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As the baby boomers retire, will there be an education bonanza?

Work’s over, back to school.

Adult education has been through the wringer recently, with governments in all the UK nations making heavy cuts in what were already small and marginal services. At the same time, all European nations have growing numbers of older adults, and we have a vested interest in making sure they stay active – mentally as well as physically – for as long as possible.

These questions are even more pertinent now that we are seeing the retirement of one of the largest cohorts in our population, the group born between 1946 and 1964. This “baby boomer” generation, conceived during the years of peace and hope after World War II, found itself the beneficiary of educational expansion, improved public health care, and a rapidly growing economy with plentiful opportunities for employment in the public and private sectors. Like any generation, they are a diverse group with as many differences as similarities.

One shared characteristic is an addiction to education. Alan Milburn, chair of the Commission on Social Mobility, anticipated in 2012 that retired baby boomers will enjoy a combination of free time with a comfortable standard of living and that their “huge appetite for learning … will represent a significant new market for universities”. Add to this the generation’s supposed passion for personal autonomy, and it starts to look as though education for older adults is likely to enter a boom period.

Already highly educated

There are certainly grounds for optimism. The 2011 census showed marked differences between the generations in terms of their educational experiences in youth. More than half of those born before 1946 had no formal qualifications at all, compared with a quarter of those born between 1946 and 1961.

This discrepancy was particularly marked with respect to higher education: almost 28% of the 50-64 age group had gained a degree or above. And the expansion of educational opportunities had a particular appeal and significance for women in the baby boomer generation, giving them very different experiences of early adulthood from those of their own mothers. Yet many boomers felt they missed out when compared with those who enjoyed even wider opportunities – including the chance to study abroad – later on.

A survey of a cohort of people born in 1958 has provided good information about participation in adult learning and its effects. Based on a sample of people born in the middle of the boomer years, the survey showed that around one in five of this group gained new qualifications in their forties, and double that number followed courses that did not lead to a qualification.

There is also some evidence that adult learning produces benefits valued by baby boomers. Analyses of the 1958 cohort survey and the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing have reported that adults who took courses tended to show greater life satisfaction and self-efficacy as a result. This suggests that they may carry their desire for continuing learning into later life.

For as long as anyone has kept records, adult education has tended to appeal most to the relatively young. But in recent years, there is evidence of a rise in some types of learning – notably those which do not involve assessment and qualifications – as soon as people are retiring.

Informal learning is particularly attractive to baby boomers when they retire. And while it is too early to know for sure whether they will embrace MOOCs – massive open online courses – the idea of a freely accessible course which you can study in your own time using a tablet or laptop seems to be tailored to this group. So there are good grounds to expect that the boomers will expect to engage in continuing learning after retirement, and will prove competent and enthusiastic learners.

Adult learning is evolving

But there are at least three reasons for caution in making any predictions. The first is that analysis like this of any generation is a rough and ready guide, which lends itself to stereotype and over-generalisation. While many people believe that some traits and attitudes are widely shared among boomers, there has so far been limited research on this.

Second, different members of a generation may face similar contexts, but experience them in different ways depending on factors such as gender, race, and social class. This is particularly significant when it comes to adult learning, participation in which is often determined by earlier educational success.

Third, the adult education system itself is changing. Across the UK, governments are reducing public provision drastically, while many universities have closed their adult programmes. Commercial and voluntary adult education provision is expanding, as are digital and mobile learning. I would expect to see an influx of boomers into organisations like the University of the Third Age, which – in spite of its name – is run by adult learners and does not offer any qualifications.

Study tours and weekend learning breaks, offered by leisure companies and hotels, will target the more affluent segments of this boomer market. I anticipate a healthy take-up of MOOCs by the most educated and active boomers, but they are unlikely to appeal to those who aren’t very comfortable with the digital world and who have had the worst experiences of education earlier in life.

The baby boom generation has developed a taste for learning, but satisfying it is likely to prove a messy process. Going by current trends, late life learning will benefit those who are already most advantaged, and so further entrench existing inequalities in the quality of life among older adults.

This article is part of a series on What’s next for the baby boomers.

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