Unarrested development

In a world where job markets are constantly changing and lifespans increasing, growing numbers are deciding to continue learning long after the end of their formal education. These ‘lifelong learners’, as they are known, are acquiring new skills on the job, at home, or online to give their CVs – and their minds – a competitive edge.

In 2003, Sir Oliver Popplewell became one of Oxford University’s oldest undergraduate students at the age of 76. Following a distinguished career as a high court judge, Popplewell decided to return to the classroom to study PPE (philosophy, politics, and economics) – notoriously one of the hardest degrees to gain a place on, with 7.5 applicants per place. But why go back to studying later in life?

In an interview with Peter Cardwell of the Guardian during his first term, Popplewell simply said: “I thought I’d like to keep my brain going.” And he’s not alone. According to a study conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2016, over 74 per cent of American adults considered themselves to be ‘lifelong learners’, meaning that they actively seek out learning opportunities in either their personal or private lives long after the end of their formal education.

Thanks to technology, one of the world’s biggest democratisers of knowledge, lifelong learning has become much easier. You no longer have to trawl through obscure research papers to learn about biochemistry, or spend a year in France to learn French (though, of course, you might like to). Apps, podcasts, and online courses, including those from institutions such as MIT and Harvard, are all efficient, self-directed ways to learn. As are video tutorials, as shown by the story of Kenyan javelin thrower Julius Yego. Not having the money to find a coach, he turned to YouTube. He went on to win a silver medal at the Rio Olympics. Smartphones have broadened the reach of this sort of learning still further. They mean that not only do people in developing countries (particularly in sub-Saharan Africa) have access to knowledge but also anyone, rich or poor, can learn wherever they are.

Work in progress

Of course, people are not driven to learn by easier access to learning materials alone. If that were the case, we would all be lifelong learners. So what are the other motivating factors?

One is the changing job market. People no longer spend a lifetime working for just one company; the average American, for example, now spends around four and a half years with their employer before moving on to a new role. This is because corporate hierarchies are flatter. In lieu of promotion, people take advantage of continuing professional development opportunities to learn new skills that make them more attractive to other employers, improving their future career prospects – and pay cheques. We also live in an era where many knowledge workers have portfolio careers. Rather than have one job, you might work in several different roles at the same time across your chosen sector. You might also have a side project or hobby job in an area that interests you. You are always learning new skills – and the interplay between your various roles creates new knowledge.

Career progression aside, there is a confidence boost that comes with mastering a new skill. Regardless of whether you’ve learnt how to use the functions in Excel that most people have never even heard of, or how to make the perfect soufflé, we have evolved to enjoy acquiring new information. Abraham Maslow, the celebrated psychologist, noted this tendency in his hierarchy of needs; once we have met our basic needs – physiological, safety, love, and belonging – we are able to strive for esteem and self-actualisation. It is the act of self-actualisation or fulfilling the desire

to become everything one is capable of becoming,

 

as Maslow said, that occurs when we master a new skill.

For many people, though, the initial effort puts them off trying something new. This is especially true for older generations who have paid too much attention to the adage “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”. They worry that their memory will fail them, or they lack the
overall mental agility. This is, quite simply, not true. Dayna Touron, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, found that as we age we tend to lose confidence in our mental abilities even though they are often in perfect working order. Avoiding mental strain may then actively contribute to cognitive decline, whereas learning a new skill can actually help to improve memory and cognitive functions.

Exercise for the brain

“When you exercise, you engage your muscles to help improve overall health,” says Dr Ipsit Vahia, Director of geriatric outpatient services for Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital, in an article on the Harvard Health blog. “The same concept applies to the brain. You need to exercise it with new challenges to keep it healthy.”

It isn’t enough, though, to just do a crossword puzzle – your brain needs to be pushed out of its comfort zone to gain the full effect.

Research by Dr Denise Park, Director of Research and Distinguished University Chair in Behavioral and Brain Sciences at the Center for Vital Longevity at the University of Texas, Dallas, has shown that learning a new, mentally demanding activity like photography supports memory function in older adults. Improved brain function is therefore another significant benefit of lifelong learning, and given that our lifespans are increasing, there is an even greater need to maintain good cognitive function as we age. Retirement used to be seen as a time for pottering around the garden or taking cruises. But what if we now have 30 years’ retirement? How do we fill those long years? Perhaps we should all become students again at 76.

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