Learning can help people respond positively to the challenges of ageing

5 August 2015

Human life expectancy has been rising for more than a century. Today’s adults will live much longer than their parents. For many people, old age, which used to mean a few years of retirement with rapidly declining health, often in poverty, is now becoming a time of opportunity – with the chance to pursue new interests and revive old ones, to contribute to the community and to see our grandchildren grow. 

However, extending lifespan also presents challenges. Most of us will spend some years in declining health, needing care from others, some will face disability, financial hardship or loneliness. An ageing society also presents an economic challenge, with more people in retirement and fewer in the active workforce.

Adult learning has always played a part in helping people to take the opportunities and respond positively to the challenges of ageing. But, in recent years, for a variety of reasons, public resources for older people’s learning have shrunk, the costs of what remains have risen sharply, and the numbers taking part have fallen dramatically. Although we have seen new forms of adult education emerging – like the University of the Third Age, and Men’s Sheds, which use the skills and knowledge of older people themselves to support learning on a voluntary basis – it is not clear how far these opportunities have replaced what was lost, and whether they are equally accessible to all.

Although learning for older people can contribute to many areas of public policy, it is not central to any of them, and there is no agreed strategy at national or local level.  This results in three key problems:

  1. Poor coordination of the many agencies with an interest in older people.
  2. A lack of an agreed framework for assessing needs and opportunities at local level.
  3. Inefficient use of public funding.

Our latest policy paper A better future for us all, aims to tackle these. It outlines the benefits, to individuals and society of older people’s learning, and proposes that all the relevant agencies should come together at local level to review needs and opportunities, and look at how the quality and range of those opportunities can be improved. It is not proposing a large increase in publicly funded “adult education”, but rather that better coordination of resources (from public, private and voluntary sources) can lead to improvement and real savings in many areas of public policy.

We believe that investing strategically in older people’s learning can bring real benefits to the quality of life of older people, including the ten we identified below:

  1. Improved self-confidence and independence.
  2. Increased contribution to society – including extending working life, and voluntary activity.
  3. Better engagement with society.
  4. Better management of life transitions – like retirement, bereavement, illness.
  5. Better use of digital technologies – increasingly important to independence and everyday living.
  6. Better quality of care – with older people both as carers and recipients of care.
  7. Better health – both general health, and management of specific health conditions.
  8. Better financial security – and avoidance of exploitation.
  9. Better sharing of skills, and knowledge within and across generations.
  10. Better basic skills.

An ageing society is one of the major policy challenges facing all developed countries. A more strategic approach to older people’s learning can help ensure that we seize the opportunities and reduce the costs and risks. We all have an interest in it – this is all our futures!