Loneliness and social capital in later life

Loneliness poses an enormous challenge to those experiencing it, and in our society it seems particularly prevalent among older adults. It is easy to understand why this might be so: on the one hand death and physical decline rob us of our friends, and on the other our society has become more individualised and fluid so that making new friends is harder. The question then is what should be done.

This issue came up clearly at a conference I am currently attending on Transitions in the Life Course. It was organised by an impressive new doctoral school called Doing Transitions at the Universities of Frankfurt and Tübingen, and I will blog more about the conference and its background in the next couple of days. Meanwhile, I wanted to report back on a paper that impressed me, by Nan Stevens, a researcher on loneliness in later life.

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Stevens started by outlining the positive benefits of friendship networks for older people undertaking transitions, before moving on to explore issues of loneliness in social networks. She then asked whether it is possible to improve friendships in later life, and then reported on the effects of a particular friendship enrichment programme for older women.

Based on feminist therapy and reevaluation counseling, the programme comprises 12 weekly lessons focussing on self-esteem, relational competence, and friendship formation and maintenance, as well as the practice of relevant social skills. Stevens’ studies are available online, so all I will say here is that (a) she has reasonably good evidence for their effectiveness for those who participated and (b) I encourage you to read them for yourself.

I did wonder, though, whether much the same impact could be achieved by promoting self-help educational programmes that do not focus on friendship per se, but instead pursue the interests of older adults themselves. By the time people reach later life they are often sick of being told what they need to learn by other people, and one reason why the Universities of the Third Age and Men’s Sheds movements are so popular is that they consist of people doing their own thing.

For me, the issue then is how we go beyond the existing constituencies of these self-help forms of adult education, and engage those in later life who are simply not attracted to the U3A or Men’s Sheds. Although I tried exploring this in my book on social capital, I’m still not really certain what the best way of doing this is. Given the benefits of friendship and the penalties of loneliness, extending the reach of learning opportunities for older adults does seem to me an important part of the policy toolkit.

Adult learners in England still under attack

In the UK, you could be forgiven for thinking that participation in public adult learning could not get much worse. Data updated today, available here, show that after repeated declines in recent years, the number of adults in England taking courses funded by the Skills Funding Agency fell yet again last year.

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The detailed results of the Statistical First Release show that the collapse was sharper than average among those taking ‘Full Level 2 courses’ –  i.e. precisely the skills level that government is prioritising. This group fell by 12.7% over the year. Even worse, though, was the collapse in those taking ‘below Level 2 courses (excluding English and Maths)’, who fell by 21.4%.The numbers in community learning courses fell by 7.2%.

The system did little better by basic skills learners. The number of ESOL learners fell by 5.8%, Maths learners by 6.6%, and other English learners (mostly literacy students) by 5.5%. In fact, the only groups to increase were adult apprentices (very welcome, but they are still well below their peak level two years ago) and those – relatively few – who took Level 4 courses.

Of course, there will be alternatives to publicly provided adult education, with a thriving commercial sector and a very active third sector (think men’s sheds and the U3A). Meanwhile, the poorest and those with the least cultural and social capital will be left behind.

Little wonder that the All-Party Group for Adult Education, chaired by Chi Onwurah, recently reported widespread fears of a ‘stated danger that national policy for adult education could disappear by 2020’. And this for a country with an aging working population, and a poor productivity record, facing massive technological and social changes.

 

 

 

 

No more heroes? Educational thinkers and activists in austere times

Paulo Freire, from Wikimedia Commons

Paulo Freire, from Wikimedia Commons

Ann Walker, a prominent British adult educator, has been providing a wonderful resource for anyone interested in educational ideas. The Educational Thinkers Hall of Fame has covered such eminent figures as Paulo Freire, John Dewey and Mary Wollstonecraft, summarising their main contribution and indicating why they matter today.

After a few of us retweeted her most recent post, on the American radical Myles Horton, Ann replied with the question: “Who can compare with Horton & Freire today?” Others weighed in with similar questions, asking where the younger passionate voices are, and why there is so much more effort invested in writing and speaking but so little in action? These are good questions, promoting me to wonder whether a truly heroic period of innovation and passion ever existed, and if it has, whether it has now come to a close.

There probably is less institutional and theoretical innovation now than when I started my professional career, in the late 1970s. Recently, I reviewed the memoirs of Michael Barratt Brown, and was struck by how many organisations he had helped to found, from the Institute for Workers’ Control through a successful fair trade company to Northern College (where I was lucky enough to work from 1978 to 1984).

But the context has changed. The social movements that inspired Michael, as well as other originators such as Freire and Horton, are now a shadow of their former selves. I ended my review by reflecting on the number of Michael’s creations that no longer exist, while the movements that nurtured them have either vanished or have changed beyond recognition. Radical educational organisations like Northern College have had to adapt to survive.

Northern College for residential adult education

Northern College for residential adult education

Much the same is true for the wider intellectual climate. Michael was one of many left-leaning academics who saw the labour movement as a natural ally, Freire found a mass readership at a time when liberation theology (which he greatly admired) spoke to and for mass struggles for land and liberty. Today, radical academics may be powerfully attracted to ideas of ‘transgression’, but these are largely personal and unconnected with and irrelevant to wider social movements.

Historians are always suspicious of any notion of a ‘golden age’ – a scepticism summarised neatly in the title of a book by Gwyn Alf Williams, When was Wales? But I do think that some periods are generally propitious for social inventors, and other periods favour people who are good at maintaining and defending what we have rather than building new structures and ideas. We are now in the second type of period.

That said, we still have our educational heroes – people who are creating great new institutions, and developing new ideas about knowledge and learning. In the last year or so, I have been mightily impressed by the spread of the Men’s Shed movement, a remarkable bunch of quiet revolutionaries who are changing the ways in which men promote their sociability and wellbeing.

Then there are such collaborative movements as citizen science and citizen journalism, often exploiting new social media, in which knowledge creation itself is the basis of socio-cultural action. Not to mention the flourishing self-help world of older adults, exemplfied in the Universities of the Third Age.

This list could go on, but these are enough to give us grounds for supposing that we are living in at least a silver age of educational creativity. What strikes me is that these seem to be generally collective and collaborative ventures, that generally have few outstanding leadership figures. And that seems to me better suited to the bottom-up, somewhat dislocated and at times inchoate world of social and political anaction that we now inhabit.