Tackling loneliness : a public health perspective

I’ve long been interested in social capital – a concept that draws attention to the complex ways in which our social connections serve as a resource. For the third edition of my short book on the subject I added a section on loneliness, which I saw as a neglected aspect of social capital, as it demonstrates the negative effects of having too few – or too weak – connections with others.

Since then, debate over loneliness has attracted widespread attention. This week’s edition of the Lancet carries a strongly worded editorial on the subject, triggered by a new and authoritative report on the risks and costs – social as well as financial – of loneliness. As we move towards policies of ‘social distancing’ in response to Covid-19, I thought it well worth sharing.

Funding adult learners – the case of Singapore

I’ve posted in the past about financial support for adult learners in Germany and in France. These are both fellow large European countries, and there are some interesting lessons for other similar countries like my own. After a brief Twitter exchange with Stephen Evans of the Learning and Work Institute I thought it might be a good time to look at the case of Singapore, a country with a similar population in terms of size (5.6 million) to Scotland or Yorkshire.

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In 2015 Singapore introduced a virtual voucher system, known as SkillsFuture Credit, which forms part of a wider national SkillsFuture strategy for lifelong learning. Open to all national citizens aged over 25, SkillsFuture Credit involves an initial government injection into your account of S$500, followed by periodic top-ups over time.

SkillsFuture Credit pays for courses provided by a range of eligible, largely publicly-funded institutions, including the arts, sports and so-called ‘lifestyle’ courses offered through the state-sponsored People’s Association, and the courses for seniors offered through the National Silver Academy network.

Initially channeled to the citizen to pay fees, from 19 May 2017 SkillsFuture Credit has been disbursed to training providers, with the exception of course fees for overseas MOOCs. This follows a decision to take enforcement action against 4,400 individuals who have reportedly submitted false claims.

Otherwise the system seems to be working well. More than 126,000 Singaporeans used their SkillsFuture credit by the end of the scheme’s inaugural year in 2016. The most popular area for using the credit was information technology, including a large number of older adults who were learning basic IT, often for the first time; second most popular was foreign languages. Some 6% of claims were in respect of MOOCs.

It is probably too early to make any confident claims about Singapore’s system as a model for other countries. The administrative procedures have been revised several times, and taken with the allegations of fake claims this suggests that there have been teething problems. And some will find the range of eligible courses too restricted, with its strong – but far from inclusive – emphasis on skills for innovation.

Yet the scale of take-up is impressively large for a relatively small state, and the financial commitment is admirable. So at the very least, Singapore confirms what can be done by a government determined to promote a culture of lifelong learning.


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.


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.

The benefits of adult learning: information technology and older adults


The IT Group, Yeovil U3A

I’ve just been reading a study of how adult learning influences older people’s use of information technology. I’ll summarise this study, as it adds to our knowledge about the benefits of adult learning, but if you want to read the original it is available here.

The study is of University of the Third Age students in two Italian centres for seniors. The researchers surveyed 135 individual learners; like many other studies of U3A groups the learners were more likely to be highly educated than the population at large, and the IT groups had more men than average for U3A courses. The survey relied on self-reporting, and examined changes in IT use among those taking the course.

The results were highly illuminating, and they are summarised in the abstract below. The only group who did not benefit significantly from the course were university graduates, which should come as no surprise. Those with lower existing levels of education, and especially those with the lowest levels, experienced the largest benefits.New Picture

Given the increasing role of IT in health care and access to other government services, as well as in everyday communications, these are important findings.Last year I got annoyed with a government minister who’d been sneering at part-time courses in IT for adult learners. She justified her attack on adult learning in machine-like language:

there has been a deprioritisation in the range of computing courses that are about things such as how to work a mouse and how to organise your calendar at Christmas.

Well, learning how to use a mouse might just be critical if you are seventy and are terrified to touch a computer. Internet use among older adults is rising, but it falls sharply among the over-65s. Evidence that education changes behaviour as well as attitudes is therefore very welcome.

Skills and the growing number of older workers


I recently attended a European research conference on the education and learning of older adults. It was held in the charming southern Swedish city of Jönköping, and was attended by a decent network of researchers who function well together. I’ve been to previous meetings of this group and always found them stimulating.

I presented on the role of education and skills in supporting older workers. My argument was that demographic aging poses a much wider set of challenges to workplaces than is usually supposed; that older workers should be seen as part of the solution to these challenges and not just as their cause; and that the challenges and solutions were multi-dimensional, involving a wide range of actors, so that the government ministry for education may well be a relatively minor actor. In these circumstances those who support learning for older workers will need to build coalitions and partnerships outside the traditional educational arena.

Since then, the Department for Work and Pensions has just published an analysis of older workers that reinforces my view of the importance of this topic. Drawing on the Labour Force Survey, the DWP report shows that the employment rate for older workers is rising sharply. In the last thirty years in Britain:

  • the employment rate for 50-64 year olds rose by 14.2%, from 55.4% to 69.6%;
  • the employment rate for workers aged 65 or over has doubled, rising from 4.9% to 10.2%
  • the largest increases have been for women workers aged 60-64 and 55-59

This growth has been faster for older women workers than men, producing much greater convergence between the two in terms of their employment rate (though not necessarily in their experience of work or the rewards they receive).

And the growth in employment for the over-65s began in the early 2000s and has continued until the present. This suggests that financial hardship is not the principal driver of the turn to work. Those who reached state pensionable age in the early 2000s still included significant numbers with decent occupational pensions; and the New Labour government adopted a number of measures at this time to reduce pensioner poverty, including rises in the basic state pension.

Of course, some older workers are looking to make ends meet still, and their numbers may increase with the tightening squeeze on welfare. But more likely explanations are (a) the expanding number of older adults as the baby boomers reach their sixties; (b) the relatively good health of people who reach the state pension age; (c) a slow change in attitudes among at least some employers who are more willing to take on older workers; (d) the growth in precarious job contracts such as zero hours arrangements, which may cause less difficulty to people who can also draw on pensions; and (e) people’s desire to maintain a relatively high consumption lifestyle.
What does all this mean for skills and education? Here we enter the realms of speculation, albeit that we do have some evidence. First, the growing number of older workers is creating new demands for upskilling and other forms of training, which employers will need to take on board.

Second, a number of older workers will be well able to fund their own learning, at least partly; and indeed for some, the more commercialised forms of learning (study tours, heritage cruises, and so on) will be part of the lifestyle that they are working to maintain.

Third, human resource managers – including trainers – will need to take an increasingly multi-generational workforce into account, with generational differences being superimposed on other factors such as gender and ethnicity. This means planning development and training activities that meet the needs of mixed age groups and balance the different learning styles and preferences of different cohorts, from recent school-leavers to those over state pension age.

There are important roles here for adult learning providers, but not necessarily as instructors – or not just as instructors. There are other roles as brokers, partners and advocates to be filled, working alongside trade unions and employers and trainers. It is, though, unlikely that providers will play much of a role if their expertise is limited to working with young adults and providing a second chance of improving basic skills, important though these are.

And finally there is a role for government, if it has the political will to intervene, in helping to secure equity. I mentioned above the question of gender and workforce participation among older women workers; their location in and rewards from the labour market will only match those of men if there are measures in place to avoid discrimination and provide targeted skills. The same goes for ethnicity and – with knobs on – for dis/ability, particularly as those older workers who are working because they need the money will also be those with the lowest savings, poorest health and the fewest skills.

Neuroscience and the impact of adult learning – or why I got it wrong on mindfulness

Meditating_in_Madison_Square_ParkWhile I hope I have always been polite about it, I’ve never had much time for things like mindfulness or meditation. They ring of new age phooey, embraced by enthusiastic zealots who dismiss the very idea of any evidence beyond their own beliefs. Courses in these subjects have always seemed at best harmless, at worst a tax on the gullible.

Well, I got that one wrong. A recent review by a group of neuroscientists from Canada, Germany and the USA brought together the findings of research into the impact of meditation and mindfulness classes on the adult brain, with impressive results. For anyone concerned with lifelong learning, their findings are consistent with the view that our brain is not fully formed at the end of adolescence, followed by a long phase of dreary decline, but continues to change during adult life.

One of the studies reviewed compared people who had taken an eight-week mindfulness stress reduction class with a control group who had applied for the class and gone onto the waiting list. Longitudinal scans of their brains showed that course participation was associated with changes in gray matter concentration in brain regions involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking.

Other studies reviewed consistently showed that meditation caused changes in the brain regions concerned with memory consolidation, meta-awareness, and self and emotion regulation. While the evidence was less abundant, the researchers concluded that there were gounds for believing that meditation interventions can also offset age-related cognitive decline.

This research is potentially of huge importance for our understanding of lifelong learning. Earlier studies, such as the well-known case of London taxi drivers, have already shown that the adult brain is plastic – that is, it continues to change throughout the life course. The mindfulness research not only confirms this, but shows that what is true for the right hippocampus in taxi drivers is also true for other parts of the brain; and that planned interventions can cause brain change.

While the importance for lifelong learning is clear, what this means in practice is far from simple. There is a good news story here about resilience and the avoidance of cognitive decline, which is of obvious significance for policy-makers and employers, who might otherwise be as sceptical about the value of these interventions as I was. It might also be useful for the public, particularly older adults, to understand why they need to exercise their minds as much as any other muscle. But what none of this tells us, at least so far, is what to teach and how best to teach it.

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.

Few winners, plenty of losers: policy failure in lifelong learning

The Government has finally published the results of its 2010 National Adult Learning Survey. Why it was not published last year is itself a story, but the more important issue is that the survey shows a huge decline in participation in adult learning. The headline is that overall participation fell by 11% from the level of 80% recorded in 2005. Non-formal learning, or courses not leading to a qualification, saw a collapse of 17%; and informal (self-directed) learning saw a drop of 13%. 

As ever, deep inequalities lurk behind the headlines. The age gradient has risen, with much sharper declines in participation among older adults. The gap between 20-29 year-olds and people in their sixties has risen, as has the gap between the 20-29-year-olds and people aged over 70. In a system which was already geared towards youth, older adults have been further marginalised.

The education gradient has also become steeper. Participation fell by 7% among people with higher education qualifications; it fell by 11% among those with Level 2 qualifications, by 14% among those with Level 1 qualifications, and a whoppping 19% by those with no qualifications. This is quite remarkable, given that after the Leitch Review of 2006, Government policy under Labour and the Coalition was allegedly geared towards getting the least qualified to improve their skills and qualifications.

The social mobility gradient has become sharper as well. The drop in participation was 7% among those with at least one parent holding a university degree, and 12% for people whose parents had left education by the age of 16. Taken together with current changes in the taxation and benefits systems, this contradicts the claim that social mobility can be – as deputy prime minister Nick Clegg put it in 2011 – the Coalition’s ‘over-riding social policy objective’.

How can we explain this collapse in lifelong learning? The report suggests that the 2005 figures were inflated by a temporary surge in introductory computer training; this is possible but unlikely, as the result of introductory computer training is generally an increased need for less basic training. The report also claims that ‘employers are training fewer employees’ because of the recession. This sounds plausible until you realise that there is absolutely no evidence for this claim. On the contrary – Alan Felstead and Francis Green have shown that training activity has continued much as usual.

Finally, the report briefly alludes to policy changes, which brought about a critical breakdown in public sector provision. Essentially, Government decided to discourage short courses and courses not leading to qualifications, and prioritise courses leading to Level 2 qualifications. These are the results of policies adopted in 2007, on Labour’s watch (hang your heads in shame, John Denham and Bill Rammell). The Coalition has continued them in England, and now the SNP is taking Scotland down the same path.

The consequences do not need labouring. First, we are heading straight for greater educational and social inequality; second, social mobility will decline as a direct result; and third, any claims about ‘active aging’ must be measured against the negative effects of reduced opportunities for third age learning.

The NALS report is at: www.bis.gov.uk/assets/biscore/further-education-skills/docs/n/12-p164-national-adult-learner-survey-2010.pdf

Felstead and his colleagues’ reports on training in the recession are at: http://www.cardiff.ac.uk/socsi/research/researchprojects/traininginrecession/index.html

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: http://eloa2012.pedagogika-andragogika.com/programme.html