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.

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.

New Picture (1)

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.





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.