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Boomers to Create The Next Wave of Adult Education

By WENDY TERRY - June 7 2013

June is Seniors’ month and the first of the baby boomers are becoming seniors. Moses Znaimer has renamed them Zoomers, reflecting the fact that one of the most active generations in history will continue its zest for life into their “third age”, as others call it.

In the May/June 2010 issue of Learning Curves, we noted that “the aging baby boomers have been the largest age cohort to move through society in the last hundred years, and as they dominated other aspects of society, their education needs dominated the education system.”

In our December 2001 issue, the late Dr. Alan Thomas wrote an article titled “A Canadian Century of Adult Education.” He traced the response of adult education to societal needs over the 1900’s. In the early part of the 1900’s, funding for adult education often came under citizenship funding. It was the hey day of the Workers’ Educational Association of Canada, publisher of Learning Curves. We were building a country, adult students attended study groups, listened to radio programs, used film strips to learn, discussed issues of the day, the background of these issues and options for the future. The curriculum was dominated by liberal arts courses and the social sciences.

After the Second World War, people needed education and training to stay in the work force. “Essentially what had happened was that the focus of adult education in Canada had turned from social change in the first half of the Century to maintenance of the society in the second. Science and technology, applied to the economy and employment, had made education or training necessary and a normal part of the lives of most adults.” (Dr. Alan Thomas)

The community colleges were established to answer training needs that went beyond what was offered in the vocational stream of a high school education or on-the-job training. The general level of education went up too. Adults went back to university to earn degrees at universities and colleges set up specifically to serve them, such as Atkinson College at York University.

Born in 1947, I was one of the many female boomers who spent years, seventeen in my case, getting a BA at Atkinson College. Now that that stage of the boomers’ education is over, Atkinson College has been melded into the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Professional Studies.

Then the computer revolution hit in the 1990’s and we boomers are still constantly taking courses to catch up with the latest app.

For the past couple of decades or so, adult education providers have also catered to the educational needs of the many internationally trained immigrants that arrived because of the change in immigration law in the mid 1980’s. Now we are changing immigration criteria again and going back to favouring skilled tradesmen. Recently, with the launch of Second Career funding for laid off workers to retrain, so-called third career programs have grown.

Globalization has affected our labour market as well as our education; some come here to work, some of us are laid off as jobs go offshore. Globalization not only demands that we develop work skills in order to be employed but also requires a new understanding of ourselves as global citizens. Just as we learned to become national citizens in the first decades of the 1900’s, we are now learning how to be global citizens. Centennial College launched their Global Citizenship course about five years ago and made it a core mandatory course. To understand the history of others in the world including their literature, music, ideas etc. is a liberal arts/social sciences curriculum.

In looking at the development of adult education, one never gets the sense that adult educators look at the demographics and then plan for adult learning; they plan for children but not for adults. Despite governments throwing the phrase “lifelong learning” about, one never gets the sense that any systematic development for adult education has been undertaken. Adult education programs develop ad hoc in response to specific and immediate needs like the myriad of computer training courses offered or the Second Career retraining support offered to workers laid off in the globalization of our workforce.

One sign of the boomers becoming the next wave is how adult educators are responding to the growth in the seniors’ market as one by one the schools are eliminating senior discounts and auditing options (doing a course but not for credit). The main market is becoming the boomer cohort since the first of the boomers are now retiring; it clearly is not a sustainable business model, to give the education away.

As recently as last year in the summer issue, I was able to list colleges and universities that gave discounts and allowed auditing. But when I asked Centennial for my senior’s discount this year when enrolling in the Global Citizenship course, it was no longer available. Joann Mackay-Bennett has noted in her article “Changing It Up” in this issue, that this is the last year the senior discount will not be available at Ryerson. In the Learn4 Life programs at the Toronto District School Board the seniors discount has now gone from 50% to 40% and you now must be 61 to qualify not 60.

The elimination of these discounts is a sign that Boomers are occupying a larger part of the adult education market. However we don’t see any commensurate change in educational programs or government support for boomer learning. Academics like Dr. Miya Narushima of Brock University have studied the positive effects of learning on adults’ mental health. To save costs in health care, the government could launch a needs based bursary for senior learners.

And the schools could promote their liberal arts, social science programs to boomer adults, adapting the delivery style to a learning for ts own sake, rather than learning to get a course credit. They could reorient discussions to bring in life experience, give writing assignments to aid reflection on such experience. Tutorial size groupings are all easy adaptations.

There is certainly no end of topics as we strive to become world citizens in a globalized world. Some of the titles I would enjoy taking now that I am moving into my senior, Zoomer, third age include: Great Chinese Thinkers, The Tribal History of Africa, precolonial. The Slave Trade between Africa and Arabia, Foundation Scientific Ideas from the Middle East, The Tribal History of Canada-pre colonial, Art History around the World, International Development of Human Rights

Just as the boomers have driven adult education for the past half century, they will continue to do so now. This time we might get ahead of the curve, instead of reacting, by planning for it.

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