Older people & lifelong learning

December 17, 2002

Learning is good for you not only if you are young and setting out on the career path but also if you are older and retired, says new research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. To date, educational policy has tended to concentrate 'lifelong learning' programmes on younger people. This research, carried out within the ESRC's Growing Older Research Programme established that older people who are no longer learning to improve income or job prospects in fact benefit widely. It is apparent that, contrary to the old idea that 'you can't teach old dogs new tricks' many of them greatly enjoy learning and would welcome more informal learning routes.

Older people say that learning helps to keep their brains active. They say that learning stimulates their intellect and gives them pleasure. They also say that continuing to learn helps them to understand and to cope with constant change in society and some believe that the therapeutic value of learning is a way of ensuring good health. Learning just to acquire new knowledge, meanwhile, is bottom of their priorities.

The research identified two types of learning: formal, in the sense of classes or courses organised through an educational or other institution, and that undertaken informally. The informal classification was adopted in the research as it became clear that people not taking part in formal learning certainly did not regard themselves as 'non-learners'. They saw themselves as learning all the time as an integral part of their daily activities through, for example, reading, discussing the news, watching TV quizzes and documentaries, voluntary work and social activities. People currently engaged in formal learning, on the other hand, tended to view informal ways of learning as different and less purposeful.

Some of the older people interviewed cited TV programmes such as natural history documentaries that stimulated their interests and encouraged them to explore topics further but other subjects such as computing were seen as better acquired through formal learning. The research points to the need to offer older people a wider choice and variety of ways of learning especially as some felt they were now too old or infirm to attend formal courses.

The backgrounds of formal learners (participants) and informal learners (non-participants) revealed some differences. Participants were more likely to have had professional or semi-professional jobs while women participants were more likely to have worked. A quarter of participants had retired because of redundancy and ill health, whilst informal learners (non-participants) were more likely to have retired because of the need to care for others. Three to 10 years after retirement seems to be the optimum time for people to take up formal learning. On average, each participant took part in six hours of organised learning a week and 71 per cent said they spent up to £5 per week on learning activities.

The research was conducted across the UK. It included focus group discussions with people taking part in organised learning; questionnaires completed by groups of older learners and a group of 'non-learners', with the majority of respondents aged between 70-79 and 25 per cent over the age of 80. These were followed up by interviews with randomly selected respondents carried out by a team of interviewers who were themselves retired.
For further information, contact Dr Alexandra Withnall, Centre for Primary Health Care Studies, School of Health and Social Studies, University of Warwick. Tel 024-7657-3851 Email: A.Withnall@warwick.ac.uk or Iain Stewart or Lesley Lilley, ESRC External Relations, 01793-413032/413119.


1. The ESRC is the UK's largest funding agency for research and postgraduate training relating to social and economic issues. It has a track record of providing high-quality, relevant research to business, the public sector and Government. The ESRC invests more than £53 million every year in social science research. At any time, its range of funding schemes may be supporting 2,000 researchers within academic institutions and research policy institutes. It also funds postgraduate training within the social sciences, thereby nurturing the researchers of tomorrow. The ESRC website address is http://www.esrc.ac.uk.

2. REGARD is the ESRC's database of research. It provides a key source of information on ESRC social science research awards and all associated publications and products. The website can be found at http://regard.ac.uk.

3. The ESRC's £3.5 million Growing Older Research Programme consists of 24 research projects focused on how to extend the quality of life in old age. The programme aims to pursue a broad-based multi-disciplinary programme designed to generate new knowledge on extending quality life and to contribute to the development of policies and practices in the field. For further information on the Growing older Research programme contact the director Professor Alan Walker at the University of Sheffield on telephone 0114-222-6466.

Economic & Social Research Council

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