Back to School: Let's Leave No Adult Behind

Back to School: Let's Leave No Adult Behind

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Too much of the national education debate continues to focus on schooling for children and young adults – which is critical, of course, and no shortcuts should be taken with younger generations even in the face of budget restrictions. But if the primary goal of school is to “educate and prepare tomorrow’s leaders,” here’s a blunt truth: Teachers, school boards, policymakers and others need to recognize the extent to which education today has, or should have, a new target audience – older adults. 

RELATED: Why ‘American Greatness’ Means the Aging, Too

While plenty of examples exist of how our aging population can go back to school to keep active, engaged and productive – think of the Civic Ventures Encore Careers program – what we need is a massive culture shift far beyond specific programs. Soon there will be more of us over age 60 than under age 15. Globally, two billion people will be in the older demographic by mid-century. Given such a radical transformation, the notion of “back to school” might become a profound social imperative far beyond advertising gimmicks for kids’ lunchboxes.

The idea that school is just for the young is dangerously obsolete. With both public and private pensions running short of cash, and with people saving far too little to retire in their early 60s, boomers and other seniors need to have the opportunity to continue with their educations so that they can remain active and vital economically. And this is not just a short term challenge today: It profoundly characterizes what an older 21st century society might become.  

But if education is reinvented for an older society, what would this education look like? And how might it differ from education for the young? 

First: There's location, location, location.
In the previous century, learning took place in physical buildings – humble elementary schools down the block or college campuses lined with giant elms and pricey bookstores. And once people took jobs, any continuing education they signed up for was done before or after their work responsibilities.

Given the growing financial burdens that people face today in an aging society, unrealistic to think school and work should remain separate enterprises. It’s time for workplaces to integrate learning into their business models whether that’s face-to-face, online, or some mixture of both. Jeff Schwartz of Deloitte Consulting has asked: If we live to 90, what sense does it make to stop educating ourselves at age 21?

But the idea of lifelong learning can only succeed if employers and institutions integrate it into their core business practices. As Schwartz’s colleagues Cathy Benko and Molly Anderson argued in their book Corporate Lattice: Achieving High Performance in the Changing World of Work, a genuine collaboration between educational institutions and businesses, non-profits, social institutions, governmental agencies, and others is needed. Technology will enable much of this innovation as it can produce cheaper, better, and more efficient learning experiences for students of all ages. Creative applications can be found in places such as Joe Coughlin’s MIT AgeLab, but it is now up to us to drive these further into use. 

Second: There’s the education itself.
While art history and paleolithic anthropology are fine pursuits for expanding young minds and cultivating new museum curators, schools of higher learning need to re-examine their curricula. Is that curricula appropriate and cutting-edge enough for both younger and older students? What an older adult needs to learn in order to remain an asset to the economy is quite different from what a 20-year-old needs to learn – and all parties ought to collaborate. 

Universities must live up to their intentions to create “public good” and “community service.” And they need to work closely with businesses and government employers to ensure that members of the aging population can learn critical skills for our 21st century economy. 

For years, educational institutions and businesses have partnered on any number of initiatives, from building technology centers to creating programs for community outreach. Now it’s time to forge a new partnership, one that can re-invent education for a new America. In the process, we can give a more profound and lasting meaning to “Back to School.”

Michael W. Hodin, Ph.D., is Adjunct Senior Fellow at The Council of Foreign Relations and Executive Director of The Global Coalition on Aging.


Executive director of the Global Coalition on Aging, Michael W. Hodin, Ph.D., is also managing partner at High Lantern Group and a fellow at Oxford University's Harris Manchester College.