Why older people – and policymakers – need to embrace lifelong learning

Lifelong learning is necessary so people can adapt to a changing world of work and it has important social and health benefits too, a conference heard last week.

Retraining in your 50s


Education needs to change fundamentally to reflect our ageing society, take into account lifelong learning, and to ensure everyone has the skills they need for a fast-changing world of work, a panel discussion at the International Longevity Centre’s Future of Ageing conference heard last week.

Joe Dromey, Cabinet Member with responsibility for employment and skills at the Learning and Work Institute said there was a need to adapt to the ongoing flux and change in the labour market and the fact that people are working for longer. He said jobs were more likely to change than be eliminated by automation, but that this would put a big pressure on upskilling the workforce and on lifelong learning. This did not, however, just have an economic value. It had a social and intrinsic value and was linked to better health, particularly mental health, social connections and overcoming loneliness.

Nevertheless, he said, participation in adult education was at a historic low, having fallen by 8% since 2010, something which was partly linked to budget cuts. The Institute’s research showed only a third of the workforce had taken part in learning in the last three years. And those most likely to benefit were the least likely to take part and the situation got worse as people got older, with only one in nine people over 70 having taken part in learning in the last three years.

Dromey said there needed to be a cross-departmental national campaign to boost interest in lifelong learning as well as reinvestment in adult education. He also spoke about potential ideas for increasing participation, including midlife career reviews which could help people identify the skills they needed for the future, the provision of lifelong learning accounts and ‘social prescribing’ whereby learning was considered alongside preventive health needs.

Skills wallet

Sir Vince Cable, former leader of the Lib Dems, said it was difficult to get policymakers to take lifelong learning seriously. He spoke of “endless battles” when he was  Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills to get young civil servants to understand why adult education was important. He said they tended to dismiss it as ‘tapestry classes for middle class women’. “When they do get it, it is all about skills,” he said. “They do not get the wider benefits.”

The Lib Dems are proposing a skills wallet, where every adult would get £10,000 from government to spend on education and training, through approved providers, throughout their lives so they can keep learning either through adult education or higher education. Sir Vince said employers and individuals could be incentivised to contribute too through tax breaks. He made it clear that this was not a loan. Older people did not like loans, he stated, given the shorter time to pay them off.

Experiential learning

Janine Matho, Vice President for Global Thought Leadership at Pearson, said learning needed to start from birth onwards and to include the kind of soft skills that were so much in demand, including creativity, originality and the ability to navigate complex systems and to adapt. People were likely to change jobs many times in the future and they needed retraining, she said. The notion of a career ladder was going away and employers were increasingly questioning the value of degrees as the world of work moved so fast that they were often irrelevant by graduation. “Learning is no longer linear and schooling has to change,” said Matho.

“Learning needs to be continuous across people’s lifetimes and it needs to be outcomes based and more experiential and relevant.”

For her that means school children should focus more on exploration and should be exposed to a wider range of experiences so they can learn to navigate them – and that assessment should be ongoing rather than linked to high-pressure exams. At both school and university, soft skills need to be developed more and there should be an emphasis on interdisciplinary approaches, experiential learning and problem solving, said Matho. More content should be delivered online too – and employers should encourage more day to day learning and career experiences. “If we continue as we are we will not be prepared,” she stated. “People realise that the world is changing, but they are not taking action.”

Ready for the future

There was a brief discussion about the reasons older people were not participating in adult education. Joe Dromey said many older people felt they did not need to. Another issue for those working was time. Perhaps there needed to be a time off work entitlement or ‘learner leave’. Older people may also feel less confident to ask a line manager about educational opportunities, given it is not the norm.  They may be more likely to open up to colleagues about learning needs than to a line manager, said Dromey.

Sir Vince said that higher education could link up with adult education to provide lifelong learning. Higher education teachers could have an obligation to also do community work, for instance, if they were given the right incentives. Other issues discussed included how agetech could embrace learning issues and the need for a big campaign to show people why they need to prepare for the way the world of work is changing.

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