Education in an ageing society – why is it important?

Judith A. Davey

Looking through my list of blog topics, I notice the absence of education. Yes, there
is such a subject as educational gerontology. I was into this a good few years ago now
when I co-edited and contributed to a book called Living and Learning . This drew on
the findings of research among older students at Victoria University. Before going
into the findings I want to set out why education is important to everyone in our
changing world.

The ageing trend is important but is only one of many major changes and these require people to have more information and skills – more education. And older people should be part of this; their lives are changing too.

Health technology has revolutionised everyday life. It contributes to increased life expectancy – not only high-tech surgery and medicine – but also better preventive and diagnostic measures, including vaccination and body scans. Better water supplies and food hygiene also play their part.

Communication – an explosion of global communication through the internet, satellite telephone and television links. So information travels fast and social media is often first in spreading the news.

Computers have transformed our personal lives, by producing labour-saving devices at home, cost-saving processes in offices and factories, not to mention new forms of entertainment and recreation, from virtual reality interactive games to 3D printers and new materials for golf clubs and skate boards.

Technological change is speedy, with rapid obsolescence of goods, services and the skills to develop and deliver them. “De-skilling” is a consequence for many workers, but at the same time these changes create complex and difficult tasks requiring different, and higher levels of skill.

The labour market – technological development has produced economic changes and brought about greater flexibility in work processes and work locations. Swiss companies are using Singaporean finance to produce computer mice in Shanghai for the Chinese market; cars designed in Italy are built in Japan with components from all around the Pacific Rim. In a word, we have the globalisation of production and distribution.

Financial transactions have also been globalised. Financial markets have been called the “gaming tables of a world casino”. Venture capital is footloose and will shift to where conditions are favourable, where cost structures and labour supply are attractive. Countries must compete for the attentions of entrepreneurs and investors.

All these changes have destabilised labour markets around the world. Many jobs can no longer guarantee long-term occupational stability. A “dual labour market” has developed with a smaller highly qualified workforce with stable work prospects alongside a larger marginal workforce that experiences more and more short-term employment and uncertain work prospects – the so-called “precariat.” This pattern inevitably leads to a widening of income disparities.

Political change: we are all aware of shifts in superpower strengths and hegemony. The status of the nation state has been challenged by political alliances, economic trading blocs, even multi-national corporations and interest groups. Economic rationalism and “free market “policies have undermined the traditional welfare state. These policies have exacerbated labour market instability and produced uncertainties in many areas of life.

Social change – new social movements have developed, working against sexism, racism and other forms of discrimination, championing human rights and freedom of expression. Society is becoming more diverse and more accepting of a variety of value systems, although we still have a way to go. Traditional sex roles have been challenged, breaking down the stereotypical male breadwinner role. Greater instability in sexual partnerships and other economic imperatives have seen most women moving into paid employment.

Life course change– traditionally, people moved through stages of development in a fixed order and at relatively fixed times – education-work-retirement – or Shakespeare’s”seven ages of man” (As you like it, Act 2). But this analysis of human development is too rigid and deterministic. We now talk about “destandardisation of the life course” and “cyclical patterns” in which people move in and out of education, work, family responsibilities, retirement and other roles over their lifespan. Fewer and fewer people will follow the life patterns of earlier generations. Cohabitation is almost the norm for young and not-so-young couples. We have “blended” or reconstituted families. Children may have an array of parents, step-parents and de facto parents, not to mention the same variety of grandparents.

Peter Jarvis sums up the implications of these changes and makes the link with life-long education:

The traditional division of life into separate periods – childhood and youth devoted to schooling, adulthood and working life, and retirement – no longer corresponds to things as they are today and corresponds still less with the demands of the future. Today, no one can hope to amass during his or her youth an initial fund of knowledge which will serve for a lifetime. The swift changes taking place in the world call for knowledge to be continuously updated…..

  1. Davey, J., Neale, J. and Morris Matthews, K. (Eds.) (2003) Living and Learning: Experiences of University after Age 40. Wellington, Victoria University Press.

2. Peter Jarvis (1997) Ethics and education for adults in a late modern society.      Leicester, National Institute of Adult Continuing Education.


About Age Concern New Zealand 'on research'

At the heart of everything Age Concern does is a passion to see older people experience well-being, respect, dignity, and to be included and valued. We support, inform and advise older people on issues such as access to health care, transport, housing, financial entitlements, and social opportunities. We also work to combat real problems in our society, like elder abuse and neglect, chronic loneliness and social isolation. We provide specialist services with trained and qualified professionals able to give expert advice and assistance. Age Concern is a charity and relies on the support of volunteers and public donations to do much of the work we do. To help us help older people, please consider making a donation of your time or money. To see how, visit
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