged? The empirical basis of the article are the results of 13 country studies and two cross-national analyses brought together by the international comparative research project ‘‘Education as a lifelong process — comparing educational trajectories in modern societies’’ (eduLIFE). The study analyses both formal and non-formal learning and considers whether employers are involved in the financing of learning. Gender differences are also taken into account. It is hypothesized that formal education may lead to some compensation of disadvantages due to motivational differences, while non-formal adult learning leads to cumulative advantages, partly due to selection into training. The general conclusion is that rather similar mechanisms are related to participation in and outcomes of adult learning across countries. Relatively sparse evidence was found for a compensatory effect of adult learning. Participation in formal training was most prevalent among young, already highly educated people and tended to increase the social gap (cumulative advantage). Similar results were found in non-formal contexts, especially when learning was financed by the employer.

Keywords: adult learning, conti nuing education, social inequality, educational inequality, labour market returns, cross-national comparisons