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One of the most important challenges facing industrial nations is how to deal with the effects of demographic change and an ever increasing older population. Birth rates are sinking permanently and the parallel steady increase in life-expectancy are leading toward a society with a rising proportion of older people and an ever decreasing proportion of younger people.
According to an international comparative study by the German Institute for Old-Age Planning (DIA, 2005), the aging of society, at least for Japan, US and European countries, presents a similar problem in these nations, but with differing rates of progression. While these developments take a very moderate form in the US, they are leading to a massive increase in the section of population over 60 years of age in that country. Currently, people over 60 make up 17% of the population in the US, 27% in Japan, and 25% in Germany (United Nations, 2005). The number of elderly in these three countries is also increasing.
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These demographic trends actually stimulate adult education in two ways: the first, is the potential for innovation in reception and support for the increasing number of older workers; and the second, is that educational training programs can and have to contribute to staying healthy and independent up until very old age in order to prevent the over-burdening of the system. Exactly how this can be realized with the help of educational programming will be discussed in further detail. In order to achieve this, it is important to keep in mind the needs older people have as learners, go along with their educational interests and behaviour.
When we talk about older adults here, we focus on the older workers on the one side and on people in their post-occupational phase of life on the other side. In this view older adults could be people in the second half of their working life (statistical often defined as the workers older than 45 years; Tikkanen & Nyhan 2006, p. 10) up to the highly aged people more than 80 years old. It is self-evident that this broad working definition of older adults leads to a wide range of topics and perspectives focussing on the working and learning conditions of older workers as much as on gerontological aspects of learning in old age.
Older workers The picture of older workers in a company is fed only partially by science. The dominating image is a conglomerate of everyday observations, prejudices and out-dated stereotypes, which are mainly marked by the comparison of age with loss of performance ability (Koopman-Boyden & Macdonald, 2003, p. 34). Nevertheless, older employees are more positively rated by managers, personnel developers and younger colleagues than is often expected, due to frequent discrimination of older adults in the workforce and in the context of a company’s continuing professional development (Wrenn & Maurer, 2004, pp.224).
The decline of physical performance ability and the decreasing reaction speed of older employees can also be examined empirically (Laville & Volkoff, 1998). However, these abilities have lost their meaning in the modern era and have become irrelevant for most workplaces (Dworschak et al. 2006; Lahn, 2003; Czaja 2001). In this context there is a call for an appropriate design of work environments and subsequent programs for human resource development that include age-specific strengths and restrictions in its long-term planning (Hubner, Kuhl & Putzing, 2003).
The organization of work environments and their adaptation toward the needs of employees can be understood as an investment in employee health, which in return is positive for the company (Hansen & Nielsen 2006; Becker 1975). The quantity of sick-days taken by older employees is strongly influenced by working conditions, and health problems of older employees generally do not occur more often than usual, but only in conjunction with unfavorable conditions and when there are no opportunities for further learning and training (Feinstein et al.2003).
While younger employees see new jobs as a hance to improve their career and income possibilities, older employees usually change jobs due to negative work experiences (CROW, 2004). Alferoff (1999) points out that the older workers do indeed try to maintain occupational flexibility, even though they often find themselves excluded from opportunities for ongoing professional development.
Educational programs for older adults have the function to maintain the human capital of older workers and to make it beneficial for the job market (Dore & Clar, 1997), and on an individual side such programs are preventative, such as in the maintaining of cognitive abilities along with physical and psychological health (Frederickson 2006; Bynner & Hammond, 2004). In addition, opportunities for older adults on the job market are noticeably increasing through participation in continuing education, a fact which is more obvious with women than with men (Karmel & Woods, 2004).
The openness for lifelong learning, especially in the workplace, depends on the meaning an occupation has for an individual, as well as attitudes toward work and learning. According to current studies, there is a leaning toward a more instrumental and short-term approach to work-related education and training overall and therefore to continuing vocational training of older employees (Pillay et al. 2003). Reasons for this can be found in the change in meaning for work and learning since the first vocational training experience; a change that does not always take place with every older person.
Educational programs for older people The network would focus on ageing not as an inhibiting or deterministic one-way development but as an individual process which goes together with developmental gains and losses in every stage of life. Ageing is seen as an inter- and intraindividual different process which is highly influenced by living conditions and biographical experiences. In this context lifelong learning has an important impact on ageing and can support active ageing (Tikkanen 2006; Salling Olesen 2006).
The aging process can be seen in an interpersonal or in an intrapersonal view. The development of an individual in all aspects of personality is fundamentally influenced by aspects of culture, society and the personal social situation. These factors also have indirect effects on learning requirements (Manninen 2006). The increasing flexibility and individualization of life-paths, especially concerning employment, makes traditional separation obsolete in a training or educational phase, a career phase, and a post-career phase.
Gaps in the career phase or an interrupted educational phase, such as various career and volunteer activities even after reaching retirement age, are more the rule today than the exception (Stein & Rocco, 2001), causing loss of validity (Hamburger, 2003) in the traditional model of a three-section resume (Kohli, 1985). In this way, differentiation between old and young is problematic, according to career status or job seniority. Yet both biological age and life-span sectioned into early, middle and late adulthood are significant standards of comparison for scientific research.
However, the division is seen more often as a heuristic construct than as a natural phenomenon. It is not only the understanding of when someone is labeled as old that has undergone severe change in science during the last century, but also the image of aging itself. Until the middle of the 20th century, psychological research on ageing was dominated by the so-called deficit model, which described the aging process primarily through the decrease in cognitive capacity and intellectual ability (Wechsler, 1939).
Critique of this model first began to appear in the 1970’s with the inclusion of subjective experience, giving more attention to the individual perception of ageing (Thomae, 1970). Toward the end of the 80’s the emphasis had shifted to consideration of the importance of demands placed on older adults and the resources available to them, and the theory of successful ageing examined ways of achieving health, contentment, and independence until the very senior years (Baltes & Baltes, 1989).
This picture of ageing was partially encouraged on the one hand by longitudinal studies in cognitive psychology, which could not provide evidence of a general decrease in cognitive ability in old age (Schaie, 2005). On the other hand, cultural background (Merriam, 2000), life situation, social participation (Lovden, Ghisletta & Lindenberger 2005), the learning potential of daily-life, and especially the level of education appeared to be better predictors of cognitive performance than biological age (Lehr, 1994).
Many studies show that competence and performance ability in cognitive achievement can be maintained, in which education plays a vital role (Tippelt, 1992). Current research on intelligence shows that older adults are not only able to maintain their knowledge, but also increase it, meaning the ability to learn is maintained even when changes occur in the process of learning with old age. Fluid intelligence has a tendency to decrease with age, although this can be prevented through regular training (Baltes, 1993; Saczynski, Willis & Schaie, 2002).
Yet there are still older cohorts who keep up with younger in terms of crystallised intelligence in the area of cognitive performance by compensating for deficits in the speed of processing information (Rupprecht, 2000). Consequently, learning is a life-long process that is also possible in old age (Roberson & Merriam, 2005). The central importance of prior knowledge of older adults for their continued learning is also recognized by the field of adult education (Wenke, 1996), which takes advantage of these knowledge resources through special didactical concepts, especially in the context of teaching and learning.
It is important to mention both the approaches from general and post-career adult education that rely on biographical activities with older adults (Kade, 1999; Schaffter, 1999), and the didactical concepts for the usage and transfer of knowledge with older employees in continuing vocational training (Lahn, 2003; Schauble, 1999). The central didactical demand on educational programs for older adults is, besides connecting to the learner’s previous knowledge, the imbedding of learning processes within a social group.
Joint learning and social contact with other learners is very important, especially for older learners (Tietgens, 1992). There are conflicting statements about the composition of these learning groups regarding heterogeneity. Yet considering the design of educational programs on the one hand, didactical concepts especially for older learners are propagated (Williamson, 1997), and on the other hand programs for learning groups with members of different generations are demanded (Schmidt & Tippelt, 2009; Nyhan 2006), the ability and the necessity of learning in old age is currently undisputed (Franz, 2007).
Furthermore, the decision as to how much educational programs should be conceived specifically for older adults, and how much one should try to integrate older learners into existing non-age specific programs needs to relate to the content, goals, and context of the educational intervention. “Old people” do not form a homogeneous group (Laville & Volkoff, 1998; Schmidt 2007b). Other factors, such as level of school education and educational experiences, also have a crucial influence on the interest and behaviour in continuing education. The position of the older employee within the company and his/her respect are also factors of importance