The Case for Life-long Education

Judith A. Davey

Interest in lifelong education, which was the culminating point of my last blog, is not new. It developed through the 1960s and 1970s with the increasing pace of economic, social and technological change, and the perception that existing education, training practices and provisions were inadequate to cope.

Writers at the time, such as Freire and Illich, saw lifelong education not only as a mechanism for adapting the individual to change but also for transforming society. The concept of a “Learning Society” was defined as one in which citizens could continue to participate in education and training throughout their lives. This would not only improve the quality of life and wellbeing for the whole community, but would promote better health in its most holistic form, and social integration, as well as economic success.

Promoting lifelong learning and a learning society- but how?

Assuming that the state should be involved, there are three options:

A market model – education as a commodity subject to the forces of supply and demand. Education would be closely aligned to the needs of the economy. This could exacerbate inequalities in access and lead to the exclusion of non-vocational education.

A welfare model – where the state would intervene to target underprivileged and vulnerable groups such as long-term unemployed and welfare beneficiaries as well as special groups, such as Maori and Pacifica.

Progressive-liberal models aim to promote active citizenship and equal opportunities for all. Education to enrich individual lives and for self-improvement would be encouraged and supported.

There was early support for lifelong learning in New Zealand. It was emphasised by the National Council of Adult Education Working Party on Ageing and Education in 1989:

New Zealanders must go on learning. It is crucial for the individual and the country that we have a qualification subsystem which encourages people to gain further skills and knowledge….. people may have to change their jobs and learn new skills several times in a lifetime.

Lifelong education has a vital role to play, but on the way to the vision of a Learning Society there are both opportunities and challenges.


• We need a flexible and skilled workforce, capable of learning and adapting as knowledge rapidly becomes obsolete.

• High unemployment resulting from de-skilling is a waste of human resources.

• The declining proportion of young people in the population means there may be surplus capacity in the education system, which could expand facilities for adults.

• For people who are not in paid work, education offers the potential to gain knowledge and acquire skills in finding productive and meaningful roles outside the market place. The largest and most important of these groups is older people.

• New social movements – asserting human rights in all their forms (consumers, patients, indigenous rights) call for more informed and creative participation. This could include resistance to ageism.

• Educational programmes can help support community development. Older people often take the lead in these developments, such as in the Age-Friendly Communities movement and response to natural disasters.

But there are also Challenges

• It may be difficult to challenge the “education-work-retirement” life course model and the view that education is something only for the under 25s.

• People may be unwilling to shift away from long-term specialisation even if it opens up new employment opportunities.

• There may be institutional barriers that prevent adults from realising their wish to participate in education – entry requirements, timing of courses, financial support.

• Credentialism is a danger. Is a workforce with qualifications the same as one with skills?

• Existing patterns of participation in adult education are strongly related to high levels of initial schooling and higher socio-economic status. Will encouraging life-long education simply reinforce educational inequalities?

• Employers may react to the need for upskilling by substituting younger employees, limiting the opportunities for less-qualified older workers to retrain.

These are all background considerations when talking a closer look at older people and 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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