Lifelong Learning in Aging Societies: Emerging Paradigms

By Manheimer, Ronald J. | Annual Review of Gerontology & Geriatrics, January 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

Lifelong Learning in Aging Societies: Emerging Paradigms


Manheimer, Ronald J., Annual Review of Gerontology & Geriatrics


Learning opportunities for midlife and older adults have proliferated around the world since the early 1970s. We can attribute this growth to one or all of the following: (a) national efforts to promote lifelong learning societies for people of all ages, (b) initiatives responding specifically to sharp increases in the percentage of a country's older citizens, and (c) outgrowth of the adult and continuing education movement that gained momentum in the 19th century with the rise of democratic attitudes towards the benefits of education for all-including a nation's older citizens (Manheimer, 2007). Support for learning in later life can also be traced to the contributions of gerontological researchers who point to the value of fostering intellectual, emotional, and spiritual development that adds to the individual's quality of life and enhance his or her capacity for making social contributions. This life-course perspective underscores the mature adult's need and ability to adapt to situations that arise in mid- and later life such as the changing roles that may follow full or partial disengagement from the workforce, pursuit of postretirement careers, availability of more leisure time for creative ventures, and increased involvement in volunteer activities.

Growth of older learner programs can only be partially attributed to the academic field of gerontology, the activities of adult education organizations, or the initiative of government agencies. In the United States, rather than a concerted national effort, the rise of older learner programs has been a grassroots phenomenon nurtured by a number of small groups and visionary leaders operating, at least initially, at the local level. Consequently, the United States lacks a central coordinating body. The various programs depend heavily on the services of volunteers and draw from a multiplicity of funding streams (e.g., from program fees, gifts, foundation grants, and occasionally public funding). One could argue that, for the United States, older learner programs play a marginal role relative to both academic gerontology and adult education, and that neither field has captured the dramatic emergence of this movement.

The strength of programs on the U.S. scene is their diversity, relative autonomy, and divergent creativity. Their weaknesses lie on the flip side: each has to fend for itself and justify its existence, its leaders are somewhat isolated from peers operating in different types of host organizations, and the programs are subject to the uncertainties of being marginally positioned in such organizations as universities, not-for-profit businesses, public libraries, museums, and trade unions. In other countries, by contrast, education for mature adults is largely a governmental matter, usually belonging to the portfolio of ministries of education.

To appreciate the current status of lifelong learning, it is imperative to understand the tangled web of mandates and goals, policies, and institutional motivations. Older learner programs have multiple origins, are influenced by dominant national ideologies concerning culture, education, retirement, and aging, and by the country's economic systems. In all cases, the older learner movement is an outgrowth of the unprecedented demographic rise of aging societies characterized by lengthened life expectancy, low birth rates, improved health care and hygiene, rising completion rates of postsecondary education, and relative affluence derived from public and private pensions funds. These factors, in turn, have contributed to an extension of midlife activity levels into people's 60s and 70s, in this way expanding the number of years encompassed by what is commonly calied the Third Age (Laslett, 1991).

Additionally challenging to the student of older adult education is the field's continuing dynamic, driven by paradigm shifts that may gradually transform older learner programs into age-integrated or age -neutral educational programs. …

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