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Chain reaction

With the emphasis on younger people, learning opportunities for the older generation are few and far between. Yet they can still be a powerful force in the work place, writes David Newnham

Viewed from down here, there is nothing special about the men and women on the high crags. With their ropes and protective helmets, they look like your average bunch of rock climbers.

But catch them later, back on terra firma, and you might be surprised at their ages. None of them is a day under 50, and one or two could be well into their 70s.

They are participating in a Gateshead-based project called Pushing the Possibilities, and for the next few weeks, you will find them doing just that -canoeing, cycling and sailing, or just walking through the great outdoors. Supported by the Kellet Fund charity through the Community Foundation, Pushing the Possibilities sets out to give older people the chance to try new things -to learn skills, develop self-confidence, meet new people, lead a healthier lifestyle - to have fun.

Most tellingly, though, many participants talk of their surprise at what they have achieved. "We've been conditioned to think that we shouldn't do these sorts of things, that it's just for the young," says Ada. "But why shouldn't it be for us too?"

As Britain approaches its biggest demographic shift in decades, that's a question more and more people will be asking - everyone from the policymakers who fret over skills shortages and pensions shortfalls to individuals whose future seems to hold nothing more stimulating than jigsaw puzzles and daytime television.

Over the next 20 years, the number of people aged between 25 and 39 is predicted to fall by 5 per cent, while the number aged between 50 and 65 is likely to increase by 20 per cent. But at the very time when the economy most needs them, many older people who want to work into what was once termed "old age" face several hurdles.

The first is likely to be a relatively poor education - schooling has simply got a lot better since "the good old days". Consequently, around a third of people aged between 56 and 64 in the south-east of England have below level 2 (GCSE equivalent) qualifications, compared with 10.4 per cent of people aged 16-25.

Among the hardest hit, says Professor Stephen McNair, director of the Centre for Research into the Older Workforce and co-director of the Centre for Policy and Change at the University of Surrey, are people who have spent a large part of their working lives in low-skilled occupations.

Literacy and numeracy are not critical to their jobs and they are then squeezed out, either because they can no longer cope with the physical strain, or because their firms reorganise. "They then find themselves looking for jobs with no qualifications and low literacy levels, and there are few jobs you can enter after the age of 50 in that situation."

In addition, says Professor McNair, there are people in their 50s who have dropped out of the workforce and who cannot get back because they don't have up-to-date skills, IT being the classic example. And among older men, in particular, there is a tendency not to return in those circumstances, but, as Becci Newton of the Institute of Employment studies, says, "to let their back problem get the better of them".

But disappointed, perhaps, and disillusioned with the world of work, why should they worry, provided that they can scrape by on benefits? Because, says Professor Mcnair, in marked contrast to what the media would have us believe, most people aged between 50 and 70 enjoy working, particularly if they can do so on a flexible or part-time basis.

"Our research over the past few years has shown that the people who are happiest and healthiest in their 60s are people in part-time work," he says. "It's probably to do with the intellectual and social stimulus of remaining engaged with other people through some kind of structure. So work is actually good for people."

Unfortunately, older people who accept this truth frequently encounter another big hurdle - namely, that training opportunities designed for the specific needs of their age group are few and far between.

"There looks to be a decline in provision for older people," says Professor McNair. "This isn't because of a lack of interest on the part of government or the Learning and Skills Council, but because government's promises about entitlement for young people and vocational learning have used up all the budget.

"There are LSC Skills for Life programmes that are trying to do something about basic skills. But there are few programmes aimed at training for older workers. They are being slotted into programmes designed for people in general."

Even those who have jobs and who want to stay in them, find themselves up against this problem. Data from the 2004 Labour Force survey shows a sharp decline in training participation for workers aged 50 and over, with opportunities being mostly given to younger people.

Research has shown that many line managers cling to the belief that older people lack career aspirations, or are unwilling or unable to learn new skills, despite hard and fast evidence that older workers who receive job-related training reach the same skill standards as younger workers.

That older people still face these obstacles to training at a time when their participation in the labour market is becoming an economic imperative is certainly surprising. But many, like Jim Soulsby, development officer at Niace, have long felt that there is a tendency to overlook the wider benefits of learning. "Our agenda has been for years about creating more, better and different learning opportunities for older people. It's about recognising where older people are at.

"We are seeing in government policy the beginnings of a refreshing acknowledgement of the role that older people can play in society. For example, in the policy document "Opportunity Age" that came out of the Department for Work and Pensions last year, learning was part of it, whereas 10 years ago, it might not have been mentioned. But it was prescriptive.

"With the age discrimination legislation coming in later this year, and the demographic considerations, why can't a 75-year-old look for training for work and why can't a 55-year-old look for some sort of education programme that will help him or her reflect on what their life is?

"One might be pragmatic and accept that with only a finite amount of money available, the economic arguments are strongest. But a lot of us try to make health and social benefits of learning arguments too."

Studies have shown that people who engage in intellectual activity into their 40s and 50s are three times less likely to suffer from Alzheimer's disease in later life. And research carried out in 1999 by Sally Dench at the Institute for Employment Studies provided evidence of more immediate effects. "Many people we interviewed were quite clear about how learning had helped them get over depression," she says. "It also helped them cope better with ill health and disability. " Not only can learning, any learning at all, help some older people get back on their feet after a setback, but it can help others remain on their feet and thereby retain for longer that most cherished of assets - independence.

Jane Ditchburn, co-ordinator of the Gateshead project that has persuaded so many older people that they, too, can climb mountains, says that Pushing the Possibilities was deliberately set up with a view to challenging images and expectations of older people. And, as Britain approaches a demographic tipping point, many are arguing that such a change in culture is long overdue.

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