Learning After 50? What Could These People Add to the World?

Society is at a professional learning crossroad. As scientific innovations emerge in almost every sector, change is happening at an increased pace and pushes learning as a pivotal, personal skill. As these transitions happen across sectors, the only way forward is to increase our learning ability by investing in learning support innovations, enhancing self-directed learning with individuals, and re-skilling and upskilling nearly everyone. Taking up learning is a responsibility of every active citizen. As an experienced educator and learning scientist, this is cognitive heaven!

Personal Learning is a Never-ending Story

But there is one major setback: in our collective consciousness, ‘learning’ is mostly brought into relation with the younger generations. Especially when it comes to using or inventing technology, the unspoken assumption tells us that only the young can thrive in technologically innovative surroundings. The voice of the people seems to be biased towards professionals over 50… and I am over 50… so why am I still diving into new ideas? Why am I working in innovative fields with renewable energies and new pedagogies, being supported by combinations of tools? If I do this, there must be more like me… hence a new frontier needs exploring.

The best way to prove that people age 50-and-up can thrive and shape innovation, is to find older adults and see whether any of them became successful at innovational jobs later in life. For if success can be achieved in a new discipline later in life… then meaningful learning and innovation can be nurtured by professionals of all ages.

Exploring beyond Assumptions

The perception of ‘a learner’ is skewed towards youth (think “start-ups”) or mid-career professionals at best. But is this a correct assumption, or do older professionals learn and add new, innovative ideas to the world around them? In order to shed light on older learners, I have interviewed people in their 50s, 60s and older. I spoke with people who started a new job or professional activity later in life and became really successful. 

The first results clearly show that none of them feel ‘too old’, but they do feel that semantics are not in their favour (try to feel what the term ‘old’ or ’50+ activities’ stands for, for you). One of my first interviewees obtained a master’s degree in her fifties, went on to get a PhD in her sixties and became a successfully funded scientists within an innovative field (e.g. educational technologies). Another interviewee said that he ‘simply dived into something”, and made himself an expert, as no-one else ever got that specific information together. This led to an invitation by policy-makers of a big city council, where he became an adviser on water-infrastructure issues.

Remarkably, learning new content or absorbing new material and distilling new ideas had always been a part of these interviewees’ behaviour. All of them – indirectly – pointed to their innate pleasure of diving in something new, analysing new disciplines and then acting upon that new knowledge. For this little group of interviewees, their ability to pick up something new was nothing less than normal. Learning, the ability to learn and the meaning life gets while taking what is learned to the next level, seemed as natural as breathing to them. And let’s face it, learning is literally in our DNA. It is part of us as human beings, so why do we have assumptions when it comes to older professionals?

White Ravens?

Are these successful late blooming professionals white ravens in a rather oblique older segment of the population, or is there more to it? If success can be achieved at a later age in a new field, it proves that people can impact the world at any age and in any field. Even in fields that require a lot of technological know-how.

Let’s unearth some societal challenges in terms of ageism and inclusivity. We need to start a collective debate in order to bring everyone closer and move beyond age assumptions. Let’s dare to discuss and look for useful answers for the global professionals above 50. A growing professional group that is sometimes pushed aside based on false beliefs. Are professionals over 50 worth the L&D investment? What can older professionals bring to the table that younger professionals cannot? Should we divide or should we cooperate across generations when it comes to learning?

Change Mindsets and Embrace the Learning Mind

There are renowned late bloomers throughout history (Grandma Moses, Ray Kroc, Marianne Fredriksson,…) but up until now they seem to have been anecdotal. Now, it is time to share findings coming from the interviews with people that started a new job or professional activity at a later age, showing that this is an active population.

We lack data. The only thing we do know is that people over 50 face professional discrimination, unless they already are successful in life. This makes it easier to “climb the ladder” and become, say, a member of a predominantly white, male board of an influential organisation or company.

Forget the Forbes’ 30 under 30 and let’s look at how older learners are able to successfully pick up new ideas and skills and impact the world. We look forward to discussing this very subject at a Boardroom Dialogue session at OEB20.

Written by Inge de Waard, EIT InnoEnergy and The Open University UK, who will be facilitating a Boardroom Dialogue on this topic at OEB20.

2 Responses

  1. John McNamee

    I am over 70, and I regard myself as semi-retired. I am not a great community player, but I have joined the local Men’s Shed and started a U3A with them but to include women groups. I have over 40 years of experience in Adult Ed and training, and I have a masters degree in the subject.
    Some comments: Your opening paragraph ends with “cognitive heaven.” I hope not. Cognitivism is essentially Cartesian and has provided few, if any answers, to human learning. The same questions keep coming up over and over again and again. The last 20 years have seen the emergence of anti-cognitivism literature, and for me, it is compelling. As far as human learning is concerned, this paradigm has had its day.
    Exploring beyond the assumptions: One of the most frustrating myths constructed from a series of assumptions is Knowles’ andragogy. Exceptions are just that, exceptions; and while interesting they don’t necessarily stand-up as useful exemplars. Labels are troubling. Should we call the exemplars “white ravens?” Ageism is not only based on a series of shallow assumptions but also from shallow labels. (And cognitivism regarding humans rely on labels).
    Change Mindsets: One change ought to be a societal one of not providing contented confinement for older people, but one of participation and contributing. I hope that the U3A can give a role in that endeavour.

    • Inge de Waard

      Hello John, thank you for your clear answer. And thank you for adding the link to U3A, which I think is a great initiative, which I also bookmarked. With regard to your comment on cognitivism, indeed, from a theoretical point of view this might not be the best word to use, from a general people language however, I thought it was okay. We need to unite and not divide, at this point in time the silo’s and opinions seem to be enlarged and this does not benefit anyone, or as Lincoln said it: “A house divided against itself, cannot stand.”. Using ‘cognitive heaven’ was to use the most common idea of “expression of mind in its processes and psycho-dynamic conditions”, but yes we are moving away from it as we are seeing that it simply is not enough from a theoretical side.
      Ageism is all around us, labeling age with all sorts of assumptions. I know this, I feel it, my family feels it… but that said, for me there is only one way forward: chipping away at those assumptions (like U3A does, but also like so many other initiatives that are emerging). With this in mind, I feel that we need to provide (and I would not call these exceptions, although they are – for the broader public of all ages – often seen as exceptions. Providing examples, showcasing them is one of the most common activism, visualizing the unseen is what brings a subject to the main stage and that is the only thing I am aiming at.
      I understand that semantics can cause discussions, but to be honest, I have been giving too much energy in discussions, for me, it is now time to join hands, and work towards unity not division. For me, this means that theoretical discussions can be done in the group, but that there should become one front to show that aged-related assumptions can be broken down and we can move all of us forward (well the lucky one’s who do become older).
      Thank you for your insightful comment and the link to U3A. Best wishes, Inge


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