The Need for Age-Neutral Training in the ‘Silver Society’

2.4 The ‘Trainability’ of Older Workers

An important aspect of ageing and productivity is whether older workers have greater difficulty in learning new skills. Their educational needs are known to be different from those of younger people. The training of older workers must then be designed to take full advantage of their experience and knowledge while introducing to them new ways of thinking and acting. ‘Trainability’, i.e. the ability to learn, is not easy to measure. However, the International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS)20 is an important source of evidence about the relationship between age, productivity and trainability. The IALS indicates that literacy skills improve with practice and deteriorate if not used. Phases where workers disengage from learning tend to erode learning habits. It is for this reason that a possible lower motivation of older employees to enrol in training activities is often falsely ascribed to their age.
Evidence proves that the productive potential of older people does not appear to be substantially impaired by ageing per se. Ivo Šlaus argues that creativity and performance does not decrease with age referring to Giuseppe Verdi who composed great oeuvres in his early 80ies or Johann Wolfgang Goethe who wrote ‘Faust’ until his death at the age of 83.21 Workers who are not working in a learning environment may, however, be susceptible to a decline in trainability. A performance decline may be due to skills obsolescence or a burn-out phenomenon which may occur at any age and can be remedied through appropriate training practices or adaptation of working conditions. Trainability is not age-determined; instead, the ability to learn mirrors the work settings encountered during the working live. Training and retraining are therefore important factors in enhancing the employability of older workers.
The trend towards early retirement seems to have slowed down in most European countries. However, reversing this trend is highly unpopular: delaying the effective retirement age — currently at approx. 60 years within the EU — to the statutory retirement age — the age of 65 in several Member States — meets broad resistance. Some evidence points in the direction that continuous workplace training could encourage workers to stay on the labour market longer. This theory is supported by the significant link between the level of education and retirement age. According to the Danish report ‘Seniors and the Labour Market’, January 2004, the employment rate among 60-66 year olds with a university education is 52%, whereas a mere 16% of persons in this age category whose education stopped after primary school are still working (see Table below). This gap increase with age. With increasingly more educated people reaching 50 and 55, prospects for working later in life are therefore improving.

Figure 3: Employment rate by educational level and age in Denmark (%)


Source: Statistics Denmark, Copenhagen 2004 (European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, Online Newsletter, News update: Denmark)

In many countries, increased flexibility of working-time arrangements has led to the creation of working-time accounts for individual employees. In the Netherlands, for example, about one quarter of large collective agreements establish the possibility of saving spare time for educational purposes. An employer survey in Western Germany reported that 11% of all companies that offer training and operate working-time accounts offer the option of using the accumulated working-time capital for training purposes.22

2.5 The Role of the Social Partners

Social dialogue, i.e. the communication between the social partners, is a key component of the EU’s employment policies. According to the principle of subsidiarity, decisions should preferably be taken at local, decentralised level. Due to the closeness to working life, social partners are best placed to understand the specific needs of employers and employees.23 In the area of employment policy, the most adequate level of action very often is the level of management and labour: when social partners agree on common solutions, it has a better chance of succeeding because the compromise has a more widespread support.24 Seeking to enhance awareness of workplace learning and its benefits has it does, the role of the social partners has thus to be taken into account. Successful vocational and adult training schemes are often based on partnerships between business, the public sector, social partners and local third sector organisations: they focus on specific target groups and their individual training needs.
From the trade union side, there is some empirical data that unionised employees receive more training than those who are not members of trade unions. Actively present trade unions can improve training outcomes by systematic promotion of learning-conducive workplaces which release the learning potential of employees through an efficient combination of formal, non-formal and informal learning.25
The EU is supporting the role of social partners in the new Member States and the candidate countries.26 Their expertise is required to implement the acquis communautaire, i.e. the complete body of EU legislation. In these countries, however, social partners are rather weak, heterogeneous and fragmented. For example, in Romania five national trade union organisations co-exist and in Hungary six. Bulgaria and Poland continue to be characterised by dual trade unions (bipolarism).27 Discussions between business and workers are underdeveloped on the sectoral bi-partite level. Trade union membership in Turkey, for instance, is approximately 7.5%, much lower than the approximately 42% in the EU.
When analysing the case of Finland, an example of a highly competitive economy, a consensual style of dialogue between government and strong employers’ and employees’ organisations can be observed. Until 40 years ago, Finland was mainly known for its endless forests and the paper and gum industry. Today, the ‘land of Nokia’ has 32% of the global cellphone market. Evidently, a strong social dialogue culture is not an obstacle to this success. Correspondingly, the candidate countries, but also some of the central and eastern European Member States and neighbouring countries, have to invest time and money in capacity building to create an efficient social dialogue framework at local, regional and national level. In some new Member States, well-structured workers’ organisations have only recently started to be established. In Slovakia and the Czech Republic, for instance, traditional ‘enterprise councils’ were dismantled, because they were considered as a ‘relic of socialism’, or because they met with strong opposition from local trade unions.
On the other the employers’ side, central and eastern European countries have only a short tradition of bargaining due to the complete re-organisation of the economy after the collapse of the Communist regimes. While trade unions are often ready to enter into collective bargaining, the employers often are not. In some rural regions of Turkey, the employers’ side is still completely missing. In Poland, and the Czech and Slovak Republics, however, the government provides considerable assistance to the creation of employers’ organisations.
Even nowadays many companies are not much in favour of the idea of providing older workers with training programmes. Training time is often considered ‘lost time’ as it reduces the time in which the worker can be ‘productive’. This view — which may be convincing at first glance — seems to be short-sighted: there is substantial evidence that management of companies which decide to invest in appropriate, tailored, quality training will be compensated for their time investment by mid and long-term benefits of higher skills and therefore better job performance. There is clearly a cost involved in upskilling staff, but the cost of inaction is in most cases greater.
In a bid to improve up-to-date human resource and age-management, some suggestions for personnel and organisational measures are presented as follows:
1.    Older workers who are not used to continuous learning might be reluctant to engage in training. These fears need to be acknowledged and unfair competitive learning situations must be avoided.
2.    The social partners should carefully check the quality of training programmes offered by the vocational training market. The social partners, close to the workplace, are capable of monitoring the performance of training institutes, bearing in mind that modern training programmes nowadays should be highly personalised, tailor-made to the changing needs and should include interactive training modules. In education and training practices a shift to learning outcomes can be noted: the new focus is on user-friendly training, i.e. the quality of training depends on the extent to which it will make a difference for the individual learner in his day-to-day practice.
3.    Trade unions should support training measures which take into account that the learning pace varies substantially between individuals. ‘Self-paced learning’ must be encouraged.28
4.    Good practices might emerge within the eLearning programme ‘i-AFIEL’ (Innovative Approaches for a full Inclusion in eLearning).29 The project i-AFIEL was launched by the European Commission (Education Audiovisual and Cultural Executive Agency EACEA) in 2007 and is run by seven partner organisations such as the European Institute of Public Administration (EIPA-CEFASS Milan) and the Spanish Region Valencia. The project aims to asses and disseminate effective e-learning methods and practises to drawing all parts of society into the digital culture age. IT-services for lifelong learning are focussing on less advantaged social groups (‘eInclusion’).30
5.    Companies and trade unions should disseminate good practices of age-mixed teams and intergenerational transfer of know-how. For example, the German machine tools sector reports that it owes a part of their international success to the experienced-based ‘innovative milieu’, founded on cooperation between older workers and new recruits, an experience which has been triggering competitive advantages for the German businesses.31

20 The International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS) is a seven-country initiative conducted in 1994. Its goal is to create comparable literacy profiles across national, linguistic and cultural boundaries; the survey offers the world’s only source of comparative data on participation in adult education and training.
21 Ivo Šlaus, World Academy of Art and Science (South East European Division), Zagreb/Croatia, Facing Demographic Transition, European Papers on the New Welfare, No. 9, February 2008, p. 13.
22 OECD, Towards more and better jobs, Employment Outlook 2003, pp. 265-266
23 See websites of the European Social Partners:;;;
24 Dr Christian Welz, European Foundation of the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, The European social dialogue under articles 138 and 139 of the EC Treaty: Actors, Processes, Outcomes (July 2007), p. XVII
25 Implementation of the ‘Education & Training 2010’ Work Programme: Making the best use of resources – a European toolbox of policy measures, European Commission, Directorate-General Education and Culture (DG EAC), David Dion, 2006, p. 38
26 Article 137 EC Treaty stipulates in para. 1 that the “Community shall support and complement the activities of the Member States (…) representation and collective defence of the interests of workers and employers, including co-determination”.
27 European Commission, DG EMPL, Industrial Relations in Europe, 2004, p. 95
28 European Centre for the Development of Vocational Education and Training (CEDEFOP), The shift to learning outcomes — Conceptual, political and practical developments in Europe, 2008.
29 See the website: and
30 For training programmes regarding i-AFIEL and further eLearning projects see the website of EIPA-CEFASS Milan:
31 Bernd Dworschak, Hartmut Buck, Alexander Schletz, Building workplaces in line with the ageing process, in: Promoting lifelong learning for older workers – an international overview, CEDEFOP Reference series 65, (Edit.: Tarja Tikkanen, Barry Nyhan), 2006, p. 220

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