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Why our need to learn peaks again in retirement: opinion

When Rita told me she was growing old I thought she meant wearing out. Turns out she meant
growing more curious, wanting new ways to learn and impart.

With a bit of prodding, she finally told me that she thought she was growing “wiser”. That wiser
wasn’t just about being around a long time, it was what you did with it.

She told me, that growing wiser was hard work because there wasn’t a place to learn it. Or even an
alumni to share it. And that in the end nobody really wanted it. That it was lonely being old and
wise. And easier not to be.

So, we set out to find more people like Rita, and hoped they might tell us where the wisdom school

It seems like most older people don’t learn much. They told us they’d had enough of school, thanks
very much. And instead, they’ve become wizards at dodging training requirements, or anything that
takes too long to learn.

No room for a growth mindset here! Not surprising, because of the retirement mindset that’s
required to fill your day without much purpose, promises a good life without effort.

But no one doubts anymore that this retirement mindset is a key player in the high levels of boredom, loneliness, lack of purpose, poor health, poverty, disconnection and high service use self-
reported by older populations globally.

Stanford University’s “map of life” wants to address this by “growing” older people, so they become
and remain productive and engaged over their increasingly longer lives. It wants to use this to shift
from an ageing society to an age-diverse society combining the speed, strength and zest common
in younger people with the emotional intelligence and wisdom prevalent in older people: creating possibilities in society that have never existed before.

Australian leadership development company, Unchartered Leadership, found that emotional
intelligence and wisdom were higher in its older students, but needed to be turned into a useable skill.

Conley, of the Modern Elder Academy, found that younger people were hungry for older peoples’
wisdom. But only if it was applied to them without the war stories.

And that’s a skill we don’t see often!

We did find a few wisdom schools (U3A, WEA, Ageing Well in Clunes) and even some that coached
the shift from a retirement mindset to a growth mindset (MEAx, Mindset for Life, Hudson Institute).
But not at a scale that Stanford needs for the next generation of 100-year-lifers, or governments
need to address the “retirement impact downturn”.

Stanford says we need to move quickly to “lifelong learning”. It sees the move to adult learning
principles and flexible online learning as the first step.

For older people, we will also need to individualise learning (in ways that technology now enables), make the adult learning principles more about adventure, and make it accessible. Like the North American state of Georgia, where all University and College tuition is now free for students over 62.

Stanford says we need to know that there’s no Plan B for addressing the “retirement impact
downturn”. That, while the “map of life” clearly has other transformative strategies, there is no
alternative to older people growing and engaging their wisdom.

Pity the Intergenerational Report 2021 didn’t read the “map of life”. The IGR does identify the drop
in investment in training as people get older, acknowledges the disincentives to work, and the gloom
of the “retirement impact downturn” if nothing changes. But it doesn’t imagine an alternative to the
retirement mindset. And, it doesn’t imagine a solution with it.

So, we started asking what promoting a growth mindset in retirement might look like?

Shift the incentives to allow people to “glide” into flexible work over a number of years that
positions for different roles. Offer learning before, at and after retirement that shifts mindset and
exposes role opportunities. (In fact, Joanne Earl says that retirement planning really only works if it
includes a “career” and learning plan).

Offer occupational health care to older people that keeps them fit for engagement. Work with older people to co-invent ways that wise students will take to learning as a way of life.

And shift the brief for the IGR 2023 to be a “map of life”.

All this is indicating that the need to learn is actually peaking during retirement, rather than

Driven by the complexities of needing to learn how to transition; needing new skills for this next life stage; needing to upgrade old skills for continued use; needing to be able to recognise and absorb different looking learning styles and opportunities; needing to know how to grow and share wisdom; needing to learn the purpose of freedom.

In fact, as we followed older people seeking purpose, learning looked more like the defining
characteristic of retirement. But, very different the second time around. This is why we are starting
to see very different “mid-life” learning courses emerging that older early adopters are swarming to.

OK, so can we finally stop learning once we become frail? Aged care providers clearly think so.

We examined aged care for the presence of developmental approaches: a learning desert. Which
got us wondering what it would take for the aged care service model to shift into a developmental
service model?

When Lasell Retirement Village in Boston asked this question, they appointed a dean from the local
College as the CEO to work out the answer. She said staff have to be teachers, the setting should
look like a place of learning, and the tools and methods should match teacher and student

Then she set up care and support for the residents to enable them to be students (and even teachers), understanding that learning works best with a certain wholeness of being. Then, she started to connect Lasell to role opportunities where the residents could use their skills.

Doesn’t sound much like a place to retire. This might explain the long waiting list.

So, prepare yourselves to be amazed by people learning and growing for longer. And by their
participation in age-diverse societies that come from this.

Mike Rungie specialises in the intersection between good lives and aged care. He is a member of a number of boards and committees including ACFA, Every Age Counts, Global Centre for Modern Ageing and GAP Productive Ageing Committee.

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