One in three of the population has not participated in any form of learning since school, according to a survey.
A campaign urged adults to tackle their learning 'gremlins'
However, the UK-wide poll, released at the start of Adult Learners' Week, found an increase in the number of adults intending to take up learning.
It also found that 41% of skilled manual workers were learning, up from 33% in 1996.
A total of 4,924 adults were surveyed for the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (Niace) report.
Niace said the survey, by RSGB, made "grim reading" at first glance. It confirms that 34% had not participated in any learning since school.
It defines learning as being not only taking formal courses but also practising, studying or reading to develop skills, knowledge, abilities or understanding of something.
This can even be part-time at home. It does not have to have been finished or to have led to a qualification.
The survey found that 20% of adults said they were currently learning, with more than 42% having done so in the past three years.
Niace said the increase in the number of skilled manual workers taking part suggested the government's Skills Strategy was working.
There had also been an increase in the percentage of unemployed people participating in learning - up to 47% compared with 40% in 1996.
Niace said the older generation should be a major target for encouragement - participation had dropped from 15% in 1996 to 10% this year.
The number of people expecting to take up learning in the future had risen to 47%.
Director of Niace Alan Tuckett said: "It's clear that the long-term prospects for our society relies on people engaging in lifelong learning.
"Learning delays the social impact of Alzheimer's and the onset of morbidity. It prolongs active citizenship and enhances the quality of life.
"The government may point to 48% more investment in further education. However, this has been predominantly targeted at younger learners and the increased investment has done little to overcome inequalities in access, participation and achievement."
He added: "Whilst participation is unchanged and social class, age, prior education and employment status still impact on your likelihood to study there is a significant change taking place in the pattern of participation in adult learning.
"These changes can be interpreted as the green shoots of an emerging learning society - and government may wish to see these findings as evidence that its commitment to creating a lifelong learning culture is at last having an impact."
Education minister Bill Rammell said the survey showed the rise of a "learning culture".
He said: "As a nation the numbers of people intending to learn is rising, showing that the re-birth of a learning culture under this government is having an impact.
"Especially encouraging is that learning amongst key groups of skilled manual workers, part-time workers and women is increasing.
"Individuals need to reskill and upskill if we are to remain globally competitive.
"Our new policies under our reforms in further education, Train to Gain and new entitlements to free tuition, are vital in driving up adult participation in learning and securing our future success."