Education for older adults: where now?

I’m just back from a European conference on education for older adults. It was a stimulating and impressive showcase for recent research in the area, interspersed with reports from professionals running programmes with older people. There was a lot to digest and it was also fabulously well organised.

Marvin Formosa, a gerontologist from Malta, caused a bit of mild controversy with a critique of European Union lifelong learning programmes. He pointed out that the EU was slow on the uptake, failing to mention older adults at all in the first decade of its discussions on lifelong learning, and then later on referring mainly to ‘older workers’.

Formosa also noted that the EU’s Year of Active Ageing has focussed above all on promoting a particular vision of older people. Essentially, the active older adult is someone who is healthy enough and lively enough and responsible enough to look after themselves. They will make few demands on the welfare state, either for personal and health case, or presumably for publicly funded education.

This reminded me of some of the discussions I joined during the Government Office for Science’s foresight project on Mental Capital and Wellbeing. Our review of research showed that participating in learning, exercise and social activity were all good mechanisms for protecting against cognitive decline and promoting resilience. The problem was that these benefits were all in the bailiwick of the government departments responsible for health and social services, but the spending mostly fell in other departments such as education.

Formosa went on to argue that two key groups are excluded both from the EU’s thinking and from most provision. The first are the elderly old – those who are in what Peter Laslett classically called the ‘fourth age’. Formosa argued that this group are typically neglected by policy because they represent low value as human capital.

This claim prompted a fruitful discussion about programmes for people whose mobility may be limited, especially those living in residential accommodation, or who are socially isolated with little access to transport.

The second missing group, Formosa pointed out, are men. In all those countries for which we have figures, men rarely comprise more than a quarter of members of the U3A or similar bodies, and in some countries they account for far less than that.

This prompted debate about the role of men’s sheds and similar organisations, but I hope my colleagues will forgive me for saying that I found it a bit shapeless. Looking ahead, if we are to move beyond the anecdotal, we need a much firmer gender perspective on learning in the third and fourth ages. At the moment, we don’t really know how to explain men’s non-participation, or whether it much matters to them.

The conference papers are available through the programme web page:

5 thoughts on “Education for older adults: where now?

  1. John, my recollection is that Peter actively fought against the term ‘fourth age’ on the grounds that it sitgmatises them as helpless etc. But interesting points from the confirm.

  2. The elderly old are becoming ever more present while slipping from view in other ways. While Tom Schuller points to Laslett’s dislike of ‘fourth age’ as a stigmatising term, its increasing use in policy debates indicates it’s here to stay. What’s evident to me from reminiscence work with older people is the value of intellectual engagement to their mental & physical well being – widely evidenced in research.
    must agree with you, John, about the need for clarity around gender & learning as people age. I quite like ancedotes ( I would, I’m a life historian!) but see their value as waymarkers towards potential areas of investigation.

  3. Hi John – you might change who the above comment came in from to me: Teresa Cairns; it was posted via my wordpress account HortusLudi, my blog for allotment & growing stuff & I forgot to change that before posting.

  4. Thanks Tom and Teresa both for your comments. I fear that my technical competence doesn’t stretch to changing your account name, Teresa, so I simply approved and added your request for me to do so! On the more substantive issue, I agree that there are risks of stigmatising and therefore devalueing through the language. All the same, there is an increasing probability of frailty in later life, and Marvin Formosa’s point was that the emphasis on active ageing can also stigmatise and devalue. I’m glad you enjoyed the note from the conference – it was a very worthwhile event.

  5. John, I made some of these points when I gave the Frank Glendenning Memorial Lecture in London a few years ago. I believe we need to know more about the various paths that men and women take after leaving the workforce in order to understand the role that learning might play in their lives. And am I the only person who’s somewhat sceptical re the claims made for Men’s Sheds?

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