The United States is in the middle of the pack in terms of skills amongst developed countries, according to the study.
Japan and Finland do the best when it comes to adult reading, math and technology skills. Adults in the U.S. perform below international averages and Spain and Italy were at the bottom.
Andreas Schleicher is with the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development or OECD, which conducted the survey of 16 to 65 year olds in developed countries. He says among the 55 to 65 year olds, the U.S. fared well. Not so when you looked at young adults.
"The younger generation in the U.S. is less well skilled than their peers in other countries," Schleicher says. "The U.S. has surely made less progress across generations than what we've seen in other countries."
Schleicher says some countries such as Spain, Finland and Korea have made significant improvements in high literacy skills.
"The old generation in Korea was among the bottom performers. That's changed substantially," he says. "Essentially, you've seen Korea adding two years of education to the entire population every ten years."
He says adults who have what are called "high literacy skills" see all kinds of benefits.
"You are twice as likely to be in good health, you are more than twice as likely to be employed, you two and a half times more likely to volunteer. You are much more likely to be a high wage earner," he says.
When you look at top performing countries, Schleicher says there are some common themes. They have high quality early education, they invest in good schools especially for children in poverty, they offer incentives for adults to keep improving their skills and adult education information is easy to find.
The survey includes results for 166,000 adults in 24 countries. The survey measured reading and numerical literacy, as well as literacy in technology problem-solving in 19 of the countries.