Actually, you can teach ‘old dogs’ new tricks

Conference on training for people over 40 highlights the need for continuous learning

Actually, you can teach ‘old dogs’ new tricks
Brian Kreissl



By Brian Kreissl

I attended a really interesting conference last week entitled Emerging Trends in Higher Education – The 40+ Market. The conference, hosted by Alan Wolfish and Harris Rosen, authors of the Annotated Private Career Colleges Act, 2005 and Regulations, Second Edition, was dedicated to issues surrounding the aging population, retraining older workers and the unique needs of learners in middle age and beyond.

This was an engaging and entertaining event not only because of the impressive array of speakers, but also because it was dedicated to several topics I am passionate about: lifelong learning, adult education, the need for career planning and reinvention, and combating age discrimination. Speakers included former Prime Minister John Turner, Alan Middleton of the Schulich School of Business at York University, and Mark Adler, CEO of GEN4, a consultancy specializing in issues relating to the aging population in Canada.

Demographic challenges for the Canadian workforce

We in Canada are sitting on a “demographic time bomb” when it comes to the aging population, since we are aging faster than most Western countries. According to Adler, the shape of our age pyramid is an issue that will affect every single Canadian in the not-too-distant future. One particularly shocking statistic is that we now have more people over age 65 than those 15 and under.

With such a rapidly aging population and low fertility rates, eventually we will not have enough people of working age to support all those retirees. This issue will cause tremendous financial hardship for governments.

Because of that, traditional models of work and retirement will no longer be sustainable, and many people will want and need to work past 65. This will require retraining and career reinvention numerous times throughout one’s lifetime in a rapidly changing economy and labour market and with continuous technological advancement.

The aging population will also create a huge demand for caregivers and will place an even greater burden on families to support and provide care to elderly relatives. However, this could provide tremendous opportunities for trained caregivers and result in new business opportunities for companies that provide senior-friendly products that are more dignified and aesthetically pleasing than in the past.

Career and skills training for the over-40 demographic

According to Rosen, more age-specific training should be provided for the workforce. This is not based on patronizing stereotypes such as older workers supposedly not being comfortable with technology, but rather that the needs of workers over 40 and the types of programs they are likely to pursue will be different from those in their 20s.

Rosen also argues for more career training as opposed to simply providing skills training. This is in recognition of the fact that people’s jobs change and the specific technologies used will likely change and advance over the course of one’s career.

As a society, we need better information to support career decisions and determine which careers are likely to be in demand in the future. As Middleton mentioned (albeit largely in the context of businesses but it applies to individuals’ careers as well), this will require strategies that plan for where the world is going to be rather than where it is at the moment.

All of this will require cooperation from governments, employers, public educational institutions and private career colleges. There is also a major role for HR to play in all of this.

According to Lisa Wilkins, CHRO at the Ontario Securities Commission, and Lisa Taylor, president and founder of Challenge Factory, people will need to take greater ownership in their careers and understand that careers are broader than one’s current job. HR can help by creating secondments and job rotations, providing career coaching beyond resumé tips, developing career lattices rather than ladders, providing meaningful learning and development opportunities and helping to combat age discrimination.

As I recently argued in a research paper, researchers have found that older adults continue to develop new “neural hardware” such as synapses and neurons. This means neuroplasticity (the ability to physically develop and change the brain and build new networks) is a feature of the brains of mature adults, and we therefore continue to learn and develop throughout our lives.

As a society, we need to take steps to recognize this and provide older workers with opportunities to learn, grow, reinvent their careers and earn a living.

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