Adult education: Why learning is a lifelong virtue

Confucius, the Chinese philosopher, was a strong believer in education. Even around 500BC, he highlighted the need not just for learning in general but for lifelong education. It was Confucius who coined the phrase that learning is “a lifelong virtue”.[1]

Fast forward some 2,500 years and lifelong learning is becoming more and more popular – a necessity but also an opportunity that comes with longer lives. And the reason is simple – people’s lifecycles are changing. The idea of holding one stable job with the same company for all your professional career has, since the 1980s, gradually shifted towards a model of having several different jobs, maybe several careers and maybe even several bouts of training and re-training throughout life.

And with an ever-longer living society, retirement ages are continuously being reviewed – and deferred – adding more years to our working lives. As not every profession or job can physically or mentally be performed throughout one’s whole life, continuous learning is becoming ever more important, as we move from the traditional three stage life to a multi-stage life model.

Universities for the elderly?

Many countries offer university courses and training opportunities for all ages of adulthood – be it part-time courses or concepts like the Open University in the UK, which this year celebrates 50 years of distance learning courses designed for all ages.[2] The Open University has a wide range of courses to choose from and several different degrees to study for.

The concept of studies designed specifically for older-age students, those aged 50+, is also moving further up the agenda.

France was ahead of the curve. The University of the Third Age movement started in Toulouse in 1973 and each grouping has an affiliation with a university. This concept has since expanded across the country and to universities in other continental European countries.

In Germany, 50- to 80-year-olds have for decades graced the rows in lecture theatres up and down the country, eagerly listening to professors’ stories and teachings. For many years, however, this was mainly based on a guest student programme, which offered older mature students the chance to sit in on lectures without the need to take exams and without receiving a formal qualification.

But things are changing: In 2006, the first university for the 50+ generation was launched in Horn-Bad Meinberg, which offers specific courses for older mature students with a certificate,[3] as does U3L, the University for the third stage in Life, which is part of Frankfurt’s Goethe University.[4]

Competition over further education

Meanwhile, in China, universities for the elderly are booming – and have been since the first such institution started in 1983. By 2020 the government aims to have at least one university for older students per county. There is already such high demand that today in Shanghai only one in every six interested older students can enrol, and in Hangzhou it is only one in 16.[5]

And demographic change and longer lives will mean that the uptake is likely only going to increase further.

That also means that the composition of the labour force is going to change in future. You would be forgiven to assume that the increase in the US labour force by some 24 million[6] between 1998 and 2018 was due to hipsters and tech geeks being absorbed by flourishing Silicon Valley. In fact, about 85% of the increase in employment came from those aged 55 years and above, according to the US Bureau of Labour Statistics.[7]

Going forward, the picture is expected to evolve even more: By 2024, the US labour force is projected to grow to 164 million people. Of that, some 41 million will be 55-year-olds and older.[8]

As university students and pupils in many countries across the globe are getting ready to go back to school this autumn, spare a thought for all those aged 50+, who would love to further educate themselves but are struggling for a study place.

And as you count down the days to finishing education and starting your working or professional lives, I am sorry to break it to you, but sooner or later you will return to education of some sort.

After all, lifelong learning is not just a virtue, but it also offers new opportunities. 

[1] Maureen Tam, The Confucian view of lifelong learning: relevancy to the teaching and learning of older adults, in: Sociological and Philosophical Perspectives on Education in the Asia-Pacific Region, pp.193-204.
[7] Calculations on the basis of:
16,220 thousand 55+ were employed 1998, 36,860 thousand in 2018. This compares to a total people in employment of 131,463 thousand in 1998 and 155,761 thousand in 2018.