Abstract This paper argues that advanced industrial societies are (i) addressing ‘intended and unintended consequences’ of economic and technological development, and (ii) responding to dilemmas that cannot be solved by existing schema and routines. Paradoxically, the current education–economy/lifelong learning debate rests on traditional interpretation of the concept of learning (i.e. acquisition of pre-existing knowledge and skill). The paper argues that a sociological and educational theory of learning is needed to assist people and communities to use ideas originating from one context to resolve the dilemmas experienced in another. It introduces the concept of ‘reflexive learning’ to illustrate how to reformulate public education policies to address these issues.