Our Ageing Societies

by Tracey Burns
Analyst and Project Leader, Directorate for Education and Skills

The G8 leaders met in London in mid-December with a special goal: developing a cure for dementia by 2025. Finding a cure for dementia has become a social and economic imperative. Dementia currently affects 44 million people worldwide, a number forecasted to reach 135 million by 2050. According to the World Health Organisation, the disease cost the world 439 billion euros in 2010. In addition to these stark figures, there is a psychological toll: dementia has replaced cancer as the disease people fear the most.

Education has a role to play: Higher levels of education can impede the onset of dementia. And although cognitive abilities generally tend to decline with age, it is possible to slow or even reverse the downtrend. A just released Trends Shaping Education Spotlight looks at the role of education in our ageing societies.

Average life expectancy across OECD countries has risen from 69 years in 1970 to an average of 79.7 years in 2010. By 2100, the median age across all OECD and BRIC (Brazil, the Russian Federation, India and China) countries is forecasted to reach 45 years, up from 38 years in 2010. As the average age increases, so too does the proportion of the elderly (i.e. those over 80 years). In fact, there will be more than twice as many people over the age of 80 in 2050 as there are now.

Although this may seem like an issue for the distant future, some of these concerns are immediate. One example is the rising age of teachers across most of the OECD. In 2011, 40% or more of secondary school teachers were at least 50 years old in Austria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Germany, Iceland, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden. Over 50% of all secondary teachers in Germany and Italy were over 50 years of age (in Italy the figure is 60%). Given these figures, attracting and retaining new teachers is an immediate policy priority for most OECD countries.

In the medium term, this demographic transformation will have important implications for our education systems. Overall, people who have completed more years of education tend to have better health and well-being. Education has a direct positive impact on healthier behaviours and preferences, as well as indirect effects on income, opportunities and self-confidence.

Governments across the OECD have been promoting a lifelong learning culture through policies aimed at improving work-based skills development, vocational training and adult education. This effort is needed: results from the Survey of Adult Skills demonstrate that proficiency reaches a peak at around 30 years of age and then declines steadily, with the oldest age groups displaying lower levels of proficiency than the youngest age groups.

A promising example of how lifelong learning can be promoted comes from Japan, a rapidly ageing society with the highest life expectancy at birth among the OECD countries. In 2006, the government amended its Basic Act on Education to integrate the concept of lifelong learning, ensuring support for its municipalities with funding and guidance. Lifelong learning councils were established at the prefecture level and by 2012, 18 metropolises and 996 municipalities had action plans in place to promote lifelong learning. Japan’s education ministry is maintaining the programme’s momentum by providing information on good practices, and at the local level, some municipality leaders have formed an alliance for information-exchange and policy research.

This is just one example of how governments and communities are coming together to increase participation in formal and informal education throughout a person’s lifetime. Lifelong learning will keep our populations healthier, more active and more connected to society. It will also allow the increasingly large proportion of the elderly to enjoy their later years to the fullest. As our governments and research institutes do their best to find a cure for dementia by 2025, we can challenge ourselves to help as we can: by reinforcing lifelong learning, and continuing work on education, ageing, and well-being.

Trends Shaping Education Spotlight #1 – Ageing Societies
Trends Shaping Education 2013 publication
Centre for Educational Research and Innovation CERI
Photo credit: Senior woodcrafter @ Shutterstock

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