We can take a wider view learning society, seeing learning  as a normal, accessible and enjoyable feature of everyday life for all people of all ages.  This could cover (though not exclusively!) art, music, dance, sport, or training for new work or volunteering.   The opportunities for lifelong learning these days are infinite.

In a recent study, nearly two-fifths of adults (39%) report they have not participated in learning since leaving full-time  education. Socio-economic class remains a key predictor. Like a long list of previous surveys, this one confirms that “participation in learning is determined by class, employment status, age and prior learning”.   The decline in participation is particularly steep for those aged 55 and over.

It is widely accepted that far more of the population will remain physically and cognitively healthy enough to learn, despite some reduction in their power of memory.   The good news is that the brain’s warehouse of information ages quite well.  Our knowledge and things like vocabulary and learned skills, including some number skills, often stay pretty well intact even well into very old age.”

Lifespan psychology suggests that no age period is developmentally dominant. There are periods of gain, deterioration and stability throughout the lifespan (Baltes et al., 2006).  For example, musical learning and improved musical ability can occur at any time of life, since continued extensive activity in any domain during older age can result in high levels of performance in that domain.

Our current schoolchildren should be fit enough to use retirement to follow personal interests: arts, hobbies, crafts, sports, or formal subject learning. In any case, career change as well as career building are likely to attract many more people who have the time, inclination, and health to do so.

Learning is developmentally innate.  It is not necessary to teach young people how to learn. Living creatures acquire knowledge, skills and attitudes, such as how to crawl and walk; turn-taking, when and why to make friendly noises or smile. This inbuilt learning ability is now understood to persist throughout life, despite the on-going neurobiological challenge to unravel its precise mechanisms.

The internet indisputably now rivals books as a means of learning independently, and it is in this area that our government should put considerably more effort so as to enable inexperienced learners to use it reliably for radically independent learning. We know already that a great deal of independent learning takes place outside school, but the mobile phone [appropriately called the “handy” in German] and small tablets are too readily used,  without the necessary critical thinking skills to go with the avalanche of information available.

Social networking and video-sharing sites, online games, and gadgets such as iPods and mobile phones were fixtures of youth culture in the USA 6 years ago, and played a key role in their struggle for autonomy and identity amid new opportunities for communication, friendship, play, and self-expression. Contrary to what many adults fear, young people find these activities are creating new opportunities to grapple with social norms, explore interests, develop technical skills, and experiment with different forms of self-expression.  Young digital natives turn to specialised knowledge groups, often from around the world, with the goal of improving their craft and gaining a reputation among experts.

These activities are captivating older adults in just the same ways because they provide avenues for extending social worlds, self-directed learning, and independence.

By exploring new interests, tinkering, and “messing around” with new forms of media, both young and old acquire various aspects of technical and media literacy, often through trial and error, and receiving feedback from others online. By its immediacy and breadth of information, the digital world lowers barriers to self-directed learning.