Stem cells persist throughout life by self-renewing in numerous tissues including the central and peripheral nervous systems. This raises the issue of whether there is a conserved mechanism to effect self-renewing divisions. Deficiency in the polycomb family transcriptional repressor Bmi-1 leads to progressive postnatal growth retardation and neurological defects. Here we show that Bmi-1 is required for the self-renewal of stem cells in the peripheral and central nervous systems but not for their survival or differentiation. The reduced self-renewal of Bmi-1-deficient neural stem cells leads to their postnatal depletion. In the absence of Bmi-1, the cyclin-dependent kinase inhibitor gene p16Ink4a is upregulated in neural stem cells, reducing the rate of proliferation. p16Ink4a deficiency partially reverses the self-renewal defect in Bmi-1-/- neural stem cells. This conserved requirement for Bmi-1 to promote self-renewal and to repress p16Ink4a expression suggests that a common mechanism regulates the self-renewal and postnatal persistence of diverse types of stem cell. Restricted neural progenitors from the gut and forebrain proliferate normally in the absence of Bmi-1. Thus, Bmi-1 dependence distinguishes stem cell self-renewal from restricted progenitor proliferation in these tissues.