Transitions and the lifecourse: a field for education

This year’s Frank Glendenning Memorial Lecture is to be given by Dr Amanda Grenier, of the University of Toronto. We, at The Association for Education and Ageing, are delighted to be hosting such a distinguished scholar and critical social scientist. Although slightly displaced, this is the 2022 lecture, which commemorates the twentieth anniversary of Frank’s death. Surveying the landscape back then, in 2002, Frank could have taken some satisfaction in the growing involvement of older people in adult learning activities in the UK. But now reading the latest version of what started out as the NIACE annual survey he could only feel dismay. The take-up of online courses by people over-65 has slightly improved participation since its low point in 2019 but it is still less than half what it was two decades ago. What can have gone so wrong?  

It’s not difficult to chart the changes that have taken place. Free, publicly-supported adult learning opportunities have been drastically shrunk. Universities have greatly reduced their role as providers of continuing education. Government policy for two decades has focused funding for further education on work-related training. Local authorities have narrowed their focus to basic skills and digital inclusion. The success of U3A, a post-professional voluntary movement in Britain, seems not to be offsetting these overall trends. The cost of adult education must now serve as a very significant deterrent. Overall, official policy now offers no encouragement to those of us trying to promote the importance of learning beyond our time in the work-force. And, to darken the picture further, participation fell last year among the 55-64 age-group. Nor do we often encounter the demands from would-be learners that were once so influential in shaping the field that Frank Glendenning helped establish.

How do we make sense of this? A particularly dystopian perspective would be that many older people, increasingly empowered as consumers and comfortable with a lifetime habitus of cultural practices, see little need to actively learn anything new. A more encouraging version might go on to suggest that ‘activity’, particularly in the fields of self-help and preventive health, is now infused with ‘learning’ processes. But we should note that these are not then identified as such by many of those taking part. (Some of the ideas and innovations proposed by the ‘smart city’ movement might be associated with such an approach). A second dystopian view, probably too easily associated with older voters’ support for Brexit, is that many people reject ‘learning’ for ‘cultural’ reasons and identify adult education with a liberal elite. A recent essay by Perry Anderson portrays a battle for public opinion in Britain as having being waged for over thirty years by a right-wing media against an increasingly constrained university sector. Last week in The Guardian Nesrine Malik delineated a ‘divestment from the public realm by the people’ adding that ‘the withdrawal of the state creates not a physical place, but a mental place, where you give up on the government altogether’.

For progressive activists this kind of defection is unconscionable. Nor, whether we’re talking about climate change, a rentier economy, accelerating inequality, the threat of war or a broken care system, is a defaulting government acceptable. Learning to work together from below to counter malign and uncaring policies has become critical. And within that scenario a more complex, fragmented experience of later life (and the extended coda of dependency that many of us will have to face) demands a great deal of us all. Education has long been asserted as a means to respond to and engage with radical change. Frank Glendenning proposed that older people needed to understand our shared condition and address the systemic exclusion that followed from losing a place in the workforce. He would now perhaps be pointing out that class and generational imbalances are a key aspect of the crisis facing democracy.

In last year’s lecture Tom Schuller proposed a new model for the individual life-course in which a triple helix of biological, psychological and sociocultural strands interweave and combine and pull apart. The follow up Q&A was productive and Tom kindly agreed to continue the conversation with an additional workshop. How we position the political and socioeconomic dimensions discussed above in relation to Tom’s helix remained unresolved. What we do with our lives, how we manage our expectations, how we bridge our divisions, how we make sense of an increasingly unpredictable future are subjects we need to reclaim for later life learning. How we go about this in such a weakened policy field is an open question. I’m excited that we can follow on a year later from Tom by hearing from a scholar for whom life’s transitions – real or imaginary – and the narratives of older people themselves in all their diversity and great variety,  have been a major preoccupation for two decades.

Amanda Grenier’s lecture Lives in Transition: Reconsidering the Lifecourse and Pathways of Change is at 5pm (London time) on Thursday January 26th 2023. Her book Transitions and the Lifecourse: Challenging the construction of ‘growing old’, part of the BSG’s Ageing and the Lifecourse Series, was published by the Policy Press in 2012.

I hope you’ll register and join us. At this stage please do so by emailing assoceducationageing@gmail.com