While the goal of lifelong learning commands a broad policy consensus, it has been widely criticized by adults educationists for its conservatism. This paper explores the origins of the concept in the 1960s and 1970s, and compares key themes with the dominant approaches of the recent period. While there was a turning point during the 1990s, its chief feature was that lifelong learning was less a slogan than a tool for the reform and modernization of aspects of national education and training systems. Its rise has accompanied a wider transformation in the relationship between civil society and state in the western nations. One result is that lifelong learning is becoming one among many factors that are transforming the governance of late modern societies, as the state sheds directive powers both downwards (to individuals and associations) and upwards (to transnational corporations and intergovernmental bodies).