Not retiring: how do you learn best?

How do we learn best and are different forms of support needed for people in different age groups?

Retraining in your 50s


There are a lot of myths about being older. One of them is that we don’t want to learn new stuff or we find it difficult. Our annual survey shows a huge appetite not only for learning new things but for career change too. I’ve just been speaking to a man who switched from a job in change management to data analytics in his mid 50s and it’s given him a whole new lease of life and enthusiasm.

Many of those who are now in their 50s or 60s have lived through decades of huge upheaval and change. We’re used to adapting to it, even if it can be challenging. The people I speak to have often been through several redundancies. Frequently they have reinvented themselves as a result. Everyone these days has to be resourceful and flexible. There is a lot of emphasis on employers being flexible, but it is people who are often far more flexible than their employers yet that is rarely acknowledged amidst the flex backlash.

In the last decades for many people work has transformed from being something you do somewhere else for a set number of hours to something you do anywhere at any time. At every stage in our lives we are learning new things because the world is changing so fast. No one wants to be left behind, but often training is frontloaded onto younger people. It is assumed older people know what they’re doing and will be happy to just stick with it, Similarly it is assumed that it is too difficult to train those who work part time or that they don’t need as much training, the assumption being that they are less committed in any event. Assumptions don’t tend to help much to motivate people. The important thing is to engage and listen to people tell you what they think or want rather than to assume that because of x, y, z they will want a, b, c.

Different ways of learning

But does everyone learn in the same way? Well, we know that they don’t. I have a colleague who absorbs information better if it is presented to her in a visual way. I, on the other hand, find it much easier to learn something when it is written down. Maybe it’s due to a bent towards words and text rather than images or maybe it’s due to force of habit. Education has changed in so many ways in the last decades. There is much more emphasis on multi-media approaches these days. My son does language quizzes online; my daughter is at university and seems to only read extracts of books online rather than one actual book. Everything is modular and it will become even more fragmented with the advent of micro-credentials and the like.

Does age play a role in how we learn? Is this due to how we have been taught to learn – which must have excluded or at least disadvantaged many people? When you sit down and try to do maths with a young person you can reach the same results, but through very different methods because the basics have been taught differently, often using different language. Is it even necessary to learn basic maths these days when a computer can do it all for you?

I say this as I have been talking to people this week about upskilling, as it’s called, particularly of people who have taken a career break. Does the learning support for different age groups need to be different? This is a vital question if we are to get the employment support right for those who are looking to return to the workforce in later life. Confidence can often be a major issue when you have been out of the workforce for some time and that may mean reminding people of the skills they already have, which can be undervalued in the workplace. Whatever we do needs to be based on what works best for different groups.

I’ve been looking at a Child Poverty Action Group report on employment support for mums. It found that many work coaches at Job Centre Pluses don’t often get the results they could – people returning to jobs which they stay in and progress in – because they are worried about the threat of sanctions but also because the support offered is not properly tailored to what they need.¬† People have complicated lives and often face multiple challenges to return to work. The support offered, including when it comes to upskilling, needs to be right for them to be effective. That means asking the right questions, listening carefully to the answers and testing different approaches. After all, we’re all learners in a world that is constantly shifting.

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