Learning in later life – extending the OECD skills survey beyond 65

Many people, myself included, are very interested indeed in the findings of the OECD’s adult skills survey. And it has already become clear that there is much more to come, both from the OECD team, but also from other researchers who are analysing the data independently.

Like any piece of research, though, the OECD survey has limitations. One, particularly important for anyone interested in learning right across the life course, is that the sample was confined to adults of standard working age. I was delighted, then, to learn that the German Institute of Adult Education had collaborated with researchers from two universities to conduct a parallel survey of adults aged 66 and over.

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Competencies in Later Life – the German study – was designed so that the quantitative findings are comparable with those of the main OECD survey. CILL also went beyond it. While the results are still being analysed, preliminary results are available, and they make fascinating reading. More detailed findings were presented at a workshop in Bonn, and it seems pretty clear that extending the OECD instruments to cover older adults was a well worth while exercise.

Some of the findings were predictable. For example, the survey confirmed that average skill levels continue to fall with age, with IT competencies falling particularly sharply. While this is exactly what we might already expect from the OECD findings for the under-65s, it is still helpful to have clear evidence that this is indeed the case, with obvious implications for policy and practice. The study also showed that even among older adults, the level of their parents’ education has a powerful influence.

For me, though, the most interesting finding concerned the lifelong influence of initial education. The study showed that there were many variations in the literacy and numeracy competences of different groups, but when the researchers controlled for initial education, these variations tended to disappear.

For example, men on average showed stronger competences in both areas than women, but after controlling for initial qualifications, the numeracy gap was much smaller, and the literacy gap vanished. This is, of course, a generational effect, which is a product of the different participation rates in tertiary education of men and women in past times.

The study also explored the ways in which people use the skills of literacy, numeracy and computer competences in later life. Drawing on qualitative as well as survey data, the study shows the continuing importance of these skills – as well as others – in the everyday lives of older adults, whether they are still in the labour market of not.

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