Lifelong learning and social mobility in Europe – a blank page?


One of the European Commission’s agencies has just published a very interesting and informative report on social mobility in the EU. The European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (Eurofound) has drawn on existing studies and surveys to provide an overview and comparison of the EU member states. It finds that European societies have generally converged in this area, with marked changes in gender patterns; it also suggests that recent trends in social mobility vary considerably by country and gender.

New Picture (2)

I found this a valuable contribution, and as you would expect with a state agency it concludes with a series of policy recommendations. It rightly calls for further research to help shed light on national differences in recent trends, as well as for further debate over which indicators might best help us understand patterns of social mobility.

Its call to prioritise men in Generation X is likely to be controversial, but is based on evidence showing decreasing life chances among men born after 1964. It identifies early selection in education and residential segregation as major causes of  social closure, issues of particular concern in the UK.

This is all well and good. But I was shocked to see that lifelong education appears precisely twice in the report, both times in respect of policies for opening up labour market opportunities. There is no mention of evidence on the social mobility benefits of family learning or adult retraining or second-chance entry to higher education. Some of the findings around family learning interventions were summarised in our recent report for the UK Government’s Foresight project on the future of skills and lifelong learning, so it isn’t exactly inaccessible.

I suspect that the authors of the Eurofound study – and their distinguished advisory panel – simply didn’t see lifelong learning as much of an issue. They should have done, but I also think we can and should do much more to make sure that the benefits of adult learning are much more widely acknowledged. In this case, “we” comprises both the adult learning research community and the large number of reflective practitioners in our field, both of whom need to engage much more systematically with (a) policy-makers and (b) researchers in cognate disciplines. Insularity does none of us any favours.


The Times are Out of Joint: Chrononormativity and the normal age of learning

The word ‘chrononormativity’ refers to the way in which our experiences follow patterns over time in conformity with normative frameworks. Some of these patterns are pretty obvious: for example, there are age-defined periods of compulsory education, and the right to vote or marry, as well as responsibility for one’s own crimes, are defined by age. So, if it is that obvious, why bother to call it ‘chrononormativity’?

Apprentices at Hornsey Rail Depot, by Lynne Featherstone

I’ve been thinking about this question since reading a new paper on older workers in the apprenticeship system. It’s a great paper which uses the idea of chrononormativity to show how oft-unexamined assumptions about age shape the everyday experiences and understandings of older workers, their trainers, and their managers, in ways that are not always helpful for the intended goals of the training programme.
The authors conclude that the concept of chrononromativity helped reveal the complex ways in which the age-training relationship works out, with older apprentices having to take the initiative in disrupting normalising assumptions, in order to negotiate relationships with (younger) peers and trainers. This is a familiar idea to those who have studied the lives of mature students in higher education, or in other age-bound educational settings such as schools. But if the idea is familiar, the word itself is relatively new.
The authors of the paper on older apprentices acknowledge its origins in queer theory, where Elizabeth Freeman used it in a 2010 book to explore the noncontinuously gendered life narratives of transsexuals. For Freeman, though, the term also has a wider relevance: people are controlled through the regulation of time. She defines chrononormativity as ‘the use of time to organize human bodies toward maximum productivity’. More broadly, ‘chronobiopolitics’ underpins various forms of social solidarity: ‘people are bound to one another, engrouped, made to feel coherently collective, through particular orchestrations of time’.
And this is where I think the concept might be helpful in understanding adult learning. It doesn’t point to anything particularly novel, as we have known for many years that most people see learning in adult life as a deviation from the norm: that is why advocates constantly remind people that learning isn’t just for the young. But it does draw attention to the way that our ideas of the ‘normal right time’ for things is patterned, and is tied in to other socio-cultural (and economic) patterns.
Less attractive, to me at any rate, is the way that Freeman uses the passive voice to describe chrononormativity and its effects. She talks about the way in which ‘people are made to feel’ something – and thus rules out the idea of anyone actually doing the making. The talks about ‘the use of time’ to enforce productivity – and not about who is doing the using, and in whose interests. This is also connected, I believe, to a tendency to ignore or underplay the agency of those involved – yet plenty of people do kick against the constraints of chrononormativity, adult learners included.
Stripped of these limitations, I see this idea as potentially relevant for our understanding of what it means to be ‘learning out of joint with the times’. When three of us wrote a paper drawing on our study of learning biographies, we found it useful to distinguish three representations in people’s accounts of time: chronological time, narrative time, and generational time.
I can see with hindsight that, athough the idea of chrononormativity was present in some of what we were saying, an explicit focus on the norms and practices associated with the concept might have sharpened our discussion of all three representations. Or perhaps it would have annoyed readers without adding anything new.
Potentially, I think the concept is worth exploring as we try to understand people’s experiences of learning ‘out of joint’, as well as improving the ways in which learning and its provision are managed. Whether it brings any novel insights, or simply underlines and helps clarify what we already know, remains to be seen.