OVER 40 - Europa

European Educational Research Association
European Conference on Educational Research
ECER 2002
Dr Marja-Leena Stenström
Institute for Educational Research
P.O. Box 35
E-mail: [email protected]
Fax: +358 14 2603 201
Tel.: +358 14 2603 310
Vocational Education and Training Network
Lisbon, Portugal
11-14 September 2002
Marja-Leena Stenström
Over the nineties, adult education has emerged, in Finland, as an increasingly important
component of national educational policy and planning. As a result of structural change in
trade and industry and on the labour market, lifelong learning has become an important
principle underpinning educational policy. In addition to features of the postmodern society,
adult education is being challenged also by an increasingly elderly age structure. The purpose
of the presentation is to describe, drawing on the results of a questionnaire survey, educational
aspirations and motivation among Finnish mature students. Subjects are adults over 40
(n=389) who attended adult education centres and apprenticeship centres in spring 2001. The
results made it possible to distinguish between three groups with distinct levels of educational
aspiration: subjects with high, moderate and low educational aspirations. There were
differences among the three groups concerning gender, family situation, educational
background, age, the degree of own initiative behind the decision to return to education, level
of degree orientation, and appreciation of IT skills. The study confirms the fact that it is those
most in need of education and training who are least motivated to go back to education, while
those least in need of education and training are active students. In order to boost adult
people’s educational motivation we need knowledge that will help us to foster adult learning
and develop teaching adjusted to the requirements of adult learners. However, education for
the aging is not only about pedagogical solutions: upgrading outdated education and obsolete
occupational skills is a social policy issue.
As a result of structural change in trade and industry and on the labour market, lifelong
learning has become an important principle underpinning educational policy. The adult
education field has long recognised that people learn all their life. In addition to features of
the postmodern society (Bauman, 1992; Beck, 1992; Giddens, 1990), adult education is being
challenged by an increasingly elderly age structure. It is predicted that new entrants to the
labour market alone will not suffice to meet its skills requirements (Eurydice, 2000).
In the 1990s, the concept of lifelong learning attracted the attention of policymakers
around the globe. The European Union declared 1996 the European Year of Lifelong
Learning, and government agencies in Europe and the United States have also produced
policy documents (Departments of Commerce, Education and Labor ..., 1999; European
Commission, 2002). It has been stressed that in a learning society, lifelong learning is the key
to survival.
Participation in lifelong learning is dependent on the learning opportunities that
individuals can access. A high quality of the lifelong learning process does not depend on a
high volume of participation alone. Furthermore, measuring participation is a complex issue
(participation in public and/or private, full-time or part-time education). However, it is
possible to look at data on participation in adult (between ages 24 and 65) education and
training in European countries (Appendix 1).
In the European survey, lifelong learning refers to persons aged 24-65 who answered
questions about whether they had received education or training in the four weeks preceding
the survey. The information collected covers all education or training activities irrespective of
whether they are relevant to the respondent’s current job. They include initial vocational
education, further education, continuing or further training, in-company training,
apprenticeship training, on-the-job training, seminars, distance learning, evening classes and
so on (Eurostat, Labour Force Survey, 2002).
The results show that participation in lifelong learning is most popular among adults in
the United Kingdom, the Nordic countries and the Netherlands and least popular in countries
of southern Europe, such as Greece, Portugal and Spain, and also in France. Between 2000
and 2001, participation in lifelong learning has grown in Denmark, Finland, Spain and Italy
but fallen in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Belgium, Greece and Norway. It seems
that successful participation in adult education is largely dependent upon successful
participation in initial vocational education. High educational attainment has a positive impact
on employment rates. (Eurostat, Labour Force Survey, 2002.) Adult education has emerged,
also in Finland, as an increasingly important component of national educational policy and
educational planning (http://www.minedu.fi/17 Jan 2002).
The paper presents the results of a study of Finnish adults over 40, focussing on the
educational motivation of those adult students who have been unemployed or are at risk of
losing their job. The study covers only students in adult education centres and apprenticeship
Lifelong Learning
Lifelong learning is a global strategy adopted in the EU as a basis for co-operation in
education and training policies and for educating the individual. The European Commission
has defined lifelong learning as follows: ‘Lifelong learning is seen as encompassing all
purposeful learning activity, whether formal or informal, undertaken on an ongoing basis with
the aim of improving knowledge, skills and competences’ (European Commission, 2002).
The continuous upgrading of skills is viewed as an investment in human capital, with
lifelong skill development considered primarily an individual responsibility. However, there
have been criticisms of the perspective of human capital. One way to categorise these
criticisms is as follows (Baptiste, 1999; Hake, 1999; Oliver, 1999):
1. it turns education, hitherto considered a public good, into a private commodity;
2. it shifts responsibility to the individual and ignores the socially constructed
nature of learning;
3. it overemphasises the instrumental and vocational purposes of learning to the
exclusion of others;
4. it rewards primarily those learning activities that can show a visible and quick
An alternative to this is a vision of lifelong learning based on the theory of social capital
(Schuller, 1998). Social capital is built through relationships based on trust and on acceptance
of mutual obligations, social values and norms, while outcomes are measured in terms of
social well-being. In contrast, in the human capital theory individuals construct their
qualifications on the basis of economically rational choices, while outcomes are measured in
terms of income, productivity and other economic indicators of success. Lifelong learning
prepares individuals for a variety of life roles, whereas worklong learning focuses on
preparation for occupational goals. The idea of adult education is that it is a voluntary
activity, but the implication of the concept of the learning society is that lifelong learning is a
duty, a moral obligation for any responsible member of society (Atkin, 2000, 225; Tight,
Adult learning can be classified into three categories (Cranton 1994):
Subject-oriented adult learning. The primary goal is to acquire content. The teacher
discusses the relevant material in the classroom, and the learners see themselves as
gaining knowledge or skills.
Consumer-oriented adult learning. The goal is to fulfil the expressed needs of
learners. The teacher acts as a facilitator or resource person.
Emancipatory adult learning. The goal is to free learners from the forces that limit
their options and their control over their own lives. Emancipatory learning results in
transformations of learner perspectives through critical reflection, in which the
educator has an active role. Only emancipatory, more commonly known as
transformative learning has been described as unique to adulthood (Merriam &
Caffarella, 1991; Mezirow, 1991).
Although transformative learning has been found suitable for adults, the connection
between adult learning and adult teaching is not clear. Of course, all adult education is not
transformative in nature. It is known that transformative learning requires learners to address
problems through critical reflection, while educators approach their own task by challenging
learners to consider why they hold certain assumptions, values, and beliefs.
It is believed that adults must be taught differently from young students because life
experiences shape the way in which people learn. The assumption is grounded on the theory
of andragogy, which suggests that adult people expect learner-centred settings based on their
life needs (Donaldson, Flannery & Ross-Gordon, 1993, 148; Manninen, Kauppi &
Kontiainen, 1988). The question of different styles of adult teaching and learning is
ambiguous. The type of instruction adopted in teaching adults depends on the purpose of the
teaching-learning situation, the methods used, and the needs of the learners. Patterns of adult
learning must be understood in relation both to the motivation of individuals to learn and to
the context of the society in which adults live and work.
Adult Educational Motivation
Despite the fact that motivation both mediates learning and is the outcome of learning there is
little research combining adult learning and motivation. Wlodkowski discusses motivation
within the frame of reference of instructional arrangements, suggesting that every curriculum
should include a plan for fostering motivation. Nevertheless, in the final analysis it is the
learner who is responsible for their own motivation. (Wlodkowski, 1993, 3–4, 12, 15.)
A Finnish survey of adult education found that self-development and occupational
development were the primary motives for entering adult education (Blomqvist, Niemi &
Ruuskanen 1998, 39–41; Mikkonen 1996, 89; 1997, 114). Compared to 1990, as regards
reasons behind decisions to return to education, unemployment or the threat of unemployment
had become as important as the maintenance of occupational skills. Naturally, reasons linked
with the achievement of a stable career featured prominently among the motives given by
unemployed people for undertaking training. Aging foregrounded reasons related to selfdevelopment and occupational development, while motives associated with age, health, lack
of adequate basic training and lack of interest became conspicuous among informants over 45.
(Blomqvist, 1997, 38–39; Blomqvist, Niemi & Ruuskanen, 1998, 39–41, 45, 51.)
In the Finnish survey, reasons linked with age, health, limited basic education and lack
of interest became increasingly important from the age of 45 on as obstacles hindering people
from returning to education (Blomqvist, Niemi & Ruuskanen, 1998, 39–41). Similar barriers,
such as lack of energy, lack of time and lack of motivation were found in an international
comparison between Norway, Great Britain and Spain .
Age has been considered an important predictor of educational participation,
participation in adult education being assumed to fall off with age (e.g. Cross, 1988; Merriam
& Caffarella, 1990). Other predictors of educational participation are level of basic education
and gender. A study by Tikkanen (1998, 79) discovered that when explaining participation in
education, basic education and gender were more important factors than age.
Aims, Data and Method of the Study
The paper is a part of a research project dealing with adults over 40 in adult education
(Stenström, Linnakylä, Malin, Nikkanen, Piesanen & Valkonen, 2002) commissioned by the
Finnish Ministry of Education. The purpose of this questionnaire survey was to identify
educational needs and examine educational motivation among mature students over 40
(Stenström, 2002; Stenström & Valkonen, 2002). The focus of the questionnaire survey was
especially on those over-40 adults who were unemployed or at risk of becoming unemployed
and who were attending adult education or apprenticeship centres in spring 2001. The
research problems addressed in the study can be summed up as follows:
1. What are the educational aspirations and motivation of mature students over 40?
2. How are their educational aspirations manifested?
3. What factors promote and weaken their educational aspirations and educational
Over-40 students in adult education centres were sent 476 questionnaires, of which 270
were returned. Over-40 students in apprenticeship centres were sent 154 questionnaires, with
119 returned. The response rate was 62, which may be considered moderately good. The
materials to be discussed represent a discretionary sample (n=389).
The answers were analysed using quantitative methods, among them factor analysis,
cluster analysis and regression analysis.
Educational Aspirations and Motivation of Mature Students Over 40
Adult learning is usually motivated by the need to acquire a new skill or make a decision
about one’s career or life situation. The present study confirmed that the main focus of mature
students’ educational expectations was on acquiring new knowledge and skills. Their decision
to return to education had often been triggered by changes in working life and the training
needs that such changes gave rise to.
Wishing to learn new things, develop oneself, one's
occupational skills
Wishing to advance one's career
Wishing to change one's career
Wishing to change one's life situation
Changing work tasks
Improving one's further education opportunities
Unemployment or threat of unemployment
Employer's request
Adequate provision of mature student's financial aid
Studying does not count against the term that one is
entitled to earnings-adjusted daily unemployment
Changing one's occupational field because of healthrelated factors
A plan to found an enterprise of one's own
Figure 1. Motives for entering education among mature students over 40.
Factors connected with self-development or change stood out among motives for returning to
education. They can be considered internal motives, and they were more prominent than
external ones. A wish to learn new things, develop oneself and one’s occupational skills
emerged as the most popular factor in going into training. Changes in work tasks had made
the informants personally aware of the rapid changes taking place in working life and the
increasing obsolescence of their own current occupational competence. A wish to switch
careers or advance one’s present career were the second most frequently mentioned reasons.
While short-term jobs are a given among the younger generation, some of the older
generation work on short contracts either because of the economic situation in their field or
because of their personal life situation. They were in education because they wanted to find a
permanent job before retirement. According to the findings of the study, external motives
such as factors related to unemployment or risk of unemployment and changing careers
because of health reasons or having a plan to found an enterprise of one’s own were
mentioned less often than internal motives.
IT skills
Training contents and arrangements
Quality of instruction
Limited basic education
Financial reasons
Obsolete occupational skills
Fear of failure
Distance from educational establishment
Difficulty in learning new things
Inconvenient and irregular working hours
Lack of interest
Health-related circumstances
Home- and family-related reasons
Problems with arranging child care
Figure 2. Factors hampering educational participation among mature students over 40.
A lack of IT competencies was perceived as the factor that most hampered the respondents’
participation in education. An absence of IT skills among the aging is an example of how
rapid changes in society and working life hinder aging people from entering education and
finding work. Because the aging did not acquire these skills during their basic education, they
must be developed in the context of work tasks and education. The biggest competence
deficits are found among people with little education.
Other perceived obstacles to educational participation included training contents and
arrangements and the quality of the teaching provision. In adult education, a single course is
attended by people of different ages and with different levels of education, which in the
students’ opinion calls for differentiated instruction. A shortage of teachers stemming from
cuts in the financial resources available to adult education centres was seen as a factor that is
impairing the quality of the teaching provided, manifested as high turnover of teachers and as
an increase in the proportion of independent studying.
The survey indicated that financial reasons head the list of obstacles hampering
educational participation, underlining their importance. As regards the long-term unemployed,
long distances to school and the resulting expenses might prevent them from entering
education. Moreover, studying in another municipality was also a burden on family finances.
Manifestation of Adults' Educational Aspirations
With a view to condensing the information covering different aspects of educational
aspiration, the individual questions were factored. The factors were used to form average
variables that included all variables that, loaded on a factor, achieved the minimum value of
The reliability of the average variables was tested using Cronbach’s alpha, whose value
approaches 1 in direct proportion to the reliability with which the variable is capable of
condensing the information included in its component variables. Cronbach’s alpha ranged
between .50 and .83, which indicates a fair degree of success in constructing the average
The average variables were further subjected to a cluster analysis, intended to reveal
whether there were groups among the informants with different degrees of educational
aspiration. The analysis yielded three groups, people with high, moderate and low educational
aspiration. The groups can be named also on the basis of the classification of motivation used
by Vallerand and others (Vallerand et al., 1992; 1993), as representing internal, external and
weak educational aspirations.
Increasing one's occupational skills
Joy of life
Career consciousness
Threat of unemployment
Satisfaction with teaching
Met expectations
Improved life situation
Study opportunities
Improved occupational skills
Obsolete education and occupational skills
Family and financial situation
Contents and quality of instruction
Figure 3. Educational aspiration: A grouping according to the results of cluster analysis.
In quantitative terms, the biggest group (45%) was that of people with moderate educational
aspirations (externally motivated people). People with high educational aspirations or internal
motivation were nearly as common (40%), with people with low educational aspirations
forming the smallest group (15%). The greatest intergroup differences respecting various
aspects of educational aspiration were found in this group, particular as regards educational
expectations, motives, and perceptions of the impact of education, where answers belonging
to the negative pole of the scale were more frequent than in the other groups.
Factors Promoting and Undermining Adults' Educational Aspirations and Motivation
First we shall consider the link between background factors and mature students with
differing levels of educational aspiration.
Married or cohabiting
Divorced or legally separated
Primary school
Secondary/comprehensive school
Upper secondary school/Matriculation Examination
Figure 4. Educational aspiration according to structural factors.
There are statistically highly significant gender-specific differences in educational aspiration.
This link between gender and educational aspiration is not a surprising result. It confirms
earlier findings that women are educationally more strongly motivated than men. In a
population where the proportion of men was 28 per cent, more than half of respondents with
weak educational motivation were men. Accordingly, the link between gender and
educational aspiration is reflected in female and male participation in adult education. The
finding concerning family relations was similarly consistent with earlier research results.
People with a family had higher educational aspirations than singles.
There was a statistically significant non-linear correlation between basic education and
educational aspiration: both people who had only completed primary school and people who
had finished upper secondary school were most common in the group of people with low
educational aspirations. The groups with high and moderate educational aspirations included
nearly equal numbers of people who had left education after primary school and people who
had completed secondary/comprehensive education and the lowest number of people who had
finished upper secondary school. A possible explanation for the overrepresentation of people
with upper secondary education among respondents with low educational aspirations is that
their competence deficit stems from personal factors rather than from inadequate basic
The students’ average age was linked with educational aspiration in that the younger
students were educationally better motivated than the older ones. Students over 40 considered
that education would have a positive effect on their chances of finding a job, while students
over 50 felt that education had ceased to play a role in their employment prospects.
Next we shall examine the relationship between independent and goal-directed action
and educational aspiration. Of the respondents 63 per cent had returned to education on their
own initiative, 37 per cent at the suggestion of other people. Those who had entered education
on their own initiative were chiefly adult students with strong (46%) and moderate (43%)
educational motivation. The educational motivation of those who had returned to education at
other people’s suggestion was in most cases moderate (49%). They included a greater number
of mature students with strong (31%) and a smaller number of mature students with weak
(20%) educational motivation than the other groups.
The link between educational aspiration and degree orientation approached statistical
significance (p<.05). Students with strong educational motivation were studying for a degree
more often than students in the other groups. Similarly, a willingness to consider further
studies later on had a statistically highly significant correlation with educational aspiration.
More than half the respondents with strong (internal) educational motivation and a fifth of
those with weak educational motivation intended to return to education in the future.
A further link was found between educational aspiration and appreciation of IT
competencies. The importance of IT skills was emphasised most by people with high
educational aspirations, least by people with low educational aspirations.
Conclusion and Implications
This questionnaire survey examined educational aspirations among mature students over 40.
It was found that they had gone back to education motivated both by particular aims and by
instrumental considerations. Developing one’s occupational skills was rated as the most
important motivation for returning to education, while instrumental motivation was
represented by a wish to avoid unemployment. While the respondents rarely considered that
there were serious obstacles to entering education, a lack of IT skills was revealed as the
greatest factor hampering educational participation.
The results made it possible to distinguish between three groups with distinct levels of
educational aspiration: adults with high, moderate and low educational aspirations. They may
also be characterised as groups displaying internal, external and weak motivation (cf.
Vallerand et al., 1992). There were differences among the three groups related to gender,
family situation, educational background, age, the degree of own initiative behind the
decision to return to education, level of degree orientation, and appreciation of IT skills.
Students with low educational aspirations included more men, singles, people with
primary-school education or people who had taken the Matriculation Examination than the
other groups; their average age was 48 and they had in most cases pursued supervised studies
or attended apprenticeship training. In addition, they had gone back to education at other
people’s suggestion. Their study aims did not include taking a degree and they did not plan to
pursue further studies after the completion of their present educational programme. They did
not consider IT competencies personally important. In fact, low appreciation of IT skills
emerged as the most important predictor of low educational aspirations. A feature that
attracted attention as regards the group of students with weak motivation was the distribution
of levels of basic education among them. A probable explanation is that aging people’s
lacking educational aspirations are linked to a variety of background factors. Among people
who have only completed primary school the causes behind a lack of aspiration are probably
connected with inadequate learning skills, among people with completed upper secondary
school education with personal reasons.
Respondents with high educational aspirations and motivation were in most cases
family people, women, people with primary- or secondary-school education and aged 46, had
attended vocational courses in adult education centres and had returned to education on their
own initiative. Moreover, they studied with the aim of taking a degree and were willing to
consider continuing their studies at a later date. Their positive attitude towards education was
reflected also in that they saw acquiring and developing IT competencies as an asset. People
with moderate educational aspirations are found somewhere between these two groups.
The present study confirms the fact that it is those most in need of education and
training who are least motivated to go back to education, while those least in need of
education and training are active students. In many cases, people with weak educational
motivation have limited and obsolete occupational skills and training, with the result that their
training needs will appear pressing from the perspective of the work community and society
but not necessarily from that of the individuals themselves.
Given the demands of working life in today’s society, this attitudinal disparity is a
problem as regards the aging population. The cause is not aging alone but also the rapid rise
in and expansion of educational levels in Finland, making the older generations less well
educated than the younger ones. If people with weak educational motivation also neglect to
acquire IT skills, they expose themselves to a risk of being excluded from the labour market.
In order to stay on the labour market one must maintain one’s occupational skills, while
demands for change compel adults into education. Adult education should open itself to
working life because an aging unemployed person or an adult student under the threat of
unemployment in particular wants education that will enable them to re-enter working life or
retain their job. According to representatives of working life, the education and training
provided would be more in keeping with the requirements of working life if more of it would
be delivered at workplaces (Naumanen & Silvennoinen, 1996, 283–287).
More generally, in order to boost adult people’s educational motivation we need
knowledge that will help us to promote adult learning and develop teaching adjusted to the
needs of adult learners. However, education and training for the aging is not only about
pedagogical solutions. Instead, upgrading outdated education and obsolete occupational skills
is a much wider social policy issue that requires also political measures.
When considering the findings it should be kept in mind that what we have here is a
discretionary sample of over-40 adult people studying in adult education centres and
undergoing apprenticeship training. In addition, the results are presented largely from the
perspective of the individual, the mature student. Views of adult education among
representatives of working life and teachers are beyond the scope of this survey. Nevertheless,
it is important, in developing adult education, to pay attention to all parties involved in it.
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.Appendix 1. Lifelong learning in 2000–2001: Adult participation in education and training.
Life-long learning (adult participation in education and
training) in 2000-2001
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