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EPALE - Electronic Platform for Adult Learning in Europe


Why learning for older people needs to look beyond qualifications

by Mary-Clare O'CONNOR
Language: EN
Document available also in: DE FR PL IT ES CS


Adult education policy in EU Member States should not just be about helping older people to work longer but also to improve their wellbeing

We live in an ageing society. Due to increasing longevity, low birth rates and the greying of the baby boom generation, the EU is facing major demographic change as older people make up an increasingly large proportion of the population. As of 2013, 18% of Europeans are aged 65 or more (more than 92 million individuals) but this is predicted to rise to 30% by 2060. Active ageing is central in addressing demographic change. For the EU this concept has tended to be promoted in terms of helping older people to work longer. This is unsurprising given that the EU's Europe 2020 target of an employment rate of 75% of the working age population, and the anticipated shrinkage of the workforce by 1 to 1.5 million workers a year over the next thirty years.

Given the proportion of pensioners are expected to become almost as numerous those under the age of 15, it is clear that active ageing must more also broadly aim to maintain the wellbeing of individuals as they age. In this context, providing the opportunities and support for older people to continue learning is vital. It is also a remarkably cheap and cost-effective intervention.

The growing evidence base also appears to suggest that it works. A study by the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills in the UK found that non-vocational and relatively informal types of learning (such as music/arts groups and evening classes) were associated with increases in wellbeing, rather than formal, more vocationally-oriented education and training courses. Using data from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA), a large-scale, nationally-representative survey of older adults, the study focused on people in their 50s and 60s, and related a measure of their wellbeing to participation in several types of learning. It seems plausible that vocational courses would only have benefits in the longer term and only when they led on to more satisfying work or promotion. Participation in non-vocational learning activities, on the other hand, would be more likely to be undertaken because of their intrinsic enjoyment or possibly because of opportunities for getting out and socialising.

It also appears that the focus on funding courses that increase employability has led to cuts in funding for short courses and other unaccredited types of learning. This trend has certainly been noticeable in the UK, for instance, where rates of participation in adult education for all groups have been declining in recent years. However, other countries in the EU have observed relative increases in the participating rate in education and training for the 55-64 group (using figures taken from the adult education survey).

One such example is in Germany. Here the increase can be partly attributed to the linking of adult education with volunteering through the implementation of a national “Volunteering Service for all Generations”. The aim is to establish a free-of-charge service format gradually throughout the country in close cooperation with the federal states, local authorities and associations. Most importantly, volunteers are eligible for further education provided that they spend a minimum amount of time volunteering. For older people the programme serves to provide additional lifelong learning opportunities, support the transition for work to retirement, secure and expand social networks, and support cross-generational involvement. It has also worked, with a relative increase of older people who now not only volunteer but also increasingly participate in further learning.

Can anyone else provide examples in which adult education policies have supported older people to gain access to further learning opportunities which are not purely designed to improve their employability? Perhaps this is not even a desirable or feasible goal – what do you think?


Aaron Rajania is a senior research consultant in Ecorys UK, with a specific focus on education and employment policy and research work. Specific research areas include teacher training systems, learning pathways, quality assurance frameworks, and skills development in a work setting. He has lived and worked in a number of countries in Europe including Belgium, Germany, Hungary and the UK.

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  • Mariola Pękala-Piekarska's picture

    Takim przykładem mogą być w Polsce Uniwersytety Trzeciego Wieku. Chyba w żadnym innym kraju ich rozwój nie przebiega tak dynamicznie. Ich historia sięga 1973 r. Gwałtowny przyrost liczby UTW nastąpił po 2002 roku a najwięcej powstało w 2007 r. Uniwersytety to ośrodki edukacji pozaformalnej, skupiają aktywnych seniorów i są odpowiedzią na wyzwania starzejącego się społeczeństwa. W swojej ofercie mają w pierwszej kolejności wykłady oraz zajęcia warsztatowe. Seniorzy dzięki uczestnictwie w UTW nie czują się wykluczeni. Spotykają się w grupie osób o podobnych wartościach, problemach, wątpliwościach, w podobnym wieku a także niejednokrotnie podobnym doświadczeniu, co jest dla nich niezwykle istotne. W UTW nie ma stopni, egzaminów ani górnej granicy wieku, a program zajęć jest fakultatywny.


    Polecam wybrane artykuły i strony związane z ruchem UTW:




  • Ian Atkinson's picture
    I thought this was really interesting and thought provoking. I think you are right in that employability should not be the sole focus of adult learning for older people. Indeed, i think it may be that it should not even be the main focus. There are a couple of reasons for this - 1) Older workers already bring with them a range of experience and skills; while some re-training is sometimes needed this can be and is often in the form of 'on the job' or 'job specific' training which happens within organisations / companies anyway. 2) The definite benefits that engagement in learning can bring for older people in terms of reducing isolation and enhancing wellbeing mean that gains can potentially be greater (or more important) in these areas than they might be in terms of enhancing the economic contribution of older workers . What I think is needed though is more specific and quantifiable evidence for these wellbeing benefits - e.g. do savings to health services etc. outweigh the funding costs of opportunities to engage in learning targeted at older people?; can wellbeing surveys or even measures of gross national happiness be used to identify the gains of such participation, or the social return on invesment they bring? I suspect there already is some interesting evidence on this in addition to that shown in the blog and would be interested if others are aware of this... Thanks, Ian