There is a rather persistent, often cartoonish, stereotype about the elderly being incapable of dealing with modern life. “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks”, runs the cliché or, more incomprehensible, “you can’t teach your grandmother to suck eggs”. Egg sucking is, thankfully, no longer regarded as an essential skill, but writing off older people as set in their ways, unable to adapt, and capable of blowing up a computer with one touch of a button is still dangerously easy.
Whether or not the aged actually want to learn new skills or not, it is clear that traditional education structures certainly don’t offer them much chance to do so. “Learn until your twenties, work to 65, and live the rest of your life in retirement” – it’s no wonder that those in later life are often perceived as retaining the opinions and skillsets they acquired decades ago. However, if a country wishes to maintain a flexible workforce, one capable of dealing with the rapid pace of change in the modern world, it is essential that it promote lifelong learning and provide its citizens with access to education, whatever their stage of life or career. Increases in life expectancy mean that people are spending more of their life in retirement than before, and part of making this stage of life fulfilling is allowing over-65s to engage with the world around them.
“Elderly people can find strength, happiness, and friends by learning about the changing world,” says Ida-Maria Pankka of Netikäs. The endeavour is a Finnish project that strives to help people of retirement age connect using technology; it will be presented at this year’s OEB.
It is not just for reasons of well-being, though, that we should be challenging the stereotype that older people cannot learn new skills. Many countries around the world are facing a demographic crisis, as their populations age and people increasingly leave the workforce. All too often, the contributions over-65s could make to combat this crisis are ignored.
The proliferation of the ageing population is the result of the falling fertility rates and rising life expectancy that are so often considered an essential hallmark of a “developed” country. Japan, with the fastest ageing-population growth on the planet, is the most notable example of the perils of such demographic change, having suffered its effects – economic stagnation, labour shortage, strains on government resources – for years now. The current decade is critical for the EU, too, as the children of the post-War baby boom reach 65. And in the near future, China is expected to have to tackle the demographic effects of its one-child policy.
A notable problem of representative democracy is that demographic changes actually tend to weaken some attempts made to address them. The enlargement of one stratum of the population lends it greater voting power and more ability to block any policies brought in, to its own perceived detriment, to counter the negative effects its growth may have on the economy.
This effect may explain the choices politicians make when dealing with an ageing population. Proposals to attempt to limit these alterations in the demographic mix frequently focus on the bottom of the population pyramid: stimulating fertility through more generous maternity-leave packages, increasing productivity through youth training, and adding to the labour force by encouraging migration. The refugee influx in Europe, for example, is seen by many as an opportunity to support what Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, described in 2015 as “an ageing continent in demographic decline”.
Attempts to address the problem at the top of the pyramid, however, frequently fall victim to politicians’ fear of the “grey vote”. Proposals to involve retired people economically can be seen as forcing the elderly to work, while the idea of raising the state retirement age was until recently a political taboo in many countries. Sixty-five remains the average pension age for men in the OECD countries, and while many are planning to raise it to 67, these changes are expected to be slow and gradual. At the same time, employers are often reluctant to offer posts to people nearing retirement age, and this, combined with such people’s perception of a lack of job security in any position they might get, can tend to discourage them from actively participating in a search for employment.
Yet there are clear benefits of having an elderly population that engages socially and economically — and increasing its access to education is a major step in promoting this. In a stratum of the population for whom health is an omnipresent concern, the sense of well-being and involvement created by projects like Netikäs is obviously a good thing. It must also be acknowledged that over-65s who wish to remain economically productive could be part of the solution to the demographic crisis. Indeed, Japan’s National Council for Promoting the Dynamic Engagement of All Citizens sought to achieve just this, publishing a set of proposals in 2015 that comprised steps to engender an “environment enabling the elderly to continuously work feeling secure… [and] starting their own businesses”.
Education and technology are among the main tools we have with which to confront uncertainty in the world. Much of this uncertainty falls under the rubric of demographics: people are moving, populations ageing. Now it is becoming more urgent than ever to look at how e-learning can help all levels of our society deal with these dramatic changes.
Join us at OEB 2016, November 30 – December 2, to find out more.