Published: 4-01-2012, 13:47

The Age of Learning: Seniors Learning

Older learning has become a major focus in international and national government’s educational and social policies. Indeed, in support of the International Year of Older Persons, United Nations Scientific, Educational and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the National Institute for Adult Continuing Education in UK combined to issue a small pamphlet calling for older adults to have opportunities: to manage themselves and their quality of life; to have access to adult learning without there being an age limit to learning; for new learning; to contribute to the development of both themselves and their societies (UNESCO, nd). This article explores so many of the developments that have occurred in recent years that indicate how societies are changing in this respect. It has three main parts: the age of learning, retirement and retirement education, and organizations that promote older learning. Finally, there is a brief conclusion which makes reference to the wider benefits of learning.

The Age of Learning

The global economy has also been called the knowledge economy: products and processes have to be developed and marketed by the most efficient and effective methods. This has called for a greater investment in all forms of knowledge production and for a greater proportion of knowledge workers than ever before in humankind’s history. Education has become more widely accepted as a lifelong process than ever before, despite the fact that the first book on lifelong education was written as early as 1929 (Yeaxlee, 1929). But now, it is accepted that this is an age of learning, rather than of education, and lifelong learning is a frequently employed term: it is recognized that seniors can and do continue their learning throughout the lifespan. However, it is important to recognize that they have been the driving forces of global capitalism that have generated this changed approach to learning (Jarvis, 2007; inter alia). It is significant to note, however, that as Stehr (1994) points out the new learning age emphasizes scientific, technological, and social scientific knowledge rather than the humanities, as Kerr et al. (1973) predicted. This restricted approach to knowledge meant that the broad educational program of the educated person began to appear out of date as competent professionals were sought. Now, however, a new model might be appearing within the context of lifelong learning whereby younger adults concentrate upon the sciences, technology, and the work-based subjects while liberal education becomes a focus in the latter years of life when seniors have the time and inclination to reflect upon life itself and its meaning – if it has one. The education of elders, therefore, has assumed a totally different approach as a leisure-time pursuit which includes academic learning but which is not exclusive to it. Indeed, one other effect of globalization on the lifelong learning of elders has been the growth in educational tourism – an activity in which healthy seniors have been able to participate fully, as is seen below.

While globalization is the major cause for the development of this learning age, the focus on older learners may be seen as much as a result of demographics since we are living longer in an aging world. This is certainly the outcome of the improved standard of living that many people have enjoyed over the past century. Globalization and demographics, then, underlie the development of educational gerontology.

Education and Learning

In order to explore the idea of seniors’ learning, it is necessary to unravel the complexities of definition underlying lifelong learning. The European Commission, for instance, defines it thus:

all learning activity undertaken throughout life, with the aim of improving knowledge, skills and competences within a personal, civic, social and/or employmentrelated perspective. (EC, 2001: 9)

However, this definition actually conceptually confuses education and learning: learning, however, is personal and existential and transcends education. While there has been considerable debate within education about the nature of learning and a variety of different approaches and definitions have been suggested, combining them all within an all-embracing definition, learning, which is a lifelong process, may be defined as:

the combination of processes throughout a life time whereby the whole person – body (genetic, physical and biological) and mind (knowledge, skills, attitudes, values, emotions, beliefs and senses) – experiences social situations, the perceived content of which is then transformed cognitively, emotively or practically (or through any combination) and integrated into the individual person’s biography resulting in a continually changing (or more experienced) person ( Jarvis, 2006: 134).

This definition emphasizes the fact that learning is not just a cognitive exercise and that our whole life experience is learned. In contrast to the existential, lifelong learning may also be seen as a social institution which is as education, as opposed to personal learning, and may be defined as:

every opportunity made available by any social institution for, and every process by which, an individual can acquire knowledge, skills, attitudes, values, emotions, beliefs and senses within global society ( Jarvis, 2007: 99).

Lifelong learning, then, is personal existential learning and recurrent education. In a sense, these two definitions also combine the more traditional ideas of informal, nonformal, and formal learning: formal learning being that which is organized within the traditional educational institution, nonformal is organized learning but does not occur within the traditional classroom setting and informal learning occurs during the processes of everyday interaction. As people age, there are fewer opportunities for them to engage in formal learning in many countries of the world, although where open universities have been founded, such as the British Open University and the Greek Open University, age is no barrier to entry to formal education and in many other countries, we are beginning to see universities and colleges open classes to older adults, as we shall see below. Additionally, there are more opportunities provided within society for nonformal learning. It is shown throughout this article that nonformal and even nonacademic learning is where the growth in education for seniors is to be found. This is to be expected since in later life, people follow their interests and attend to activities that are relevant to them – a point that Knowles (1980) stressed when he discussed the practice of andragogy.

Definitions of an Older Person

Traditionally, at the age of 65 years, a person has been deemed to have reached old age, but now we are living longer and so the question of who is old becomes a much more contentious question. Indeed, in 2004, in the UK, a 65-year-old male could expect to live a further 16.7 years, an increase of 4.4 years since 1971 whereas a female could expect to live a further 19.6 years, and increase of 3.3 years since 1971 (HMSO, 2006: 100–101). This has meant that the concept of old age is undergoing something of a re-definition with some educational gerontologists suggesting that middle age now finishes at 70 years. (This was a suggestion made by Dr Jim Fisher of MilwaukeeWisconsin University.) Nevertheless, it is still possible to treat the start of the third age in life as something between 60 and 65 years and that of the fourth age as 75 years, or as when a person loses the capacity to live independently. However, it is possible in the UK to join the University of the Third Age from the time when a person is no longer in full-time paid employment. What is clear is that people are living longer and that the span of old age is increasing quite considerably, which has resulted in some research projects now being government funded into the very old in order to prepare policies for future eventualities.


It is impossible in a brief article like this to review the population statistics for the whole world but it is commonly accepted that the world’s population is aging and Western Europe is a graying population (HMSO, 2006: 11) – it is the oldest region in the world (UNESCO, nd) – and the figures for the United Kingdom tend to confirm this. By the year 2021, it is estimated that UK will have a population of 64 729 000 people, of whom 19.67% will be 65 years and older while 9.47% will be 75 years and older. In contrast, in 1971, the population was 55 928 000 of whom 13.25% were 65 years and over and only 1.54% was 75 years and over, but in that year there were 25.49% of the population under 16 years of age compared with an estimated 17.61% in 2021 (HMSO, 2006: 10). Similar statistics can be discovered for the USA which will have an estimated population of 70 million people, 65 years and older by 2030 (McGuire et al., 2005: 443), which is why these authors advocate the introduction of aging education as a national imperative. McGuire et al. (2005) now suggest that there are about 16 000 senior citizens centers in the USA.

However, by 2020, it is anticipated by the World Health Organization that 1 billion people worldwide will be classed as older persons, with 700 million living in developing countries: China will have 230 million, India 142 million, Indonesia 29 million, Brazil 27 million, and Pakistan 18 million. These five countries will be among the ten countries with the largest number of older people in the world. Additionally, by 2020, Japan will have 31% of it population classified as elderly and many countries will have a high proportion of its population over the age of 80 years (UNESCO, nd).

Retirement and Preretirement Education

Traditionally, the age of retirement in UK, and elsewhere in the world, has been 65 years for men and 60 years of age for women. As work has become more knowledge orientated, more women have been able to find employment and so their working lives have in some cases become similar to men’s. In addition, as society has become more consumer orientated, it has become incumbent upon husbands and wives to work so that the family can enjoy the wealthy consumer lifestyle presented in the mass media and so we find that in Europe, in 2004, 70.9% of men and 55.7% of women work (HMSO, 2006: 53). However, it is now being mooted that the statutory retirement age should be later – perhaps 68 years. There are at least two reasons for this: first, pensions were planned and financed on a shorter life expectancy and age discrimination has meant that it is more difficult for employers to terminate work when an employee reaches retirement age. Indeed, it has been discovered that many people continue to work long after retirement from their job at retirement age, even to the extent of being retrained for new forms of employment.

In addition, in the UK, 23% of men and 11% of women worked over 48 h a week in 2005 (HMSO, 2006: 59). This has meant that for many people, retirement is a momentous change in lifestyle and this has been exacerbated by the fact that society has done very little to ease this status transition. Consequently, some enlightened employers have run preretirement education courses or have released their staff to attend such courses a few months or so before retirement in order to prepare for the change. Sometimes, such courses have been run by the human resources or welfare departments of employing organizations but often they have been run by colleges and other educational institutions on behalf of employers. Fundamentally, these courses are designed to help retirees consider their futures in terms of identity, health, wealth, and leisuretime pursuits. In more recent times, however, the idea of preretirement education has spread to developing countries and Ogunbameru and Bamiwuye (2004) have showed how older employees in Nigeria recognized advantages in preretirement education even though it was not widely practiced there – which indicates that preretirement education is now taking the place of instruction during the liminal period of the rite de passage.

Retirement is a time of major status change. In earlier times and in more primitive societies, rites de passage were very prevalent in social living and had three stages (van Gennap, 1960) – a ritual of separation from the former status, a period of liminality or transition, and finally a ritual of inclusion into the new status. The three stages facilitated the status change and also served to prepare the small community for the transition. It was during the transition period that those changing status were instructed into the ways of their new status before they were ritually incorporated into the new society.While the place of work has remained a more personal place, the wider society has become less personal and much more associational and flexible which means that it can adjust to minor changes, such as people retiring from work, without a great deal of tension so that it now has no need of the ritual. Hence, the ritual of inclusion has disappeared from contemporary society although the ritual of separation has still been continued and people are separated from their place of employment and go into liminality but now retirement is an unfinished ritual because there is no rite of inclusion ( Jarvis, 2001).

Stereotypes of Old Age

Old age clearly spreads over a considerable age range – from about 60 years to over 100 in some instances, so that there are certain stages of aging although studies like Sheehy’s (1995) New Passages fail to explore them. However with the different phases, there are different images of the elderly and many of these are based on the idea of the aging body although some present pictures of the aging and poorly functioning brain through conditions such as dementia. While the study of stereotypes is beyond the scope of this article (see Featherstone and Wernick, 1995), it is important to recognzse the interconnection of body and mind which is closely related to older adult learning and that they can continue to learn and benefit greatly from the process is now beyond question. However, many people in their third age do not like being associated with the image of the fourth age which reflects the ever-increasing life span. But many advertisements, often seeking to get people to invest in retirement insurance policies, depicting happy and contented retirement are now presenting a different, younger stereotype of older persons who are able to get engaged in the world during their extended leisure time.

By contrast, in societies where old age is much more respected, for example, Islamic societies like Turkey, it might be expected that old age would be seen in a much more positive manner but this is not necessarily the case. McConatha et al. report that:

Even in Turkey, a collectivist society where intergeneration contact is likely to be more common than in the United States, attitudes towards aging and old age tend to be negative. As the population of older adults grows in Turkey, it becomes increasingly important to address concerns regarding aging and the needs of older adults in order to avoid an increase in ageism. McConatha et al. (2004:180)

It is perhaps significant that as society becomes more individuated, younger people have fewer contacts with seniors than they did when the extended family was a more common phenomenon and so there has been an increase not only in family learning, but intergenerational learning and courses for young people to learn how to interact with older people. Lynott and Merola (2007), for instance, report that after a 5-month program of intergenerational learning in a school each year for 4 years, younger people’s attitudes toward aging improved considerably. Additionally, such contacts also help older people understand more about the younger generation.

Learning and Intelligence

It was traditionally thought that intelligence increased during the early years of life but by early adulthood it had reached its peak and, thereafter slowly declined so that by old age it was impossible to learn new things: phrases such as ‘‘You can’t teach an old dog new tricks’’ reflects this generally held traditional belief. However, learning is both an existential and an experiential phenomenon as we saw from the above definition so that for as long as we have experiences we are capable of learning and the idea of people’s intelligence declining has been disputed many times since the distinction between fluid and crystallized intelligence was highlighted – the former is biologically based while the latter is experiential. Fluid intelligence is based, to some extent on memory stored in the brain and as the body slowly declines, especially as the synapses in the brain are destroyed, then the mechanism of the brain is affected and it has been suggested that fluid intelligence decreases. In contrast, crystallized intelligence is based on lifelong experience and for as long as individuals continue to remain involved in social life, through social interaction as well as through all other ways of learning, it increases. This has certainly given more credence to the idea that learning is experiential and some learning theorists ( Jarvis, 1987, 2006; Kolb 1984; inter alia) have emphasized this in their own work. There have been many experiments in more recent times to demonstrate how seniors are still sufficiently intelligent to continue learning at advanced levels: in UK, for instance, there is a national award in adult learner’s week for the senior learner of the year, and so on – the winner recently was a 98-year-old man who had just completed a masters degree! Indeed, Kliegel and Altgassen (2006: 122) have concluded from their comparative study of 45 young adults and 45 old adults that from a developmental perspective, chronological age was not a significant factor in the explanation of individual differences in learning performance, and the existence of many organizations that promote older people’s learning supports this viewpoint. More recently, it has also been noted that many academics continue their teaching long past statutory retirement age even when their universities fail to support them. As Geoffrey Cantor says:

I have joined the army of retired academic in the arts and humanities who, out of commitment to their subjects have remained research-active. But I have been disappointed how little financial support there is (Reisz, 2008: 40).

Perhaps this prolongation of academic work calls for universities to rethink their retirement policies, although it has to be conceded that they still have to prepare for the future by assisting younger academics to develop their own knowledge and skills. This, then, is an employment problem for all employing organizations. At the same time, the fact that academics can continue to do this demonstrates the fact that age is not necessarily a factor in intellectual decline. Indeed, two recent phenomena have been beginning to appear: the recognition that employers might want to retain their older workers and have to make work attractive to them, and they have to be prepared to adapt to a changing workplace (Yeatts et al., 2000) and retired workers returning to new employments and even being trained for their new role.

Organizations That Promote Older Learning

As early as 1962, the Institute for Retired Professionals was founded in the USA by Hy Hirsch and sponsored by the New York School for Social Research: this was 10 years before the University of the Third Age (U3A) was established by Pierre Vellas at the University of Toulouse in France and it took another 10 years for the latter idea to spread to the United Kingdom. Despite the fact that the founder in UK, Peter Laslett was a Cambridge don, the U3A in UK has little connection with the university world. Each U3A in UK is an independent nongovernmental organization (NGO), although there is a third-age trust which, in some ways, acts as a coordinating body. The diversity of U3As in UK is tremendous having 628 separate organizations affiliated to the trust and some 168 628 members as of March 2007 (as per information supplied by the third age trust). Significantly, the difference in the way these two types of U3A were founded reflects something of the difference in their approach to their activities: the ones that follow the pattern of the European continental ones are attached to universities and are much more academically orientated while those in UK tend to emphasize leisure as much as learning and it is generally recognized that only through cooperation can these diverse and independent U3As run more sophisticated academic groups, except the larger group who have sufficient members to run large and diverse programs. A small U3A, with a membership of just over 200, runs about 20 different regular-interest groups, has about eight open lectures a year, and engages in a number of social activities. There is another factor that affects the UK groups and that is the presence of the British Open University; since its foundation at about the same time as the U3As in France, it has offered formal education at a distance at undergraduate and postgraduate level to anybody and many of its students have been seniors. Indeed, for a period there was actually an older-learners-research group based at the UK Open University (Clennell, 1994: 39–46). Older people in UK seeking formal education and academic qualifications would naturally turn to the Open University and so U3As offer a wide intellectual and leisure time program with perhaps more focus of the latter than their counterparts on the continent of Europe. At the same time, this democratic and local approach to seniors’ education has not been without its critics. For instance, Huang (2006) has suggested that the standard of teaching and learning in UK U3As could be improved by utilizing more university-trained teachers since its present mode of operation cannot control the level of education offered and, at the same time, the locally based democratic systemmight be more efficiently organized. While the accusations have some justification, there is a sense in which the present U3A activities are performing two separate roles – those of leisure and learning – roles which are undertaken in the USA by the two separate arms of the Elderhostel Institute Network. Since the organizations in UK are growing, it is clear that they are responding to local demands and so no incentive appears to exist in many local organizations to change – even though it might beneficial for them to anticipate future pressures for change at this time. In addition, it is clear that while the organization might be judged as inefficient in one sense, it is certainly democratic and is organized locally by autonomous local committees. Nevertheless, the U3A movement has spread more widely throughout Europe and beyond and has its own International Association of Universities of the Third Age (AIUTA) which has not been extremely effective in recent years although it has been in existence for many years now.

The need for research into older learners was demonstrated by the creation of Third Age Learning International Studies (TALIS) in 1990, founded by Jean Costa who was involved in Toulouse with the original founding of the University of the Third Age: TALIS was something of a breakaway from AIUTA because it wanted to concentrate on the academic study of third-age learning. From its outset, TALIS attracted scholars from all over the world, thus demonstrating the prevalence of olderadult learning.

In the USA, the development of the Institute for Retired Professionals took a totally different route: the Institute had begun under the sponsorship of the New School for Social Research in New York City but spread slowly. In 1976, however, a conference of interested parties led to these becoming known as institutes for learning in retirement. At roughly the same time (1975), in New Hampshire, another movement was born – Elderhostel and this grew extremely rapidly – offering educational travel. By 2006, it offered some 8000 programs throughout the world to about 160 000 members – its success once again reflects the significance of globalization and the wealth of the current retirees. However, it was in 1988 that 24 institutes for learning in retirement joined with Elderhostel to form the Elderhostel Institute Network. At about the same time, locally, they adopted the name Lifelong Learning Institute. The network is a voluntary association of lifelong learning institutes that are funded by Elderhostel. Lifelong learning institutes run a wide variety of teaching and learning programs and they are often sponsored by their local universities, so that they approach the type of provision made by the universities of the third age on the continent of Europe. It is significant that the cognitive-interest-motivation factor is dominant among its members, if the small-scale study conducted by Kim and Merriam (2004) is to be taken as representative. However, not all centers are sponsored in this way and some are quite independent: for instance, in a relatively large retirement community (15 000 population) it has been possible to run a college for 30 years catering for a wide variety of learning interests of the residents (Streib and Folts, 2003). In contrast, Elderhostel clearly caters for the many seniors who want to travel and learn local knowledge at the same time. It is also not insignificant that the United Nations should run a network of university departments throughout the world which is involved in educational tourismandwhich seeks to preserve local knowledge. Elderhostel has also spread to Canada where it is now known as Routes to Learning.

Another model that has emerged in Germany and Spain, among other places, is where universities open their classes to seniors. This certainly occurred in Germany in the 1980s and in Spain, the so-called third-age classrooms, as the Spanish government would not permit the use of the term university, began to function as early as 1978 (Socias et al., 2004) and by 1993 it was decided to open universities to seniors with the University of the Balearic Islands initiating an Open University for Seniors. Nine years after the universities opened classes to seniors, 50 universities had began to offer programs specifically for seniors and Socias et al. suggest that these programs will become more institutionalized during the twenty-first century. In Japan, there has been a similar movement but Shirasha (1995) comments on the fact that many of the academic staff working in this area are untrained.

However, the Chinese who have always had specialist universities – for example, University for Banking – have also had schools and universities for seniors – the first began in 1993 and the number grew very rapidly. (Liu Pengsheng, 1994; Li Herzhong, 1997) For instance, the TALIS conference in 2002 was held in the Wuhan University for the Aged People. It is significant that the growth of these universities reflects the fact that in the Chinese 7-year development plan of work on the aged, all cities and counties should run schools or universities for the ages (Li Zhi et al., 1997).

With this tremendous growth in elders’ learning, it is significant to ask whether a new sub-discipline of adult education is not emerging and this is certainly something that concerned adult-education scholars about the time that Knowles introduced the term andragogy to American adult education. In the terminological debate of that time, humanagogy, gerogogy, and educational gerontology were among the terms being discussed. Ultimately, the idea of educational gerontology has been the one that has come to the fore since it rightly locates the study of the education of elders within the context of education per se and as a major element in lifelong learning, although on the continent of Europe – where the concept of andragogy has more to do with the academic study of the education of adults that the process of teaching and learning, as presented by Knowles (1980) – andragogical terminology is still utilized.


It is very clear that most of the above educational institutes do not offer accreditation for their courses and neither do many seniors seek it. In the UK, for instance, if they do want it, there is nothing to prevent seniors from enrolling in the Open University of in some of the university degree-course programs. This is also true for many countries where universities have an open access and a general acceptance of part-time higher education but the idea of the continental European U3As offering accreditation for some of their courses has been discussed at various times. This has not occurred everywhere inworld; however, such as in many parts of the old Eastern Europe and the socalled Third World, but as the development of part-time education is almost certain to continue, the idea of older (but working) persons attending lifelong educational programs will become more common place: this might well be a precursor to the development of a more extensive senior’s education movement in these countries. However, accreditation for vocational education is important and this has meant that in some countries, such as UK, government has been prepared to offer financial support for part-time vocational education but not for part-time leisure education and therefore not for the greater majority of senior’s education. This reflects the emphasis placed upon the relationship between education and work in neo-liberal societies. Consequently, poorer older people are still disadvantaged in the world of education because their education is not seen to make a contribution to the neo-liberal economy.

In contrast to this approach, it is worth noting that there are other ways of measuring the value of learning: the Chinese have a scale of the value of learning (Leung et al., 2006) based on Confucius’ aphorisms which has five items: continuing learning, no boundaries to learning, keeping fresh in one’s mind what has already been learned, people will decline if they do not continue to learn, and the harder one learns the better. There are element s here that reflect ideas in gerontology, such as the discontinuity hypothesis – that for so long as people continue to stay involved in society and continue to learn, then they will continue to develop; but, once they disconnect from the wider society the chances of decline increase. While this Chinese approach might not be the answer to accreditation in older learning, it does suggest other ways of measuring its value.

This scale reflects in some ways the work of Cusack et al. (2003: 398) who have emphasized the idea of mental fitness in which they suggest that there are nine items: confidence in mental abilities, ability to set and achieve goals, willingness to take risks, optimism, creativity, mental flexibility, ability to learn new things, flexibility and ability to speak one’s own mind. To enhance these in later life, is clearly a major benefit of learning.

Cusack et al. review three recent research programs; they note that they all have a common benefits to learning – a more positive attitude to life and increased hope. They make the point that:

Hope plays a powerful role in life. More than a sunny disposition and a belief that everything will be fine, it means believing that you have a normal life, without fear of ‘‘losing it’’, and that inside you have the resources to accomplish personal goals and influence the course of your life. Hope means believing in a better future; hope means not giving in to anxiety and depression. (Cusack et al., 2003: 395)

While this research as a whole is tangential to our major concern here, its findings on older learners are significant for educational gerontology and it is perhaps significant that in a survey of publications, of 4 years, of the journal Educational Gerontology, the number of publications on health education and there were nine papers that were specifically concerned about dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. There were also a couple of papers that focused on physical fitness and one which looked at mental fitness – as the papers show, these two cannot be separated: one paper only was concerned with depression. Two papers were specifically about counseling.


To these studies, there is an the indication that perhaps ‘‘lifelong learning may prevent or delay the symptoms of dementia, notably Alzheimer’s Disease’’ (Cussack et al., 2003: 395). In their own studies, they demonstrate that intensive courses of study improve the level of mental fitness – but it also contributes to the improvement of the more general level of health. From their own work, they regard continuing learning as health-promoting behavior. Similar research in the United Kingdom reaches similar conclusion (Schuller et al., 2002).

However, we should not assume that all older adults are longing to continue their education or that there are not barriers to it: not only do these barriers include untrained teachers but they include untrained bureaucrats who fail to assist in the developments of learning for older adults, lack of financial support for those who cannot afford to pay for their own education, lack of confidence in their own ability and so a fear of failure, and a lack of mobility and a disengagement with the wider world. Indeed, one of the major problems which advocates of older learning are confronted with is that many older people currently have negative images of their schooling and so they do not avail themselves to the benefits of nonschool learning, but as those people who have worked in the knowledge economy retire, the significance of older learning will continue to increase at every level of society.

Globalization and demographic factors have combined to make learning across the whole life span a reality and educational gerontology is not an established sub-discipline within education. The significance of its findings, such as those related to physical and mental health, have not been fully utilized by governments in education, health, or welfare programs although with the continuing aging population, it is clear that elders’ learning will be seen as a major contributing factor in governmental policy. Seniors’ learning has a major effect on the social capital of local towns and regions and finally, its personal benefits are beyond question.

See also: Health and Adult Learning; Life History; Participation in Adult Learning; The Health Advantages of Educational Attainment.

P Jarvis, University of Surrey, Guildford, UK

© 2010 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.