Agism and lifelong learning

OECD has just published its regular round-up of educational statistics. This issue of Education at a Glance shows that 40% of OECD citizens have taken some sort of formal or informal adult education in a given year. Broken down by age, the data show that 50% of 25-35 year olds have taken some kind of education, compared with only 27% of 55-64 year olds. The lowest participation is among the least well educated older people.

How about the UK? Well, on overall participation levels, we do quite well. The gap between the two age groups is about 12% – half the OECD average. But when we come to the time spent in learning, we fall to the bottom half of the table. While the average younger citizen in the OECD spends twice as much time in non-formal on-the-job learning as older workers, in the UK the younger group receives four times as much time as the older group.  

This kind of imbalance is very familiar to most of us, and probably won’t surprise you. A simple human capital calculation will tell us that investing in younger workers has a higher payback than the same investment in older workers. This is so simply because, all other things being equal, the younger worker will live and work longer. Even so, the difference in training hours is striking, and suggests to me that there might also be a large quality gap.

Because employers and individuals base their decisions on a simple rate of return analysis, it falls to the government to intervene. Government can either incentivise participation for individuals and organisations; or it can support the provision of opportunities and secure its quality. That is, if we believe that older adults should receive the kind of training and education that will support active aging. Sitting on your hands waiting for the market to decide is, in my view, a recipe for serious trouble down the line.

OECD, Education at a Glance 2012, is available at