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date: 29 April 2017

Skills and Training for the Older Population: Training the New Work Generation

Abstract and Keywords

Despite rises in employment rates across many countries, older workers (those aged 50+) are less likely than younger employees to receive workplace training and skills development. Using the UK as its starting focus, this chapter analyses the theoretical and empirical reasons for these gaps. The analysis covers in-work training and development, as well as considering the position of those older people who are unemployed but looking for work. The discussion also embraces the roles of training and education for older workers who may want to delay retirement or retire flexibly, and examines the relationships between training, development and active ageing. Concluding discussions highlight national and international policy initiatives to encourage investment in educating and training for this new work generation.

Keywords: active ageing, extended working lives, older workers, retirement, skill development, skills, training


Against a backdrop of population ageing and its attendant problems of workforce shortages and economic burdens, more people are working into later life across many industrialized countries. Despite this increase, there is concern that workplace training and skills development do not mirror the increase in employment figures (Phillipson and Smith 2005). This chapter provides a focus on older-worker training, reviewing the experience of the over-50s in work, those unemployed but actively seeking work, and those on the way towards or in retirement. The empirical focus is on the UK experience, but this is placed in an international context by drawing on literature and studies from other nations so as to consider broader trends, problems, and possibilities.

The chapter commences with a brief overview of older-worker employment and training for those in employment, which shows clear and sustained gaps in training. The discussion then explores why these gaps matter and why they exist. It then tests some of these ideas using the latest Workplace Employee Relations Survey data from the United Kingdom. The focus subsequently moves to those older workers who are unemployed but would like to work, drawing upon a recent UK survey of over-50s job-seekers. Attention is then given to the role of education and training for over-50s who may want to improve their job prospects, take a ‘bridge job’ (part-time employment / self-employment) to full retirement, volunteer, or simply keep active through learning in retirement. The chapter concludes by assessing policy implications for the future of training for this new work-generation.

(p. 616) Overview of Older-Worker Employment And Training

Figures provided by the OECD from 34 industrial countries show a marked rise in employment rates of people aged 50–64 (the most common definition of ‘older’ workers), from 55.6% in 2001 to 61.2% in 2011 (OECD 2013). Beneath this average there is a large variation: only 54.7% of over 50s in France are in employment, compared to 65.1% in the United States and 77.3% in Sweden. The United Kingdom reported a figure above the OECD average, rising from 62.0% in 2001 to 65% in 2011 (although it should be noted that all but 0.5% of this increase happened before 2005). Additionally, in many countries state pension ages are rising, and it is expected that more people will continue to work or seek work after the age of 65 (OECD 2011). Employment rates past age 65 vary considerably across countries, with high rates of self-employment playing a major part in some countries such as Turkey and Portugal. Discounting self-employment, it is the Anglo Saxon and Scandinavian countries that have the highest rates of employment past 65 (Lain and Vickerstaff 2014).

It has been well established that older workers are less likely than their younger counterparts to receive training at work and training duration is shorter (Schuller and Watson 2009; Carmichael and Ercolani 2012), although there is some indication that the gap is closing (Urwin 2004; Felstead 2009; Canduela et al. 2012). The OECD’s figures show that in both absolute and relative terms older-worker participation in training across their 34 member counties has increased. Regarding workers aged 55–64, data show that the percentage of those employed who participated in training rose from 6.6% in 2001 to 9.4% a decade later. Compared to the training participation of workers aged 25–54, this represents a rise of 0.44: 1 to 0.57: 1. The same figures show a closing gap for UK older workers (ratio increased from 0.6: 1 to 0.66: 1) but show a decline in absolute figures: only 11.6% of older employed people participated in training in 2011 compared to 15% in 2001 (and 23.7% in 2005). This would suggest that the provision of training has decreased for the whole UK workforce, regardless of age and that the over 55s may have been marginally less affected by this than their younger colleagues. Nevertheless, it remains clear that older workers are far less likely to receive training.

The limited involvement of older workers in training needs to be placed in the context of rapidly ageing populations across the OECD countries. Mature industrial economies will face increased pressures to support larger proportions of older and especially very elderly people. Delaying retirement is now viewed—across all OECD countries—as a means of mitigating the effects of worsening demographic ratios whilst increasing financial resources for later life. In its 2006 report, Live Longer, Work Longer, arising from a review of older-worker employment across 21 countries, the OECD concluded that weak employability was one of the major barriers to increasing employment rates of the over-50s. This weaker employability was reflected in a lower rate of tertiary education and lower participation in training. It thus argued that improving access to, and (p. 617) provision of, training for this age group would aid in helping unemployed older workers get back into employment and those in employment to be productive for longer. Longitudinal analysis from the US (Leppel et al. 2012) indicates that availability and quality of job-related training directly affects job satisfaction of older workers (although as they did not conduct an age comparison, it may be that job training affects satisfaction, regardless of age). Other arguments in favour of promoting training in later working life include encouraging the intergenerational transfer of skills, whereby older employees can pass on their skills and experience to younger colleagues (Felstead 2010). Furthermore, Phillipson (2013) has argued that supporting education and training of older workers will have a significant impact on their health and wellbeing, which may well bring benefits beyond employment, extending into a healthier retirement. Such wider benefits have been reflected in the emphasis on active ageing and are reinforced in the UK by government policy (see e.g. HM Government 2010).

Why Do Gaps Exist?

Reasons put forward to explain the lower incidence of training for older workers are varied. Some emphasize the personal circumstances and attitudes of the older employees themselves, whilst others focus more on the employers’ position. The first group of reasons includes lack of confidence, lower ‘basic’ skills, health-related barriers, and restrictions arising from caring requirements outside of work (for a review, see Canduela et al. 2012). Research conducted amongst professional workers in Canada (Fenwick 2012a) suggested that as employees age they become more strategic in what learning they engage in and are more discerning about which training opportunities to participate in. On the other hand, a further body of work (e.g. Humphrey et al. 2003 and Felstead 2010) has shown that employers are less likely to encourage training amongst older workers, especially men (Canduela et al. 2012). This tendency to overlook older workers may arise from discriminatory attitudes (Loretto and White 2006) or because of the nature of the jobs they do (CIPD 2008). Occupation sector also appears to be influential: Schuller and Watson (2009) highlight the fact that working in the public sector gives a significant boost to accessing some form of training. Taking the proportion of people in employment aged 25 to retirement who received some form of training in the three months prior to interview, over 40% of public sector workers participated compared with 21% of those in the private sector. This is a highly significant contrast, given the projected decline in public sector employment, which has potentially serious consequences for access to training for older workers and other workers. Limited training may also be a feature of the so-called bridge jobs into which an increasingly large proportion move prior to eventual retirement. Cahill et al.’s (2006, 523) research using data from the US Health and Retirement Study found that the majority of older Americans leaving full-time career employment (about 60% of those leaving a full-time career job after 50 and about 53% of those leaving after the age of 55) (p. 618) moved first to a bridge job rather than directly out of the labour force. Analysis of the British Household Panel Survey, examining job movements amongst men in their 50s, indicated around one in five had spells of part-time, bridging forms of employment (Phillipson 2002). Yet these jobs tend to be concentrated in poorly paid work with limited opportunities for training or re-training to any significant degree (Vickerstaff et al. 2007; see further later in this chapter).

In their employer case studies, McNair et al. (2007) found that the decline of training with age may arise from ‘collusion’ between employer and employee, both parties tacitly agreeing to a winding down. The reluctance to invest in training for older employees appears to exist even when approaches to older workers are otherwise positive, and may reflect employers’ concerns over rates of return of investment in training (Mayhew et al. 2008). Van Dalen et al. (2009) noted that although UK employers reported more positive attitudes to older workers than did those from the other countries, it was striking that the majority felt they were not responsible for lifelong learning. This may be a very short-sighted approach: more than one third of respondents in a survey of Belgian workers aged 40 and over claimed that extra training would influence them to postpone retirement (Buyens et al. 2009, 110). Furthermore, Fourage and Schils’s (2009) analysis of 13 European countries indicated a positive association between provision of training and extending working lives.

It is also useful to deconstruct what we mean by training and development and the range of activities typically encompassed by the terms. Kooji and colleagues (2012) make the point that work motivations may change with age and thus the impact of different human resource (HR) management policies may similarly have differential impacts by age. They distinguish between two bundles of HR policies: those that seek to develop and improve performance such as training, and HR practices that are concerned to maintain performance such as appraisal and career management. In their empirical study they found that the associations between development practices and wellbeing weakened with age, whereas the relationship of maintenance practices with wellbeing increased with age. This suggests that we should avoid looking narrowly at the impact of access to training for older workers, but rather look more broadly at how their later-life careers are managed, whether they have access to meaningful appraisal and career advice. The picture here mirrors the position with regard to training: CIPD research reveals that older workers are also less likely to have informal conversations with their manager about their job or formal performance appraisals than prime-age workers (CIPD 2011). This suggests that there may also be an important role for mid- or later-life career guidance independent of the work context for those contemplating a change of direction. McNair (2010, 37) has suggested that governments should:

create opportunities for career review for people in their late 40s, to enable them to plan for the last 15–20 years of working life, to raise skills levels or to change direction while it is still possible. This would encourage people to see work in their 50s as a continuing opportunity for progression and change, rather than a matter of ‘serving out one’s time.’

(p. 619) Theoretical Perspectives on Education and Training

The above findings would suggest that training and managing older workers has been a marginal area for employers over the past decade—despite policy moves highlighting the desirability of extending working life. Understanding the reasons for this has been complicated by the limited application of theoretical frameworks available to inform analysis in what has become a key area of public policy. Recommendations, however, about the need to encourage training amongst older workers will be restricted without theoretical insights about their role in the labour market. In this context there is a particular need for approaches that locate individual decision-making both within life-course transitions as well as the broader political and economic institutions underpinning later life (Phillipson 2013). The range of theoretical models that might be drawn upon include: human capital theory (Becke 1964), productive ageing theory (Bass and Caro 2001), life-course theory (e.g. Pillemer et al. 2000), organizational perspectives (e.g. Sennett 2006) and theories associated with the analysis of risk and ‘individualization’ (Vickerstaff and Cox 2005; Baars et al. 2013).

Human capital theory, as put forward by Becker (1964), has been a prominent approach from neo-classical economics. It argues that the returns to human capital investments are lower for older workers because productivity and wage gains are limited by impending retirement; or it may be the case that the job is not changing and hence established workers already have the appropriate skills. In either case, older workers are viewed as less likely to have an incentive to train and for employers to invest in their training. Lower training rates amongst older workers are thus consistent with arguments about the declining utility of investing in people coming towards the end of their work career.

The productive ageing approach has been the most explicit in theorizing about obstacles to continuing employment, with a particular focus on examining evidence for discrimination or ‘institutionalized ageism’. This idea draws upon ‘cultural lag’ theory (Riley and Riley 1994) to explain the limited involvement of older people in the workplace. This theory suggests that whilst retirement was originally premised on a surplus of labour, employing institutions may be slow to adapt workplace practices to the reality of an ageing workforce. This model would also suggest that older workers may be viewed (as in human capital theory) as too costly to train, but also may encounter discrimination in respect of access to training and career management, which may create disincentives and limited opportunities.

Pillemer et al. (2000) put forward a life-course model that views the move from work to retirement as a process rather than a single or one-off event. They extend this model with the notion of ‘linked lives’ stretching across time and generations. Accordingly, ‘retirement, family roles, community participation, and occupational careers are typically examined exclusive of other social roles and each other. What we do not know is how work and family experiences shape life after retirement’ (2000, 76). Or to put this another (p. 620) way: how do attitudes towards retirement and the various events surrounding the transition from work to retirement influence approaches to later-life working and training in particular. Viewing training within a life-course perspective may be especially helpful for understanding variations in attitudes amongst employers and employees alike.

The possibility of later-life working will itself be influenced by a variety of organizational factors, not least the level of support provided within the work environment. Here, Ekerdt (2010, 74) poses the question: ‘has the labour market become more welcoming to older workers, accommodating them in ways that could sustain an expansion in employment in later life’. The evidence would suggest in fact only limited movement in practical steps assists the extension of working life. Sennett (2006) argues that the collapse of the work-based bureaucracies associated with what he defines as ‘social capitalism’ has fostered a rise in ‘precarious’ and ‘insecure employment’, carrying negative implications for supporting older people in the workplace. In terms of the work–retirement transition, a number of research findings suggest the emergence of a more fragmented life-course, with the expansion of bridge jobs being an illustration of this development.

More generally, ‘bridging’ and related forms of employment might be seen as part of the shift from the highly bureaucratized transition from work to retirement characteristic of the 1950s and 1960s, as contrasted with the more ‘individualized’, negotiated form that developed over the course of the 1990s and 2000s (Vickerstaff and Cox 2005; Baars et al. 2013). On the one hand, this development suggested a new type of ageing—reflected in the idea of the ‘third age with those moving from work to retirement ‘richer, better educated and more culturally active … than previous cohorts of retirees’ (Gilleard and Higgs 2005, 14). On the other hand, there is evidence for increased inequality, with the scope for individual agency bounded or limited by extensive inequality within birth cohorts (Phillipson 2013). Vickerstaff and Cox (2005, 92) concluded that the consequences of individualization for many older workers was ‘less to increase … the range of alternatives and choices over when and how to retire and more to enlarge the risks they had to cope with’.

Older workers, based on some of these theoretical approaches, would appear to have been affected by a variety of structural, technological, and organizational forces placing constraints on training and career opportunities within the workplace. To investigate this further, the next section of this chapter examines evidence from the UK Workplace Employee Relations Study.

Training in the Workplace: Evidence from the United Kingdom

The Workplace Employment Relations Study (WERS) series is the most definitive and influential study of employment relations in Great Britain and one of the richest longitudinal datasets for analysing workplace trends in the world. The latest study was conducted in 2011 and collected data from nearly 3,000 organizations, covering both large and small workplaces across the private and public sectors. It comprises a series (p. 621) of linked studies, collecting information from managers, employee representatives, and a selection of employees. It is highly influential, as findings from previous waves of the study have been used to inform government policy on various aspects of workplace policy and practice. The data are publicly available via the UK data archive and the analysis represented here draws mainly on the employee survey, with appropriate weighting and links to the management survey. (Further statistical and technical details of all the analyses are available from the authors.) The employee survey included questions about amount of training over the previous year, satisfaction with training and skills development: the following findings are based on the 21,824 respondents who supplied their age details: of these, 30% (7,042) were aged 50 or over.

Quantity of Training

The headline figures on quantity of training in Table 29.1 support findings from previous work: a higher proportion of older workers received no training over the past year and a smaller proportion received five or more days of training. A regression model was constructed to control for the main factors that have previously been shown to affect participation in training and which may vary with age: educational attainment; nature of employment (full-time versus part-time and temporary versus permanent, length of service); trade union membership; caring responsibilities; nature of employer (workplace size and sector); and occupation (see Canduela et al. 2012 for a review). Whilst each of these had their own relationship with training, the age effect still persisted: incidence of training declined with length of service, and certain occupational groups—namely managers, professionals, and those in caring, leisure, and other services—were markedly more likely to have received training in the previous year. That is, the lower incidence of training amongst over 50s cannot be entirely accounted for either by the roles they occupy or the length of time they have occupied them.

Table 29.1 Number of days’ training received in previous year

Number of days’ training

Under 50

50 and over




<1 day



1 – <2



2 – <5



5 – <10








(p. 622) Satisfaction with Training

Despite these clear age differences, the older workers were more satisfied than their younger counterparts with whatever training they had received—56% reported they were satisfied or very satisfied, compared to 53% of under 50s. This overall figure is broken down by amount of training received in Figure 29.1, which shows the biggest difference amongst those employees who had received less than one day’s training in the previous year: nearly 10% more of the over-50s in that group said they were satisfied or very satisfied with the training they received.

As regards the opportunities to develop skills on the job, exactly equal proportions (53%) of each age group reported they were satisfied or very satisfied. When this was broken down by number of training days received, a similar pattern to the above was seen, with an even bigger difference amongst those who had received less than one day’s training (see Figure 29.2).

Skills and Training for the Older PopulationTraining the New Work GenerationClick to view larger

Figure 29.1 Proportion of employees satisfied/very satisfied with training received

Skills and Training for the Older PopulationTraining the New Work GenerationClick to view larger

Figure 29.2 Proportion of employees satisfied/very satisfied with development opportunities

(p. 623)

Skills and Training for the Older PopulationTraining the New Work GenerationClick to view larger

Figure 29.3 Proportion of employees satisfied/very satisfied with the work itself

The question arising is the extent to which these patterns merely reflect an overall higher job satisfaction rate amongst older employers. Previous research (Clark et al. 1996) has indicated that job satisfaction is U-shaped, with higher levels at the either end of the working-life course. To test this, it is interesting to examine employees’ attitudes towards the work itself. Here, once again, overall satisfaction rates were higher amongst the over-50s (78% as opposed to 74% of under-50s) with the most substantial differences occurring between the subgroups who had no or minimal training (Figure 29.3). Thus it would appear that the older workers were more generally satisfied than their younger colleagues, but the amount of training received has more of an impact on satisfaction with training, development, and overall job satisfaction for the under-50s. This differential is most marked where training is absent or minimal.

Sufficiency of Skills

In terms of matching skills to jobs, a significant minority (44%) of both older and younger workers felt that their work skills were a good match for their present job, and less than 1% of each group felt under-skilled. However, what was notable was that the over-50s were more likely to say that their skills were much higher than needed for their present job—21% said this, compared to 18% of the younger respondents. There was no discernible relationship for either age group between the extent of match between skills and job requirements and amount of training received in the previous year.

Employer Provision and Encouragement

Younger employees (11.5%) reported that access to training in their workplace had been restricted as a result of the most recent recession. This was higher than the proportion (just under 9%) of older employees. All employees were asked the extent to which they (p. 624) thought managers in their workplace generally encouraged people to develop their skills. Older employees were slightly (albeit statistically significantly) less likely to agree with this—57% of over-50s as compared to 59% of the younger age group. This was mirrored by the difference in the proportions of each group who thought managers treated employees fairly—56% of over-50s, compared to 59% of under-50s.

Effects of Training Experience on Wellbeing and Loyalty

Workplace Employment Relations Survey includes measures of job-related stress, asking how often in the past few weeks the job has made employees feel tense, depressed, worried, gloomy, uneasy, or miserable. Overall, the older employees reported lower levels on each of these variables, and for older and younger employees, those who had received more training reported lower levels of wellbeing. However, the differences associated with training were much less marked amongst the over-50s: i.e. the amount of training did not affect their reported job-related wellbeing to the same extent as it did for their younger colleagues.

In contrast, the amount of training received had a more pronounced effect on the older age group in relation to another set of questions: those measuring more positive attitudes and behaviours relating to using one’s initiative at work, sharing organizational values, loyalty, and pride in the workplace/employer. The differences between those who had received high levels of training and those who had received no or minimal training were greater for the over-50s, indicating that participation in training is more strongly associated with attitudes and behaviours amongst older employees. However, care should be taken in interpreting these results as the standard errors of the average (mean) values were in some cases larger that the modest differences according to training levels. Moreover, we cannot determine causality from cross-sectional data: in fact, there could be reverse causality, as suggested by a study of HR professionals in Italy (Lazazzara et al. 2012), which showed that training for older workers may be more a reward for good performance than a means of enhancing productivity.

In summary, findings from WERS confirm that, across Great Britain, older employees are less likely than younger ones to have received training over the past year. This lower incidence cannot be accounted for by factors such as the jobs they occupy, or the sectors they work in, or even a reduction in training arising from the recession. However, the over-50s were slightly less likely to report employer encouragement to participate in training and more likely to feel that their skills level exceeded the requirements of their job. Older workers were more generally satisfied with the training they had received than their younger colleagues, and this effect appeared whatever the training levels. This effect may in part reflect overall higher job satisfaction reported by the over-50s. Finally, there were some interesting indications that whilst the amount of training may not have much of an effect on improving wellbeing at work for the over-50s (at least as reflected in the measures adopted by WERS), training levels may have some positive benefits in encouraging older workers to use their initiative and promoting organizational pride, loyalty, and commitment.

(p. 625) Training and Skills for Older Adults Not in Employment

Whilst the increased employment rate of older workers has occupied much of the policy and media attention, the fact that unemployment rates have also increased should not be overlooked.1 Across the OECD countries, unemployment amongst those aged 55–64 rose from 4.6% in 2001 to 5.8% in 2011; in the United Kingdom this rise was from 3.3% to 4.8%, with just over 40% of that group being long-term unemployed, i.e. unemployed for one year or more. The OECD’s 2006 review recommended tackling the training and skills needs of this group as a priority. However, as this next section illustrates, this group remains under-served and to a large extent their needs and problems are hidden.

The next section draws on a survey of nearly 800 unemployed job-seekers aged 50 and over, undertaken between September and December 2012 (TAEN 2013). The sample came primarily from an online survey advertised through The Age and Employment Network’s website and affiliated organizations, augmented by paper copies distributed by JobCentres. As such it is not a nationally representative sample; rather it aimed to provide some depth of understanding about the experiences of over-50s who were unemployed and seeking work. The profile of the survey respondents was 67% men of whom 35% were aged 50–54, 41% aged 55–59 and 24% aged 60+, giving representation across all occupational categories, albeit with an over-representation of managers and senior officials.

Exactly half were long-term unemployed. Most wanted to work for primarily financial reasons (89%), but nearly three-quarters (71%) also valued the sense of worth that working would bring. Around 70% were looking for a permanent and full-time role. When asked if they thought they had the right skills for today’s labour market, nearly three out of four respondents (74%) said they did, with only 6% saying they felt they did not have the right skills. That so many people felt they were adequately skilled for work reflects the fact that 43% and 57% of respondents had a degree and/or professional qualifications respectively. In fact, those most confident that they had the right skills were managers and officials (84%) and professionals (78%), whilst the least confident were those who had last worked in skilled trades (40%) or elementary occupations (36%).

There was a significant contrast between the number of respondents who thought they had the right skills for today’s labour market (74%), compared with those who thought employers recognized the skills they had (40%). Whilst there was no gender difference regarding responses about having the right skills, women were much less confident that employers acknowledge these skills: 37% of women felt that employers (p. 626) would not recognize their skills, compared to 26% of men. Interestingly, whilst managers and officials were still the most confident about employers recognizing their skills (47%), and elementary occupations the least confident (14%), the variation is not as marked as it was for their own perceptions of the appropriateness of their skills.

It is particularly difficult as an out-of-work professional to maintain CPD hours and activities which in turn causes skills to age and become less marketable.

(Male, aged 55–59, business auditor)

This ‘confidence gap’ between individuals’ assessment of their own skills and how they felt these skills would be received by employers perhaps explains why nearly one third of respondents (32%) felt that having outdated skills that didn’t match the requirements of current jobs was an ‘important’ or ‘very important’ barrier to them re-entering employment. However, this figure is dwarfed by the 83% who felt that being seen as too old by recruiters was a major barrier, and it became clear from the qualitative comments that perceived ageism often lay behind stated ‘skills gaps’.

Since I’ve been out of work, I’ve passed my Level 2 I.T.C computer course, plus Business Administration and Management. I’m keeping up with the changing workplace, but the younger managers see me as a threat and not an asset.

(Female, aged 55–59, administrative supervisor)

Women were significantly more likely than men to disagree with the statement, I have every opportunity to upgrade my skills to fit the needs of today’s employers’: 46% of women disagreed, compared to 31% of men. In terms of occupations, those last working in sales and customer services jobs were most likely to agree (45%), whilst those who were in associate technical and professional occupations were least likely to agree (21%). The qualitative comments provided insight into the nature of some of these barriers which often focused on cost, either to the individual or in respect of the priorities and rules of official government interventions.

I am currently on the Work Programme with a well-known employment agency. However, they tell me they cannot pay for me to update my qualifications as they have not got any money. How am I supposed to pay to upgrade when I get less than £90.00 per month?

(Female, aged 55–59, job search tutor)

My particular employment background is working as a maintenance electrician in the petro-chemical industry. I diversified into other types of work 16 years ago, but would like to return to my trade. My Work Programme provider is unwilling to help me upgrade my qualifications on the grounds of cost.

(Male, aged 55–59, process operator)

(p. 627)

My literacy, numeracy and IT skills are excellent, but the only back-to-work help I am offered is with basic skills—my high level of qualifications disbars me from financial assistance with any courses other than basic skills.

(Female, aged 55–59, local government officer)

This discussion indicates that whilst access to (re-)training is vitally important for unemployed older workers, the barriers they face are more complex than simply whether or not training is available.

Education and Training for the Older Population

Current cohorts of older workers have typically had fewer years of formal education and are less qualified on average than more recent generations, so access to further and higher education and apprenticeships may offer important routes for the older unemployed to get back into employment or for the older employed to improve their job prospects. Research in both the United States and the United Kingdom indicate that those with low or no educational qualifications are the least likely to be working beyond the age of 65. Haider and Loughran (2001); Smeaton and McKay (2003). Hedge and Albright (2013) discuss the importance of broadening the focus to consider training of older workers given the changing nature of retirement, i.e. older workers who enter bridge jobs or who volunteer. Their review of the situation in the United States found that the volunteer sector was more adapted for training older workers than either the private or public sectors, and more likely to offer training and adapt that training to the needs of an older workforce. It is clear that access to education and training for the older population has a range of implications for both those in the labour market and those in retirement. As we live longer, more people may want to access further education in retirement not purely for utilitarian reasons related to job prospects, but also for leisure and wider benefits associated with wellbeing.

There has been a push to increase the number of apprenticeships in Great Britain and some discussion of ‘older apprentices’ although this typically refers to those over 25 years of age. The number of genuinely older apprentices has been increasing but still remains a small percentage of the overall total as indicated in Table 29.2. The growth of older apprentices is significant with over 65,000 people 45 years and older starting apprenticeships in 2011/12—a rise from 23,000 in 2009/10.

The picture in higher education (HE) is similar in that those over 45 years of age represent a small percentage of the total: in 2011/12 just 9% of first year students in higher education in the United Kingdom were over the age of 45. They were much more likely to be studying part-time and the overwhelming majority (94%) in non-STEM (science, technology, electronics and maths) subjects. A high proportion of (p. 628) those over the age of 60 study through the Open University and are pursuing what might be described as recreational courses, such as Art History. In the context of dramatic changes to the HE sector in England little attention is currently focusing on the older student, but arguably improving access to further and higher education (FHE) could play an important part in improving the job prospects of older workers and their satisfaction in retirement. Lifelong learning then has a real meaning and potential to contribute to the realities of an ageing society. Biggs et al. (2012, 40) have argued that we are currently squandering the social capital of mature adults by failing to acknowledge, use, and develop their ‘accumulated knowledge, experience, and continued ability to learn’. This would also encompass the intergenerational transfer of skills. Felstead (2010) found that older workers were very willing to pass on learning to newer and younger colleagues. A note of caution is sounded by Fenwick (2012b) who brings a more critical perspective to the issues surrounding older-worker training. She questions the extent to which the emphasis on lifelong learning is a reflection of the new capitalism and as such serves the position of the individual (older worker) poorly. Lower participation in training may be constructed as a problem, with the attendant expectation of continuous learning raising tensions between older workers as leaders and mentors, and older workers as competitive individuals striving to cope with work intensification and organizational change. Her own findings amongst professional accountants in Canada show how these older workers become more discerning about training and learning: ‘Mainly they focus on learning as strategy, as approaches to getting what they want and need out of the system, and protecting for themselves what is important’ (Fenwick 2012b: 1017).

Table 29.2 Proportion of apprenticeship starts by specific age groups


August 2009–July 2010

August 2010–July 2011

August 2011–July 2012





































Source: House of Commons Library Apprenticeships Statistics (BIS Data Service).

(p. 629) Developing Training and Education: New Policy Initiatives

Developing new training initiatives targeted at the older population will require recognition of the different kinds of support likely to be required. For example, amongst those in their late-40s to mid-50s, demand for job training and professional courses is likely to increase, since many in this age group will have a substantial number of working years to complete before eligibility for a pension. Many in this age group will have been part of the expansion of FHE from the 1970s onwards and may view lifelong learning as an essential part of continued employment. Amongst those in their late-50s and 60s, the need for new skills may be an essential requirement if meaningful employment is to be secured. Mayhew and Rijkers (2004, 2), in a review for the OECD, stress the importance of ‘continuous learning during the whole of working life as a means of reducing the dangers of labour market disadvantage in later years’. Policies for change will need to focus on the following areas:

  • developing entitlements for ‘third-age learning’

  • re-assessing methodologies and techniques for training older workers

  • expanding provision for those in non-standard forms of employment

  • raising the quality of the general work environment

  • developing the involvement of FHE.

The first of the above was addressed by Schuller and Watson (2009) as part of the UK Inquiry into the Future of Lifelong Learning. In their recommendations for change they set out a four-stage model to encourage learning across the life-course, recognizing different periods of development in the years up to 25, 25–50, 50–74, and 75 plus. They suggest that what has been termed the ‘third age’ (50–74) should be viewed as a central period for encouraging enhanced training and education opportunities, based upon a more even distribution of work across the life course. This would be buttressed by: (a) a fairer allocation of educational resources (public, private, and employer-based) to meet the needs of third- and fourth-age (those aged 75 plus) groups; (b) a legal entitlement of free access to learning to acquire basic skills (e.g. in literacy and numeracy); (c) a ‘good practice’ entitlement to learning leave as an occupational benefit; (d) specific ‘transition entitlements’, e.g. for people on their 50th birthday, to ‘signal the continuing potential for learning of those moving into the third age’ (Schuller and Watson 2009, 133).

The second area raises issues about developing more effective training programmes targeted at older adults. The research evidence reviewed above suggests that employer (or line manager) ‘discouragement’ partly explains decreasing participation in training. Yet it is also clear that this not a complete explanation for the problem. In (p. 630) particular, workers themselves may consider—after a certain age or stage in their career—that further training is unnecessary. Or, as is also possible, they may feel that the type of training and learning they are likely to receive is inappropriate given their level of skill and experience. Czaja and Sharit (2009, 266), in research from the United States, make the point that although many existing training techniques are effective for older adults we lack an adequate research database to: ‘determine whether some training techniques are consistently differentially beneficial to older workers’. On the other hand, literature from work-based psychological studies has demonstrated the benefits as well as limitations of particular approaches to training involving older workers. Tsang (2009, 289), for example, cites a number of studies which demonstrate how relatively small amounts of training can reverse cognitive decline and assist the retention of newly acquired skills. Conversely, the limitations of training benefits are also noted, including reduced magnitude of learning and slower learning rates. Given the emergence of a more diverse ageing workforce, attention to new ways of delivering work-based training would seem an urgent requirement. One suggestion here would be to encourage a single organization to lead research and policy initiatives linking trades unions, business organizations, and government on the theme of training for an ageing workforce.

The third area concerns the need to encourage training programmes specifically targeted at those in part-time and flexible forms of employment, and with those older workers who are self-employed. The issues here have been summarized by Czaja and Sharit (2009, 259) as follows:

as the number of workers in non-standard work arrangements … continues to increase, one important issue confronting workers will be access to tr aditional workplace benefits such as training. [Such] workers will be less likely to receive structured company-sponsored training, and the responsibility of continuous learning and job training will fall to a greater extent on the individual. It is not yet clear how to best develop and disseminate training programmes to promote lifelong learning for these ‘non-traditional’ workers. This issue is especially pertinent for older workers, given that they are less likely to be provided with access to training and development programmes in traditional work environments where company-sponsored training is available.

There are no immediate solutions to the problems facing part-time and related groups of workers. On the one side, research already cited (e.g. Humphrey et al. 2003) highlights inequalities between full- and part-time workers in respect of access to training. Such difficulties are unlikely to have abated—they have probably worsened—in the period since the research was published. On the other side, opportunities from providers such as community and further education colleges have been steadily reduced, with the major focus now placed on preparing younger people for entry into the labour market. Some options for consideration here might include: firstly, adoption of Schuller and Watson’s (2009) plan for legal and transitional entitlements (p. 631) (mentioned earlier), a proposal highly relevant to those entering non-standard and flexible forms of employment; secondly, more imaginative use of computer-based training or ‘e-learning’ to assist those working from home or those juggling work and caregiving responsibilities (Czaja and Sharit 2009); thirdly, specific obligations placed upon employers to expand training and learning as a pre-condition for creating non-standard forms of employment.

The fourth area concerns initiatives to improve the total work environment in which the older worker is embedded. An illustration of this approach is provided by the Finnish Programme on Ageing Workers, a joint intervention from government, pension companies, local authorities, and the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health. The aim of the programme was to address the whole work environment rather than isolated features, developing good practice around retention (including measuring people’s capacity to work), as well as adapting employment services to the needs of older workers. Maltby (2013, 194) suggests that the experience of the Finnish Programme would appear to indicate that the: ‘measurement of work ability, linked to improvements in age management, can lead to reductions in premature labour market withdrawal, as well as greater job satisfaction, improved health, and raised productivity’.

The final area for discussion concerns encouraging closer involvement from FHE in responding to the needs of older workers, with the development of new programmes or the adaptation of existing courses. Older students have always had an important presence in university adult education classes, with those over 50 comprising the majority of participants. They also form a significant group studying for part-time degrees and programmes related to continuing professional development (Phillipson 2010). The number of older learners moving into higher education (HE) will almost certainly increase given broader demographic and social changes. Key factors are likely to include, firstly, the demand for vocational and non-vocational courses coming from ‘first wave’ baby boomers (those born in the late-1940s and early-1950s), a larger proportion of whom—in comparison with earlier cohorts—have degrees and related qualifications; secondly, the need for new qualifications amongst those changing careers in mid and later working life. Reflecting this development, three pathways might be followed by higher education institutions (HEIs) to support older workers:

  • educational and personal development programmes: these would build upon existing work in adult and continuing education, but would identify new types of courses and markets amongst a diverse and segmented post-50s market. An example of such an initiative is the Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes, which are located at over 100 US universities.

  • employment-related programmes: these might support the policy objective of extending working life, although the extent of employer demand may be fragile in the context of high levels of unemployment. The development of courses (p. 632) supporting people moving from full-time paid employment to various forms of self-employment may, however, remain a source of growth amongst HEIs.

  • social inclusion programmes: substantial numbers of older people—in current as well as succeeding cohorts—remain educationally and socially disadvantaged. HEIs, with partners such as local authorities, further education colleges and the major national charities, should focus on a ‘widening participation’ agenda that covers all age groups and not just younger adults.


This chapter has reviewed education, training, and development for the over-50 population. Whilst there is general agreement that more training is needed for older workers there is little evidence to suggest that much is being done about it. In 2011 a follow-up questionnaire was sent to all 21 countries that had participated in the OECD’s review some years earlier. The questionnaire was adapted to refer to the OECD’s specific policy recommendations (OCED 2006) in each corresponding country report. For the United Kingdom they commented that no (relevant) action had been taken in the areas of increasing training for older, out-of-work adults. In part, this was because the specific initiatives they commented on in 2004 no longer existed at the time of the review.2

The discussion here has recognized that whilst there may be business case arguments for increasing access to training (increasing the productivity of older workers and extending working lives) these may be in tension with equal opportunities arguments about fair access and potential rights to education and learning in the third age and beyond (see also Canduela et al. 2012). Whilst we have outlined a range of policy initiatives that would improve the situation of the older population both in employment and in retirement, the scope for moving ahead on any of these is undeniably weak in the context of global economic turbulence and weak employment demand.


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(1) The group that has decreased is those termed economically inactive, i.e. neither in work nor actively looking for work.