Why learning new skills is a job for life

13th June 2014 at 01:00
With pensions dwindling and the employment market in constant flux, an ageing population needs adult education like never before

What do Brad Pitt and Michelle Obama have in common? It may surprise you to learn that they are both 50 years old. But I think we can all agree that they are not reaching for the slippers and the stairlift just yet.

Celebrating your half-century is no longer a sign to slow down and pootle towards retirement. In fact, with people living longer, the pension crisis forcing us to work later and a struggling economy bringing to an end the "job for life" and, often, resulting in redundancy, many in the 50-plus age group now find themselves poring over "situations vacant" adverts.

Retraining, upskilling and refreshing literacy, numeracy and ICT basics are essential to making these workers attractive to new employers. Adult education providers realise this. They run employability-related courses, many of which are funded by the government and thus free to learners. As the demand for an older, skilled workforce increases, some providers are now running classes aimed solely at the over-fifties.

"[In] the next decade, there will be about 13 million job vacancies, partly due to retirement and partly due to growth," says David Hughes, chief executive of adult education body Niace. "Yet there are only 7 million young people entering the workforce. So we need to increase labour market participation among adults and extend working life to fill the jobs that are there.

"We don't want people working longer in poor jobs. We want them to get the training and skills they need to get decent jobs with decent wages and decent prospects of employment at whatever age."

Fortunately, research shows that older people are keen to learn. According to a survey by Niace, more than a quarter of adults aged 55 to 64 consider themselves to be "learners", which means they are studying or practising something whether that's at home, online or in an institution.

Although that number reduces with age, a healthy 19 per cent of 65- to 74-year-olds are still learning, as are an impressive 10 per cent of the over-75s.

Employers are also keen to support older people, as shown by the government's Employer Ownership of Skills pilot. This has involved giving businesses money to spend on training and upskilling their staff as they see fit.

Although the scheme is in its infancy, at present more than three-quarters of the funds are going to workers aged over 24. This suggests that employers value experience and see the benefit of refreshing the skills of seasoned staff members.

One new intervention aimed at supporting older people in their quest to remain relevant in the workplace is the Mid-Life Career Review, which has been trialled by Niace for a year.

Aimed at 45- to 64-year-olds, the scheme offers advice on education, training and employment. About 3,000 people have taken part in the initial drive and results will be revealed in September.

"We think that, at key points of transition in people's lives, they should have the opportunity to talk about what's possible for them," Hughes explains.

People in the targeted age group may be working in an industry that is declining and has few job prospects. Perhaps they can no longer remain in a physically demanding occupation, such as building or plumbing, or they are returning to work after years of caring for children or elderly parents.

Hughes says that the response to the pilot has been very positive, and that it has allowed applicants to consider the skills they have and accept the adjustments they need to make to cope with a changing job market.

"People learn all the time but they don't realise that," he says. "Just telling them that the skills they take for granted are ones they have learned over years gives them the confidence to know they can learn in the future."

Niace hopes that eventually everyone will be eligible for a mid-life career review.

New world, old problems

The job market is changing and people have to change with it. We are in a digital age but digital competency is something that many older people fear. Responding to this, the charity Age UK runs computer courses to help learners gain the confidence and skills to use the internet.

Of course, to have good ICT skills, you need good literacy. "More technology in the workplace compounds the problem," Hughes says. "But the problem is already there, as we know people struggle with literacy and numeracy."

Not everyone learns because they want to better their chances of employment or to gain a qualification. The University of the Third Age, which promotes learning for its own sake, has experienced a massive boom in its membership, with a steady rise of between 5 and 10 per cent a year. Most members are over 55, some are over 100.

"They come to us because they want to make something new of themselves in later life," explains spokesman Francis Beckett. "We have no qualifications, no curricula and no teachers. We have learning groups and each one has its leader [who] organises the learning. This person may be an expert in the subject or simply know a little more than the others."

Courses are diverse. Although some, such as Anglo-Saxon poetry, wouldn't be out of place on a traditional syllabus, others, including the history of garden design and the relevance of fairy tales, are less traditional but no less enticing.

The social benefits of learning later on in life are obvious. It can ease loneliness and promote good mental health. Computer skills in particular can enable older people to communicate with others via email or social media sites, Skype grandchildren who may live abroad and shop online when they can no longer walk to the supermarket.

After all, unexpected change can happen to anyone. A few weeks ago, David Moyes was let go from his job as manager of Manchester United Football Club and found himself unemployed at the age of 51. His six-figure pay-off no doubt sweetened the pill but not everyone his age will be so lucky.

These days, the old adage that you can't teach an old dog new tricks is rubbish. It is never too late to learn and, as more opportunities arise for the over-fifties, more importance is being placed on keeping this age group skilled, competitive and relevant in an ageing and ever-changing society.

Kate Bohdanowicz teaches adults in East London

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