“How easy is it to fly a drone?” a voice said behind me. I stopped brewing my tea and turned around to see my Dad standing, waiting, with an inquisitive look on his face.
At first, I thought it was a bizarre question – why would a 65-year-old possibly want to fly a drone? – but then I realised, some 65-year-olds probably don’t even know the correct terminology for this kind of equipment.
‘I’ve watched a few YouTube videos and it seems quite tricky. If we get one, would you teach me how to fly it?’
Lifelong learning is something I’ve always advocated and believed in strongly. And yet, in the last few minutes of this exchange I realised how close I was to doing my own Dad a disservice by shutting down his curiosity. My Dad developed a very strong interest in learning how to use video editing software after I showed him projects I had worked on. Since then, he’s been determined to expand his knowledge and experiment using footage from family events and holidays.
When you stop and think about it, it’s pretty incredible that in such a fast paced digital age, the generation that didn’t have iPads and the internet to keep them occupied is determined to stay abreast of how we communicate and interact with one another. In fact, their commitment to learning not only keeps them mentally active, it may just be the secret to continued happiness and a fulfilled life.
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Many of us may believe that education ends the moment we leave a classroom and venture into the big wide world, however according to Psychologies Magazine editor Suzy Greaves, there is evidence to suggest that adult learning seems to have the most effective impact on self-esteem when the learning that is provided meets the needs of the learner. Essentially this can happen at any point in our lives – including adulthood. If you are required to learn something new or if you simply have a passion for a particular activity or subject, then you are more likely to engage and absorb what you’re learning.
Vanessa King, a positive psychology expert at Action for Happiness reinforces this point by explaining that learning can build our confidence and self-efficacy. She says that ‘it can also be a way of connecting with others too. As human beings, we have a natural desire to learn and progress. Psychologists call it mastery.’
Our natural desire to learn is also filled with social, health and economic benefits. Continued learning is not only great for our confidence and self-esteem; it also safeguards against cognitive diseases like Alzheimer’s.
Several studies have been conducted in order to investigate the link between education and dementia. A study published in Neurology found that higher levels of education decreased the risk of developing dementia. This doesn’t guarantee full protection though. A separate study published in Brain found that the brain is not protected against pathologies associated with dementia, however it did ‘reduce the effect that those pathologies had on people's thought process, memory and other cognitive abilities.’
Another way education can play a role in preventing dementia is through learning a language. In a February 2016 article for the Telegraph, Professor Antonella Sorace, founder of the Bilingualism Matters Centre at Edinburgh University explained that there was good evidence to show that bilingualism could protect our brains in later life.
The idea is that the brain has to grapple with two languages, thus making it work harder and allowing it to become more resilient in later life.
Dr Ellen Bialystock and two colleagues from York University in Toronto, Canada, explored this when they examined the hospital records of patients diagnosed with different types of dementia.
What they found was that even though bilinguals experienced onset and symptoms, they were diagnosed approximately three to four years later than monolinguals.
It has even been suggested that universities should make learning a second language a core module within their degree programs so that students are essentially safe guarded against cognitive decline.
The brain isn’t the only part of the body that can benefit from lifelong learning though. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, ‘an additional four years of education lowers five-year mortality by 1.8 percentage points; it also reduces the risk of heart disease by 2.16 percentage points, and the risk of diabetes by 1.3 percentage points.’
It’s pretty reassuring not only to adults who partake in continued learning, but their loved ones. Take my drone-enthusiast father. He will undoubtedly continue to maintain his hand-to-eye coordination, develop his depth perception as drone pilots need to distinguish obstacles whilst drones are in flight, and of course keep his concentration sharp and focused.
In addition to the health benefits, there’s also economic value to lifelong learning – whether it’s a language or a whole new skillset.
A 2014 Office of National Statistics report looking at participation rates for people aged 50 and over found that in the final quarter of 2014, 72.3% of people aged between 50 and the State Pension Age were in employment.
With the majority of people aged 50 and over in employment, it’s never been more important to remain a competitive candidate, especially if you’re keen to continue progressing professionally.
There are many studies that suggest that individuals with higher levels of education will out-earn those who only have a high school education. This makes sense though. The more knowledge you acquire, the more opportunities arise within your workplace and beyond.
Matt Mayberry, a contributor to Entrepreneur.com explained that while traditional education was very important, ‘much success is derived from highly motivated individuals that have dedicated their lives to the concept of lifelong learning.’
A big issue people have when they manage big responsibilities is making time for their own development. Today though information has never been easier to access thanks to technological advances, which make it possible to learn on the go with online tools.
Whether you’re engaging for fun or for professional development, employers are having to become much more flexible when it comes to candidates with a less than traditional educational route. As a result of this online learning is fast becoming an accepted form of education.
Speaking to NY Daily News, Susan Fontana, regional vice president of Manpower, a global recruitment firm said, ‘Things have changed. I think 10 years ago, you probably had a little more questioning, but it really is so much more accepted today.’
In some cases, employers look beyond the fact that a candidate has attained an online education and take note of the bigger picture, which includes the other commitments they have been juggling whilst studying towards their qualification.
It’s actually great practice for assuming responsibility and managing your time and organisation – traits that will be appreciated across almost all disciplines.
‘It’s never too late for anyone to learn,’ Christopher Brookes, Senior Policy Manager for Age UK explains.
‘There are lot of people really keen to learn new things. That will become increasingly important as people are expected, with the rise in State Pension Age, to work for longer. People are really going to need to be willing and able to go and take part in learning. Often that will be work based learning but older people like to recognise that there are other health benefits as well. People like to also do a lot of community based and informal learning as well.’
What Brookes says is true when you think about learning from a social aspect. There can be a great deal of interaction with other people as well as stimulation that learning something new can bring to an individual, which has an overall positive effect on our wellbeing.
My Dad wanting to learn how to fly a drone isn’t just something to do to pass time. It’s a way of spending time with his children who lead fairly busy lives and meeting us in the middle with an activity that interests all of us. It also teaches him about the world we now live in where technology is advancing at such a quick rate.
‘There are misconceptions about older people and older workers not really wanting to engage with learning, which is not true at all. That’s not an accurate picture of what older workers are like. We hear from people who are really keen to update their skills and learn new things,’ Brookes continued.
When you think about it, lifelong learning essentially has whatever lasting effect you want it to have. All too often it’s easy to associate education as being a rigid chore that we simply have to get through.
But if we start to think about education as something connected to a goal that holds emotional sentiment, there is then an entire shift in its purpose and value. It means that little bit more to us and when we start to see success from what we’ve committed ourselves to, it naturally sparks a willingness to stay an active learner – whether it’s so we can take control of our professional future, or simply take control of a drone.