How much will the literacy level of working-age people change from now to 2022?

by François Keslair
Statistician, Directorate for Education and Skills 

Taken as a whole, the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC) present a mixed picture for Korea and Singapore. As their economies have grown, these two countries’ education systems have seen fast and impressive improvements; both now rank among PISA’s top performers. However, neither Korea nor Singapore do so well in PIAAC. PIAAC measures the skills of adults aged between 16 and 65, i.e. a large majority of the population, not just the 15-year-olds pupils measured by PISA. And while the skills of younger Koreans and Singaporeans are just as impressive in PIAAC as in PISA, the same cannot be said of their elders, who did not enjoy the advantages of their current successful education systems. The skills of the older population covered by PIAAC simply cannot keep pace with such change.

But why exactly can we draw this conclusion? In other words, why do the drivers of change in the skills of the population examined by PIAAC necessarily work so slowly? And since we are looking into it, why not take the opportunity to try our hand at predicting the future of adult skills, taking literacy as an example? We are all familiar with the strong link between skills and productivity, so predicting the skills of the working-age population could help to identify, for example, trends in some economic fundamentals. This exercise – prospective and necessarily provisional – is covered in the latest issue of Adult Skills in Focus (ASIF), “How might literacy evolve among working-age adults by 2022?”

The first driver of change is population renewal. Without wanting to state the obvious, people aged between 16 and 65 in 2012 will be aged between 26 and 75 in 2022 (unless, unfortunately, they have died). So the population of 16-65 year-olds in 2012 and 2022 will largely overlap, except that 2022’s 16-24 year-olds, who were previously too young, will have joined the population, while 2012’s 56-65 year-olds, now too old (as well as any 16-65 year-olds who passed away between 2012 and 2022) will have left it. This means that only about one-fifth of the 16-65 age group is renewed every ten years.

During that ten-year gap, the remaining population, i.e. four-fifths of 2012’s 16-65 year-olds, will get that much older. People’s skills vary over time. Skills can naturally be learned, but they can also be lost, most often because they are not practised. The second driver of change, then, is the impact of ageing on skills. This subject was covered in another issue of ASIF, “What does age have to do with skills proficiency?”, which identified two trends: first, a marked improvement in the skills of 16-35 year-olds, corresponding to the age of higher education, followed by a slow decline; and second, a distinct improvement for a minority of the population and a small deterioration for the majority, the combined effect of which will not be particularly significant.

In ten years, neither population renewal nor the impact of ageing on skills will be able to significantly affect the skills of all those aged between 16 and 65. But the projections we can make by modelling both drivers reveal a not-insignificant increase, as demonstrated in the graph above.

The improvement in literacy skills ought to be generally observable across all nations surveyed. Some countries may stagnate, such as England and Northern Ireland (UK), and Italy; but the good news is that none should see a decline. On the contrary, some countries should see a considerable improvement. And those countries which are expected to see the greatest progress include – surprise! – Singapore and Korea, although both of them will nevertheless continue to lag behind their neighbour Japan; but in Japan’s case, modernisation had already begun in the Meiji era at the end of the 19th century, which included the modernisation of the education system. The fruits of the efforts invested in education are harvested little by little, over a period of many years, meaning that the future beyond 2022 may well see yet more improvement. But we have to lay the foundations now.

Adult Skills in Focus No. 7: How much will the literacy level of the working-age population change from now to 2022?

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