Adult education body Niace has called for a major independent review of the long-term skills needs of the UK to address significant shortages.
The organisation said that investment by government and employers had fallen in recent years, and that other countries were better at realising the potential of their people.
In its manifesto for next year's general election, published ahead of Adult Learners' Week, Niace calls for a four-nation, cross-party commission to be set up to develop what it calls "an historic long-term settlement" for skills over the next 20 years, to report in 2018.
It says this is needed because it anticipates that no government will be able directly to fund the full costs of adult learning because of pressure on public finances.
Among the six priorities in its manifesto, Niace also calls for more emphasis on informal and non-formal learning to give adults economically and socially useful skills.
David Hughes, Niace chief executive, said that skills investment was too heavily focused on young adults at the expense of people over 24. He said a "rebalancing" was needed.
A spokesman for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said: "The government has embarked on a major skills reform programme. This is closely linked with the industrial strategy to ensure that we have the skilled workforce that businesses need to grow and compete in the future."