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.