9. The Potential of Integrated Education and Population Policies

Tracey Burns
Wolfgang Lutz
Anne Goujon
KC Samir

Education and demographic changes such as population ageing are typically treated as separate issues by different ministries and fields of research. Education research and policies mostly deal with the teaching and learning process and the systems and institutions that support them, while ageing research and policies often focus on health-related issues, such as old-age disability, and public expenditures, such as the costs of pension systems. Yet while these might seem like diverse topics, the life cycle means that the young of today will be the elderly of the future. The skills, worldviews, or other characteristics that children acquire will be basis for their skills and worldviews as they age. Better-educated young cohorts will also be better educated throughout their lifespan, bringing with them important capabilities, including stronger health literacy. Linking education and ageing using multi-dimensional demographic models allows for a better understanding of the slow but certain changes in the educational composition of populations. Doing so reveals that education empowers people to be more productive, healthier, and likely work longer, and we know that the elderly of the future will be better educated than the elderly of today.

Improvements in health and lifestyles have led to a substantial growth in life expectancy across OECD countries in recent decades. Importantly, these gains have been mostly in good health, setting the stage for an active retirement. Although the average retirement age in OECD countries has remained relatively stable since 1970, greater life expectancy has increased the amount of time in retirement, from an average of 13 years (for women and men) in 1970, to 20 years in 2015 (OECD, 2019).

At the same time, the level of education of the population has been increasing. In most OECD countries, the large majority of younger adults (age 25-34) had at least an upper secondary qualification in 2017. The proportion of 25-34 year olds with tertiary education also increased, from 34% in 2007 to 44% in 2017 on average across the OECD. In just a few decades, upper secondary schooling has been transformed from a vehicle for upward social mobility into a minimum requirement for life in modern society (OECD, 2018a).

Education is typically acquired young, and after a certain age, (formal) educational attainment does not change over the rest of the life cycle. A doctorate, once attained, stays with you until death. But education does not only give us a qualification, it also changes the structure and functioning of our brains in important ways that will stay with us for the rest of our lives. There is abundant scientific evidence that education has a robust effect on executive functioning and cognitive abilities (Lutz, Crespo, Cuaresma, and Sanderson 2008; Butz, Lutz, and Sendzimir 2014; Lutz, Muttarak, and Striessnig 2014). Neuroimaging studies have demonstrated strong associations between adaptive changes in the brain and learning experience in classrooms. Abstract cognitive skills such as categorisation and logical deduction start to be acquired during early childhood and are further strengthened through schooling (Bruine de Bruin, Parker, and Fischhoff, 2007; Peters et al. 2006). There is no doubt that formal education can significantly improve knowledge, planning horizons, and understanding complex information that is key for health-related behaviour, economic productivity, and the general capacity to adapt to new situations. These capacities, once acquired, tend to be maintained throughout life and may only decline if mental disability increases in old age.

Given this clear association between the level of education acquired early in life and the associated greater mental capabilities in later life, combined with the fact that the future elderly will be more educated than today’s elderly, provides a positive outlook in the context of population. As indicated above, in virtually all countries young cohorts today are better educated than older ones. And we can forecast educational attainment for different age groups with near certainty for decades into the future. If we know how many women at age 20 in 2000 had completed secondary education, we know how many 60 year-old women in 2040 will have secondary education (with only minor uncertainties due to migration and mortality). Figure 9.2 illustrates this for Mexico, where the education-age pyramid for 2040 shows a much older population, but also a much better educated older population than in 2000. Given all the positive effects of education, ranging from better health to higher labour force participation to higher productivity, this has significant implications.

Education also greatly matters for labour force participation. Empirical data show that in virtually every country, less-educated adults have lower participation rates and tend to retire earlier. This pattern is particularly pronounced for women, and in the Southern European countries. Figure 9.3 shows the female labour force participation rates for all EU-28 member states combined in 2018.

Simulations show that when keeping this pattern constant, the fact that younger cohorts of women are better educated and therefore will have higher participation rates in the future will result in markedly higher overall labour force participation in the future (Loichinger, 2015). If it is assumed that by 2030 all Europeans will have those age- and gender-specific participation rates that are observed in Sweden today, then the overall size of the labour force in Europe would not even decline by the middle of the century, despite of the strong baby boom cohorts reaching retirement age. Hence, under this scenario, even without additional migration into Europe, the labour force dependency rate could stay at the same level as it is today. Since there is a huge body of literature demonstrating the positive effects of education on productivity and wages, there is reason to assume that in addition to higher labour force participation due to the better education of young cohorts, those better-educated workers will also be more productive (Lutz et al. 2018).

Education can also protect health. Better-educated individuals have better health later in life and stronger labour market prospects. Education can help reduce risk-taking behaviour by developing knowledge, capacity to process information, and social and emotional skills (Ashton, 2018; Moreira, 2018; Conti, Heckman and Urzua, 2010).

As shown in Figure 9.4, activity limitations in adult life due to health problems are more common among those with lower levels of education. On average across OECD countries, 44% of those with an education attainment level below upper secondary education report some activity limitation, while this figure is reduced to 26% for individuals with upper secondary or post-secondary non-tertiary education, and 18% for those with tertiary education.

Health literacy is made up of a combination of cognitive, social, and critical analysis skills. Individuals with low health literacy tend to have lower income, rate their health as poor, are more likely to have a high body mass index, and are less likely to exercise regularly (Ashton, 2018). There is thus increasing pressure to improve health literacy in OECD countries. However, this is easier said than done: health needs change over the life course, not only due to changes from ageing, but also because the health system itself is continuously evolving. Hence, a large and growing group of those in need of health literacy development are adults, particularly older adults (Connolly and Crosby, 2014).

The combination of the facts that the future elderly will be better educated than today’s, and that better education leads to better health and lower disability at any given age, results in the more optimistic forecast that despite of an increasing number of elderly, the future number of people with disability is not expected to increase as strongly as age-based projections alone suggest. It has also been shown that in some countries this education effect on health can even fully compensate for the ageing effect on future disability prevalence (KC, S., and H. Lentzner, 2010).

Given the importance of education in improving healthier behaviours and preferences, as well as effects on income, opportunities, and self-confidence, it comes as no surprise that improving the quality of and access to education is a policy priority for OECD countries. Investing in children, from high-quality early childhood education and care to primary and secondary education, leads to strong personal, social, and economic returns (OECD, 2017).

Our ageing populations have also increasingly placed the spotlight on the education of adults. Governments across the OECD have been promoting a lifelong learning culture through policies aimed at improving work-based skills development, vocational training, and adult education. This effort is needed: results from the OECD Survey of Adult Skills (https://www.oecd.org/skills/piaac/) demonstrate that proficiency peaks at around 30 years of age and then declines steadily, with the oldest age groups displaying lower levels of proficiency than the youngest age groups, with variations by field of activity.

An example of how lifelong learning can be promoted comes from Japan, a rapidly ageing society with the highest life expectancy at birth among the OECD countries. In 2006, the government amended its Basic Act on Education to integrate the concept of lifelong learning, ensuring support for its municipalities with funding and guidance. Lifelong learning councils were established at the prefecture level, and by 2012, 18 metropolises and 996 municipalities had action plans in place to promote lifelong learning. Japan’s education ministry is maintaining the programme’s momentum by providing information on good practices, and at the local level, some municipality leaders have formed an alliance for information-exchange and policy research. Even so, making this work in practice and across workplaces is a real challenge: a recent review found that Japan’s system of lifelong learning is less well developed than in many other OECD countries (OECD, 2018b).

Success of education programmes designed for an ageing society will greatly depend on how well the teaching methods and curriculum adapt to the needs of mature workers. This could include, for example, programmes with short, modular courses that build on students’ previous learning and experience or online education (OECD, 2006). Another example is education programmes that help seasoned professionals at the end of their careers develop new skills as “knowledge brokers” to allow them to transmit their valuable experience and skill sets to younger generations of workers (OECD, 2014).

In addition to this immediate need of a stronger focus on learning programmes for mature workers, there is also need to continue enhancing early childhood cognitive development, and quality of schooling at all levels. Poor quality initial education has a significantly negative effect on long-term prospects for lifelong learning and healthy ageing. Studies have shown that the utilisation and effects of lifelong learning programmes depends on the level of education received at a young age. The earlier and the better the process of learning how to learn starts, the more successful learning throughout life will be (German National Academy of Sciences, Leopoldina, 2014). Because the human life cycle in OECD countries is already around 80 years, investments today in effective learning in children and youth will have significant positive effects over the rest of this century.

This piece has argued that by connecting education with the process of demographic renewal and inter-cohort changes in society, we can generate new and important knowledge that will help guide both research and policy. While this is relevant for virtually all countries and different aspects of development, here we focus on the challenges associated with ageing in OECD countries. The results suggest that the strong emphasis currently placed on early childhood cognitive development is key, as it establishes the basis for future learning over the rest of an increasingly long life cycle. Because cognitively more-empowered individuals are not only more productive but also tend to have better health and stronger social networks, access to and participation in formal and informal education throughout life will keep our populations healthier, more physically and cognitively active, and more connected to society.

In this context, a systems approach is a valid tool to analyse education within the continuum of the life cycle to understand the interrelationships with other components such as the health and labour force participation of individuals, and to identify alternative strategies and foresee their impact. IIASA’s multistate population and education modelling can inform the OECD’s strategic and policy oriented mission to create better policies for better lives. This will be of tremendous importance in poorer countries where education, particularly of girls and women, is a key instrument to reduce poverty and improve gender equality.


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