My husband and I seem to spend half of our lives in the car…driving to get to someplace or driving home from somewhere. We have been doing that for nearly all the 50 years of our marriage. After the first 30 years, we ran low on new topics to discuss. This lull in the conversation brought us to a great discovery—books on tape.
Trashy novels made the time fly by.And we listened to political thrillers, sexy love stories, biographies, histories and travelogues. These were read aloud by famous actors, voiceover artists or the authors themselves. The miles just dissolved because of these page-turners without the pages.
But in the last two years, we graduated—or should I say matriculated—to more serious learning on tape or audio downloads.
The lifelong learning addiction hit us both.We recently signed up for an audio course—“The English Novel” from The Great Courses. Professor Timothy Spurgin guided us on our adventure into Sir Walter Scott, Jane Austen, Joseph Conrad, Henry James and D.H. Lawrence. We are no longer “afraid of Virginia Woolf.”
To the English novel, we added “The Aging Brain”…“The Art of Critical Decision Making”…and “Language and the Mind”. Our next journey will be into music and art. It is all rewarding and exciting.
With this background, I pondered the importance of lifelong learning for those of us who are 50+. In thinking about the variety of learning purposes in later life, I could not help considering its cost. Unfortunately, learning in later life has created the Haves and the Have-Nots. “Learning” is different from education. There is no governmental path that mandates requirements for lifelong learning. There is no cultural expectation for education in later life. We need to reimagine all the categories of lifelong learning to see the benefits for each type of education for those over age 50 and see how to sustain its cost for “learning equality.”
One purpose of learning after 50 is to keep your job, especially if technology is involved (and this means almost all jobs). The mature worker has a double stigma. His or her skills may not be on par with younger workers…and ageism assumes that is so, even if it’s not the case. Therefore, learning for skill-building is a central adult-learning purpose. Such learning builds on existing skills upgraded for the technology revolution. This type of education is closely related to learning for career re-creation and learning to maintain a profession or other certifications needed for existing careers.
A unique purpose of later-life learning is for people who will work for the first time in their adult lives, such as divorced women who did not work during their marriages or people who perhaps lost an inheritance or those who start working after a prison sentence. And it is also for people who have to re-learn or develop new skills after addiction recovery or being admitted to this country as an immigrant or refugee.
The most direct supporter of such work-related education is employers. Having private industry support later-life education is not farfetched. As I understand it, the UK, which has a bipartisan committee to increase healthy lifespan by five years, is creating a corporate index evaluating age-related issues, just as there are environmental-related indexes grading corporations. Might such an index be designed to exhibit learning-friendly corporations with a high rating resulting in an ROI for the private sector to support lifelong learning?
But work, although presenting a clear purpose for education, is rivaled as a purpose after retirement with learning for enjoyment, life engagement and better living skills.
Many adult learners do not need or want compensation for the work they do but want to retool as volunteers and be part of the world economy. They may also be interested in voluntourism—volunteering and tourism—which had become a significant industry in the hospitality sector before the pandemic. Because doing good and being needed is a part of good health, such learning is closely related to learning for health.
Many mature adults realize that they can increase or maintain their cognitive ability by learning as well as reduce chronic diseases…and increase health-giving socialization…and thereby increase healthy lifespan by keeping their minds active learning new things.
Is it possible to cover certain types of “cognitive-strengthening learning” through Medicare and Medicaid?
What about my learning for leisure as my husband and I are driving?
Learning after retirement is a fulfilling activity, remarkably like golf or other sports. It is attractive for some and not for others. For those who love to learn for its own sake, like us, there is an economic divide since many of these learning-for-learning programs come at a cost and may not be accessible to lower-income mature learners.
Who will subsidize this type of continuing education is an open question. Is it an obligation of governments that would have to use taxpayer money to fund adult education? Is it the role of already underfunded libraries? Local communities? Senior centers? Nonprofits that focus on elder living? Private senior housing organizations? Why not all the above?
We are at a tipping point that will obliterate past assumptions that learning stops at a certain age and starts up again only because of leisure endeavors after retirement that must be supported by private pay.
Because of longevity, we are working longer, and skills must be updated more consistently—moreover, in the fields of artificial intelligence, biological intelligence and technology, in which all our work skills are becoming obsolete at a breakneck pace, including people in their late 20s and early 30s. We can no longer look only at the 40+ or 50+ workers as lacking in skills when every two to three years most modalities and protocols have already been replaced for all workers.
Also, the stakeholders in lifelong learning have increased exponentially…
- The government, as people add decades to their life and could add to the GNP if properly trained for continuing earning.
- Universities, which could profit from 50+ students
- Rural extension services, which might find that older agricultural workers could sustain themselves through work-life development at home if trained.
- Grandparents who are responsible for the education of their grandchildren by offering “home-schooling” in modern ways of teaching for their grandchildren
- Product developers and software developers of online classes—a new and growing cottage industry together with self-help books.
Further focus on all issues of lifelong learning offers an exciting chance to create worldwide models. In doing so, we can level the playing field and make the ambitious dream of learning equality a reality.