Ageing is evolving – should schools follow suit?

The fact that we are living longer lives is having knock-on effects in education and wider society, writes Ann Mroz

Ageing is evolving – so should schools

The Poles do not sing Happy Birthday. Instead, they sing Sto Lat, a song that wishes the recipient live 100 years.

For a long time, that would have been a great aspiration, but a milestone that few in reality would reach. However, in 2020, many more people are living longer and celebrating a centenary is not that far-fetched. In fact, current cohort projections suggest that life expectancy for a baby girl born in the UK today is over 94 and for a boy it’s nearly 90. This, of course, has knock-on effects.

The obvious one is on pensions. The longer people are retired, the more expensive pension schemes are to run. An increase in employer contribution rates to the Teachers’ Pension Scheme has caused many small independent schools to reconsider their membership (see bit.ly/PensionsLeave). And to pay for state pensions, government has had to raise the retirement age, a move that has disproportionately affected women.

There are other, less obvious effects in education, too. At the upper end, 50 per cent of young people are now going into higher education. Combined with the rise in the school leaving age, this means that, for many, employment and independence are deferred.

Because we are living longer, there’s no time penalty: young people can put off full adulthood without their time as a non-adult taking up a higher proportion of their life compared with their parents’, according to Nick Hillman, of the Higher Education Policy Institute (bit.ly/HillmanLife). “If the years from 0 to 18 make up a shorter proportion of your life than the lives of your ancestors, then delaying full-blown adulthood makes sense,” he says.

Great, you might think, but there is a downside, too: young people are being infantilised and parents now want to accompany their children on every aspect of their higher education experience, and expect to get them home when they finish.

Compare this with previous generations. My deputy, Ed Dorrell, likes to recount how in the 1990s his father dropped him off at his halls of residence during freshers’ week and drove off, winding down the window only to shout: “That’s it, you’re on your own now.”

At the other end of the education timeline, you find the toilet-training phase, where children are similarly being offered their independence at a later stage. More children than in previous generations are starting nursery and school wearing nappies and pull-ups, according to Eric, a children’s bowel and bladder charity. Compared with the 1940s and ’50s, parents are now leaving toilet training until 21 to 36 months as opposed to 18 months.

Has society shifted its expectations of young people in line with these other postponements of individual responsibility? In one crucial respect – the age at which children are by law responsible for their own actions – the answer is no. In England, the age is still 10, the lowest in Europe. This is despite scientific evidence on brain development showing “marked immaturity in a network of frontal brain regions implicated in social cognition, planning perspective-taking and evaluating future consequences”, according to a recent letter to The Times from two child and adolescent psychiatrists and Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, professor of psychology and cognitive neuroscience. They want the age to be raised.

It’s hard to argue with their logic. If society now dictates that young people do not need to be responsible for themselves until they are in their twenties, being held responsible by law at half that age cannot be right.

As our life expectancy increases, we may feel that Sto Lat lacks ambition: the Chinese greeting of wansui – wishing people a thousand years of life – may eventually seem more appropriate.

@AnnMroz

This article originally appeared in the 10 January 2020 issue under the headline “Ageing is evolving – so should schools shift their expectations?”

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