Learning Against Aging. Training Opportunities for the Elderly to Learn in the New Technologies

1. Introduction

The increase in the length of life represents one of the great challenges for contemporary society. It will reshape the structure and demographic profile of the generational system and of our society as a whole, with consequences for the social and economic system.

The present paper focuses on the idea that the elderly today must be considered an area of heterogeneous population and on the affirmation that many of them manifest the ability and the will to continue to learn in order to remain active.

In particular the elderly have the desire to develop knowledge and skills that can help them improve the quality of their lives, make constructive use of their free time and be seen as capable of contributing to the communities to which they belong. a few studies (Risi, 2007) have reported an increase in the ‘demand’ for courses on the use of the computer and the Internet, given the importance of these technologies in today’s society.

From the planning point of view this implies the need for a rethinking of social policies regarding training activities. State intervention to create activities which support the passage from employment to retirement and which view aging as an active resource still appear half-hearted. The Universities of the Third Age, as substitutes for companies as meeting places (Rossi, 2002), occupy a relevant place in so-called lifelong learning, alongside and complementing public initiatives taking place across the country. Besides theoretical consideration this paper will also describe a quantitative and qualitative mapping (fruit of an exploratory study) of the training initiatives promoted by local public authorities and of the courses offered by the Universities of the Third Age, specifically aimed at making the elderly familiar with the new technologies and their use.

2. From Stereotype to Heterogeneity: An Economic, Cultural and Social Challenge

The way in which governments and economic agencies observe and manage the effects of the increasing length of life process, through the ad hoc creation of instruments, is becoming increasingly relevant. Concerns over social policies on the part of the governments of the industrialised countries are often characterised by fears of their ‘negative’ effects in terms of public spending, taking their eyes off the importance of linking financial sustainability to greater opportunities for employment and social participation for the older population.

In the cultural imagination, in fact, the elderly condition is associated with the idea of a general process of decay, deriving from a progressive loss of both psycho-physical and social and productive ability to function. The characteristics most often attributed to the elderly are weakness and disengagement based on the fact that the onset of the separation of old age from adult age is anchored in the subject’s exit from the productive system. It is a case of a stereotypical and typically ‘modern’ image, attributable to the development of the industrial society and its key values (Cesa-Bianchi, 2003), being no longer appropriate in the current economy based mainly on the service industry.

It is important to recognise that in our culture there are processes which are correlated with the stages in a person’s life: one can be ‘too young’ or ‘too old’ (to drive, to marry, to learn…) to take on determined roles and to take advantage of certain opportunities.

Anglo-Saxons often use the term ageism to refer to discrimination exercised by one or more age groups in relation to other groups. In the West the elderly are considered to have the lowest place of any adult group in our society. Although there is still difficulty in overcoming the arbitrary production oriented-industrial based division of the population into age segments, the ‘monolithic’ identity of the elderly condition has, in recent decades, been called into question in favor of explanatory models, which appear more appropriate. The overall transformations which have characterised the various spheres of society, following a logic of growing complexity of social life contribute to determining a variety of aging pathways. The fragmentation and dynamicity of a number of cultural, institutional and economic factors have favoured the coexistence of aspects of life which permit even individuals in advanced age to occupy different social roles contemporaneously, making the very boundaries of the “elderly generations very blurred and difficult to determine. The elderly condition therefore, becomes a composite in which, not so much different cohorts, but rather different generational profiles, in the true sense, exist together” (Facchini and Rampazi, 2006).

The word ‘elderly’ can no longer have a single meaning: For this reason other terms have been sought, such as the third or fourth age, the golden age or the seniors’ age. The WHO (World Health Organisation) has suggested subdivisions of young-old for those aged 65 to 74; old-old, referring to those from 75 to 90 years; very-old, for the over 90s.

Considering the elderly population as an indistinct and stereotyped group has resulted in their being seen as incapable of learning and of adapting to a world that is evolving. But while a part of this social group may fit this image, there is another part, made up of people who, while age may make them less physically strong, are intellectually able and willing. While until a decade or so ago the elderly were those who had survived the experience of the first and second World Wars, today’s elderly are not only more numerous1, but have a completely different life experience. Generally speaking they have a stronger cultural education together with an aptitude for analysing the surrounding reality, the ability to interact with it and with basic knowledge of technological products resulting from years of using television, wellbeing and stabilised consumption.

Such observations have led to the use of the term counter-ageing which in Italian is translated as svecchiamento and which scholars (Giarini, 2000) use to indicate the increased potential capabilities (physical and intellectual) in terms of human capital.

Taking account of the increase in the capacity to be active and in better health, compared to the same age groups of the past, scholars in several disciplines in Italy have begun to talk of ‘new elderly’ (see among others Bosio, 1992; Olivero, 2000; Allario, 2003; Tramma, 2000, 2003) in order to emphasise how different are individuals who, live the last years of life in a way that is far from the the still widespread stereotype of the elderly.

The characteristics of this new ‘elderliness’ are still not completely clear or stated with precision. It is a phenomenon in evolution which appeared during the last century and which is being confirmed today. The new elderly is a very diversified part of the population, with experiences influenced by the intertwining of life pathways and careers, and by the demands and needs of the preceding years (Tramma S., 2003).

It has been shown that there exists, among these people, a demand for knowledge, even where there is a shortage of planned offers of education. These types of demand, explicit or latent, vary both as to content and to the underlying motivation for participation in training. While the old-old are characterised by rather modest culture demands and by a limited involvement in social networks, the young-old, on the contrary show a greater interest in new knowledges and a consistent social involvement (Facchini, ed. 2003), The ‘current’ generation of fifty-sixty year olds for example, is one of the last, at least in Italy, who have had a poorer educational experience than they would have liked, due to economic and family constraints. These individuals on the one hand would have the basic competences and knowledge supplied by compulsory schooling that enable them to relate positively to more complex education, while on the other hand they also possess interests which were not completely satisfied when they were younger (ibid).

A part of Italy’s population considered old, with characteristics which are only partly socio-demographic, has, on the whole, an interested and open minded attitude, with a will to experience current society’s innovations, showing the capacity and will to learn new ‘things’ both those which improve the quality of their lives and those which help them make constructive use of their free time. The more skills and knowledge the elderly feel they have, in fact, the more they can contribute to the development of their communities. This leads to the need to discover what role the elderly play in today’s society: an ‘ageing’ as a time of reorienting oneself, without trying to appear youthful at all costs (Scortegagna, 1999).

“Living isn’t living if one’s days are not nourished by passion and curiosity. Communication, migrations and trade have disseminated the culture of permanent education2 in many cases turning it into a legend and myth. (…) But learning has long been a socially evident synonym for not being completely out of touch” (Demetrio D., Introduction, in Tramma, 2000). The lengthening of active life, therefore, can constitute an opportunity for today’s society, if changes in the welfare system are directed to dealing with future challenges, and offer education programmes and opportunities for making the most of third age human and social capital.

Elisabetta Risi: Research Doctor on the Information Society. Researcher with the Fondazione Università IULM of Milan, via Carlo Bo, 1 – 20143 Milan, telephone: 02.891412729 – 349.104 7006. E-mail: .
1 The literature (Micheli,2003; Tramma, 2003; Cavalli, 2005) refers to these subjects defining them as Baby Boomers.
2 An interesting approach to the processes of lifelong learning is found in Malizza and Gheorghiu (2006).

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