Will pensioners become NEET?

Here’s a scenario. Retired people who are fit for paid work will be treated as being NEET – not in employment, education or training – and required to get jobs.

No-one’s pushing this as a policy but David Willetts, the universities minister, has been in the news this week encouraging older people to return to higher education to keep their skills updated for employment throughout their sixties and beyond. (See: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/universityeducation/9884301/Over-60s-are-told-go-back-to-university-and-retrain.html)

He made the comments after a recent government report said that the UK’s future economic success will depend on older workers’ skills and contributions. Campaigners for older people aren’t convinced that many will want to commit to degree-level courses and to the possibility of student debt, but figures from the Office of National Statistics show that the average life span in England and Wales increased by around 10 years for a man and 8 years for a woman over the 50 years from 1960 to 2010. The most common age at death in England and Wales in 2010 was 85 for men and 89 for women.

There many issues to think about as people are living longer and technology is changing the ways that we live, learn, work and socialise. Will 60-year-olds be expected to train for extended careers – competing against younger people who aren’t in employment, education or training – or for long, active and healthy retirements?

Joyce Patrick, featured in a past edition of WEA News, learnt to read at the age of 83.

Joyce Patrick, featured in a past edition of WEA News, learnt to read at the age of 83.

Willetts’ proposal is set against a current decline in the number of older students in higher education. A recent report, ‘Older People’s Learning in 2012: A Survey’ by Professor Stephen McNair, Senior Research Fellow at NIACE, found that the proportion of older learners (aged 50+) studying in further education colleges and universities had dropped significantly between 2005 and 2012, from 21% to 9% in colleges and from 14% to 8% in universities.

The report is available at: http://shop.niace.org.uk/older-peoples-learning-2012-summary.html

Stephen McNair reported that more than a quarter of older people said that learning had helped them to pass on skills and knowledge to others. 14% reported ‘Getting involved in society’ as a benefit and 13% cited the value of ‘improving my health’. ‘Getting involved in the digital world’ was a benefit for 10% of respondents in his research and significant numbers reported that it had helped them to manage caring roles and to cope with life crises.

Despite these benefits, older people are much less likely than younger people to be learning. Only 20% of over-50s are ‘learners’, compared to 40% of the adult population as a whole. The proportion falls to only 7% of those aged 75 and over.

older

The WEA is not a university but we have a long tradition of attracting students of all ages into high quality adult education covering a wide range of courses. 37,749 WEA students in 2011-12 were aged 65 or older and a recent analysis of our student data showed 11 active learners who were 100 years old or older.

It’s worth noting the 96.3% retention rate for students aged 65 or older in our part-time, community-based courses last year. Their 96.2% success rate shows that age didn’t stop them meeting their learning aims.

Many of our active volunteers are older people who are contributing to community life in their neighbourhoods. Audrey Constable, 77, voluntary chair of the WEA’s Great Missenden, Prestwood and Wendover Branch is good example. Audrey, a piano teacher, left school without going on to further education immediately. Taking part in a course with the Association in 1970 encouraged her to do a degree in philosophy and linguistics. She says that the WEA changed her life. Michael Davis, 79, a retired surveyor of Prestwood, has been involved in the same branch for 10 years. He says, “We all have a good common interest and enjoy the group learning. It is worthwhile.”

Older people are often overlooked in public debates about education so it’s refreshing that David Willetts has highlighted over-60s and their potential.

What do you think about education’s role in older people’s professional, social and personal well-being? What about pensioners’ rights and responsibilities compared to younger people?