In Estonia, lifelong learning is honoured
This summer, we went to Russia, where we were driving across Kaliningrad Oblast and Pskov Oblast. In the museums and the zoo, where the price list promised student discounts, I produced my ISIC card and my fellow traveller – a vocational student’s card. Immediately, we were told that our looks undoubtedly gave our age away as the marks of grey were clearly visible.
We were laughed at. Ticket aunties looked out of their boxes in astonishment: “Students? Um… Are you joking?” One even offered us a pensioner discount.
After describing this experience to my colleague Katrin Saks, she told a story about Tallinn Coach Station. Katrin was waiting for her turn to buy a ticket from a coach driver. Everyone one in front of her were young students who asked for a student ticket. When it was her turn, the coach driver asked: - “Any discount?” – “Hm. What kind of discount do you offer me, student or pensioner’s?” – “Um, life-long learning,” the driver prompted with a broad smile.
Universities for seniors are full of students
In Estonia, adult education is no wonder to anyone. Estonians have always highly valued education and tried to train their children and develop themselves. In response to the aging processes in society, the state also offers a solution through learning. Citizens need to stay longer in the job market and need to acquire new skills, learn at work and attend courses and seminars.
But if you are definitively out of the job market, either on your own or against your will, it suddenly turns out that life will last, but no one will ever be waiting for you to learn. Although, in Estonia, the rate of participation in courses for men in the senior age is even higher than in other European countries, only 1-2 out of 100 non-working people participate in courses or trainings for aged 55+. In other words, courses are rather for those who can pay back the expenses incurred.
You may ask, how come. We saw at the beginning of September at prime-time news that when President Kaljulaid attended the opening year ceremony at the University of Tartu for seniors and Vanemuise Street Auditorium, one of the largest in this university city, was filled with grey-haired audience. Universities for seniors operate in Estonia in about ten cities. In every larger municipality, day centres for pensioners are open, where you can learn new skills or attend hobby groups in a less formal form. No one will be banned if a person wants to go to a folk university or some other training centre. Additionally, learning does not necessarily exist in formal form. According to the socio-cultural learning approach, any purposeful joint activities, including participation in a dance group or song choir, in a hunting, gardening or veteran club, is enough for development.
Participation in education falls sharply at age 65
Statistics from the SHARE survey say that if we add to training club activities, volunteering and participation in community management, we get a quarter of the population aged 55+ who are involved in learning in Estonia. The activity drops sharply at age 65, just when citizen retire. We are the biggest crashers compared to other SHARE countries. The optimistic description of the learning that lasts at the end of our lives is like a look at a sands grain, floating alone in the huge grey sea, through a magnifying glass.
Every fifth of Estonian citizen is over 65 years old. The proportion of people who have been deprived of active life is and will remain high. At the same time, the centres that appeared to provide older people with opportunities for development are dragging in the past, afraid of active advertising of their activities. “The groups are full, and the resources of the house are exhausted,” says Ivika Kärner, Head of Lasnamäe Social Centre. Universities for seniors use the largest venues in the cities, but despite this, mass lectures cannot host everyone who wants to attend. To register for participation in the University of Pärnu for seniors, the elderly had to stand in a lively queue (Pärnu Postimees, 31.05.2017) – a relatively disrespectful way to fight for their right not to land mentally. The Club of Välgi Village Kanarbik in Tartu count can only be attended once a week, as more frequent joint activities are limited by the lack not by lack of interest, but lack of transportation opportunity. Nõmme Club for seniors cannot be expanded because there is no money for heating the premises.
In addition to the fact that the volume of opportunities offered does not go hand in hand with the aging tendencies of society, there must be a sense of stagnation and naivety. For decades, day centres and universities for seniors have not been disturbed by the fact that men do not care about their programs. They did not want to admit that opinion polls and satisfaction surveys among current participants do not increase the attractiveness of the offered program for newcomers. If, in the working life, physical disability has long not been a barrier to doing common things, then in a non-working life, the rule of refusing the participation in joint activities for people with physical problems is not an exception. (Here, I think of Mrs. Siina, who cannot afford to go to folk dance due to balance problems and ask: where it is written that we cannot offer folk dances, that can be danced in a wheel- chair).
The need for learning and self-realization is permanent
For the fresh local authorities, however, I would like to note that that the lives of older people are not limited by bread and circus. Instead of sending elderly people to the cinema or concert, one might wonder how they can develop and apply their skills and knowledge in the community, receive recognition and attention, an opportunity to share their own thoughts and ideas with younger ones. Before a person became old, he was middle-aged and young. As you get older, the character and nature of the person will not change. Therefore, a person who has learned and worked for a lifetime does not turn over abruptly to as a consumer of culture and entertainment, whose self-realization is only based on shopping or fiddling around.
We are an educated country, where the concept of lifelong learning does not require introduction to ticket vendors or coach drivers. What needs introduction is the fact that a structural dropping out is built into our lifelong learning system. There is no need to be skilful if you don’t do any work.
Tiina Tambaum is a researcher for the Estonian Centre of Demography at the University of Tallinn and a lecturer of education gerontology at the Institute of Educational Sciences. Tiina is a researcher, trainer and leader in topics of elderly people development, elderly men involvement, intergenerational learning and co-operation topics (see www.65b.ee)