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Lifelong Learning

In 2004, 54.2 million people in the United States were between the ages of 55 and 79, constituting about 19 percent of the American population (U.S. Census Bureau, 2004b). Ours is not only an aging society, but one changing in expectations as well.

Today, the average retirement age is 62 (Gendell, 2001) and life expectancy is 78 years and rising (Miniño, Heron, & Smith, 2006). With the growth of the service economy, increased mechanization, and improved labor laws, jobs are, by and large, less strenuous and safer. In addition, with advances in health care, people are typically able to enjoy their 60s, 70s, and even 80s and 90s in good health. Add to this the growing affluence of the 55 to 79 age bracket and you have more adults entering retirement who can ask, “How do I want to spend the next 15 to 20 years?” In a recent Merrill Lynch survey, 71 percent of Americans aged 25 to 70 said they hope to continue working past their expected retirement age (2006).

And the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that by 2014, 41 percent of adults aged 55 and older will still be in the workplace (Toossi, 2005). As the population of older adults not only expands, but also changes, so does the language used to describe it. Retirees and seniors are now rebounders, prime timers, or recareerers. In short, the term retirement is being retired, or at least redefined. Instead, increasing numbers of adults aged 55 to 79 are entering the third age of life—a stage in recent years defined by personal achievement and learning for self-development—with new plans for their later years in mind. In a recent AARP survey of baby boomers, for example, 15 percent of respondents who intend to continue working expect to start a new business, while 7 percent plan to work full time in a new career. In addition, 30 percent would like to work part time for enjoyment, and 25 percent for needed income (AARP, 2004).

Because they anticipate working longer, many older adults—across a wide economic, cultural, and educational spectrum—are beginning to articulate new postsecondary education goals, including career retooling.

What factors, in addition to demographic data, motivate older adults to participate in higher education?
Intellectual stimulation, sociability, and skills enhancement top the list (Manheimer, 2005). As one example, focus group participants (mostly in their 70s), drawn from members of the University of Southern Maine’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI ), named the “joy of learning” as the prime motivator for returning to the classroom (Lamb & Brady, 2005). Similarly, in a survey of 860 adults aged 55 to 96 who were involved in a range of lifelong learning activities, eight out of 10 respondents also cited the pleasure they got from learning (Lamdin & Fugate, 1997). And in the AARP Survey on Lifelong Learning, of more than 1,000 people aged 50 and older, 90 percent of respondents identified the desire to keep up with what’s going on in the world, their own spiritual or personal growth, and the satisfaction of learning something new as their reasons for pursuing additional education (AARP, 2000).

Unfortunately, studies of why older adults return to school often do not adequately address other circumstances of aging, such as health problems or caring for loved ones (whether a spouse, an aging parent, or a child). These challenges often create barriers to higher education, but they also can be strong triggers for adaptation and learning (Fisher & Wolf, 2000).

Opportunities for social interaction also bring older adults into the classroom. Focus groups at the University of Southern Maine’s OLLI (the average age of the research sample was 73.4 years) consistently cited the desire for community as a motivator for participating in the lifelong learning institute. Specifically, OLLI participants with poor health and disabilities noted their appreciation of “helpful but not overly solicitous” support from other participants (Lamb & Brady, 2005).

A focus group of younger boomers aged 41 to 59 years conducted by the North Carolina Center for Creative Retirement (NCCCR ) revealed similar sentiments. While this group, on the precipice of retirement, saw education as a way to “reinvent” themselves, at the same time they also cited the need for community. As researchers observed, “They want peers who share the same passions and interests; they want to belong to a group where members want to make a difference in their own lives and the community at large; they want to come together around an activity. There is a strong need for a sense of community” (NCCCR , 2005).

Many older adults also are driven to study a subject area that they previously never had the opportunity to learn, including those adults with no previous higher education experience (Lamb & Brady, 2005). Older adults who have already earned degrees in technical fields, such as engineering and nursing, often take advantage of new opportunities to study liberal arts and other related interests.

Re-tooling for a new career will gain importance as increasing numbers of older adults continue to work—particularly for those on the younger end of the 55 to 79 age spectrum. In the same AARP survey, more than half of the total respondents said that they participate in lifelong learning to improve their job skills, with the younger respondents more likely to pursue education for this reason or to earn a degree or certification. Still, only 30 percent of the survey respondents stated that they actually wish to earn a degree or certification to advance their career or earn more money (2000). While higher education is on the minds of some older adults, the message that emerges is this: Older adults want to receive additional education that quickly puts them on the path to a new career, but for many the degree itself isn’t as important.

A recent survey of 1,000 adults aged 50 to 70 found that 66 percent of the respondents plan to work during the traditional retirement years. Their responses underscore wide-ranging reasons for remaining in or re-entering the workforce, such as income, enjoyment, or service to their communities—whether in full- or part-time employment, in their own businesses, or for nonprofit organizations. The growing interest in “encore” careers underscores the need for colleges and universities to recalibrate their views of lifelong learning for older adults.


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Boomers Resource Guide is a special supplement to the Senior Citizen's Guide