Hundred-year lives call for 100 years of learning

30th March 2018 at 00:00
Multiple careers and the burden of social isolation in retirement will see adult education taking on a new shape, write Andrew Scott and Mark Malcomson

There is no such a thing as a job for life any more and very few people entering today’s workforce will even have heard of the concept. We have become used to multiple jobs during a lifetime and we are beginning to get used to multiple careers. There is no longer a fixed retirement date, and when you do retire, it probably won’t be a hard stop, but more likely a gradual wind-down. We need the tools to help us to adapt to these transitions.

Finishing education aged 18 or 21 just isn’t going to cut it any more. Technological and societal changes are just too rapid for one “go” at education to sustain us, as we need to continue gaining new skills and updating the ones we have. We all meet adults who are navigating these “life transitions”: people who are switching careers; changing direction; retiring; grasping the opportunity for a second or third chance; or facing a health or personal challenge. All of which help make the case for continuing to learn to help steer a course through these transitions; helping us to upskill, reduce isolation and boost confidence.

Now that we are living longer and working patterns are routinely changing, the traditional perception of a simple three-stage life based on education, career and retirement is breaking down. Whether you are 18, 45 or 60, you will face new challenges and transitions. This is explored in the book, The 100-Year Life (by Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott). We all need to embrace new ways of living, working and learning throughout our lives, it argues.

We either can’t afford to retire at the age our parents did or we will have to work for so long that our mental and physical fitness, as well as our enthusiasm for life, could suffer. So we all have a role to play in helping people develop the resilience and adaptiveness to make the most of a longer life. The influence of longevity is likely to be amplified by new technologies that will arrive in the decades ahead.

Skills gap

Our population is ageing quickly. By 2020, the number of people aged over 65 is expected to increase by 12 per cent (1.1 million). Those approaching the existing retirement age will be expected to work longer. Recent research from charity Business in the Community suggests the UK is facing a dramatic skills gap by 2022; if current trends continue, the number leaving and entering work will lead to a potential workforce shortage of 7.5 million people.

Lifelong learning has a huge role to play in keeping us skilled and resilient for a longer and increasingly competitive working life. Awareness of the need to raise productivity in the workforce played a key role in extending the years of schooling in the aftermath of the industrial revolution. A similar challenge, triggered by developments in demographics and technology, should lead to a substantive increase in the future need for adult education.

It makes commercial sense for employers to encourage workers to continue learning to close gaps in their expertise, especially when you consider that the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development estimates the average cost of recruiting and training a new member of staff is as much as £6,000. Having employees sign up to a short course to boost their skills would cost a fraction of that.

While reskilling is an obvious, tangible benefit that education can produce, it is also important to stress a deeper virtue: the increased need for transitions that a longer life requires puts a premium on the need for community and development with the support of a peer group. For instance, going from a full-time job to having more time for yourself sounds great, but many retirees find the transition isolating. A phased approach to retirement is becoming more common. To be learning as part of that transition, and also once you are in retirement, is a perfect way to adjust and keep the mind and body active. If you have spent all of your adult life working full-time and perhaps raising children, this could be the opportunity to explore a lifelong passion.

The final act

One City Lit learner, English teacher Penelope Maynard, says she became “depressed and a recluse” following retirement. Maynard lost all sense of purpose, so when a friend recommended City Lit, she signed up for a drama course that led to her being “revived socially”. She adds that her “mind grew with the joy of learning new things for a new purpose”. Aged 70, Maynard went on to secure her first job as a professional actor and experienced a new lease of life in retirement.

Finally, and critically, irrespective of the stage of people’s lives, Britain is facing a growing mental health crisis: one-in-four people in the UK will experience a mental health issue per year, according to NHS studies. For many people, taking up a course can be a precious opportunity to escape pressure, avoid social isolation, destress, develop a passion or refocus priorities. Being part of a community and keeping your mind active can make the difference between good and poor mental health.

For too long, we’ve seen education as the preserve of our younger selves. It’s time to recognise that if we’re lucky enough to have 80 years after our initial education, we should continue to develop our resilience and skills to navigate life transitions with confidence. What we need to learn, from whom we learn it and how we learn it may well lead to significant changes in how education is viewed and provided for, but the need for substantive investment in adult education will be a key part of that change.

Andrew Scott is professor of economics at London Business School and co-author of The 100-Year Life: Living and Working in an Age of Longevity; Mark Malcomson is principal of City Lit, the UK’s largest adult-education college


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