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The Boomers are coming

Universities have started to think seriously about how to reach this historically large demographic – and maybe make money at the same time.

By JENNY GREEN | August 5, 2015
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Illustration by Daniel Frost

Don’t look now – and certainly don’t laugh – but Canada’s baby boomers are poised to descend on campuses, on lime green scooters if necessary.

Seriously, don’t laugh. This generation is used to getting what it wants, and these days it wants continuing education that’s fascinating, ever changing, never ending – lecture series and programs that will sweep them off their feet. Now that they’re through with degrees for resumés and for upgrading qualifications for that second career, the boomers are ready for short, demanding courses taught by passionate, well-prepared professors. Offhand or condescending lecturers will not be invited back.

“Our generation is different,” says Susan Robinson, who’s taken 40 courses in just four years in the liberal arts and Adults 55+ lecture series at Simon Fraser University. “We’re not going to sit in our house drinking tea and eating toast. I don’t care if I need a cane or walker, or scooter, I’ll get there.” She characterizes seniors today like this: one woman got a lime green walker because they were sold out of cherry red.

Carol Vaage, president of the Edmonton Lifelong Learners Association, agrees: “Boomers have done this their whole lives. They want it, they get it.”

Continuing education administrators know this “silver tsunami” is on the horizon, but they are not sure what to do about it. Herb O’Heron, director of research and policy analysis at Universities Canada, says there are at least three factors at play: the size of the boomer generation in general, the high education level within that generation and the demand for courses that don’t resemble the main curricula.

Twenty years ago, in 1995, people holding university degrees in Canada numbered 635,000. Ten years later, that total had grown to 1.3 million, then to 2.1 million by 2015.

In 2025, says Mr. O’Heron, there will be more than 2.5 million degree- holders in Canada. And that year, the cohort of adults aged 50 to 69 with a university degree will be four times larger than it was in 1995: “There is no question the demand for courses outside degree programs is going to grow too,” he concludes.

The courses now demanded by seniors are bringing them full circle, back to one of the original ideas of the university: learning for learning’s sake. “It’s a whole other context, as seniors seek to gain a better understanding of the issues of the day,” says Mr. O’Heron.

The topic they want to learn about must be covered in a short session, typically six weeks with two hours of lectures a week, and with little if any required reading. The professor must use accessible, but not simple, language.

Across Canada, very few seniors are pursuing regular credit courses, says Mr. O’Heron; just 366 full-time and 2,500 part-time seniors are enrolled across Canada, “and that’s out of millions.”

Among these few, Eric O’Reilly was about to graduate with a master’s degree in the classics from SFU this past spring. Now, at 78, he’s considering continuing for a PhD. But as a break from his serious studies, Mr. O’Reilly took some personal-interest courses at the University of British Columbia. He was not entirely impressed: “Some of the instructors could be rather loose, and somewhat … I don’t want to say patronizing, but treating the subject lightly, thinking it would be lightly received. [Students] were saying, ‘Hey wait a second, I need a little more meat on the bone here to get at the core of the issue.’ ”

There are few studies that look exclusively at older people, especially those taking university courses, because they are seen as a sideline to the university’s main business. Richard Wiggers, research director of the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario, says that “seniors are not counted at all – it’s a side business. For us [at HEQCO], a student is a body in a seat funded by the public.”

But the Canadian Index of Wellbeing hints that this group may have more kick – and cash – than administrators have given them credit for. Bryan Smale, who directs the Canadian Index of Wellbeing at the University of Waterloo’s faculty of applied health sciences, finds it unfortunate that this generation is called a “tsunami” because that invokes a sense of disaster, as if old people are a dead weight on society.

“A lot of our data suggests, by and large, those entering retirement years are healthier and wealthier, more active, more highly engaged than past generations of older adults. The overall pattern of expenditure on recreation and culture has been steadily increasing. In the rest of the population, it has shown a decline since the recession.”

Contemporary society looks at seniors through a very different lens, says Lorraine Carter, director of the Centre for Continuing Education at McMaster University and former president of the Canadian Association for University Continuing Education. “Unfortunately, they are not always the first group we might think of when we are planning our programs.” She points out that the high education levels that many of today’s seniors enjoy may well translate into good pensions and strong bank accounts to pay for courses in retirement.

Traditionally, seniors’ programming was seen as worthy but neither profitable nor part of the university’s core mission of research and education. It was tucked into continuing education departments under community relations, as opposed to the more lucrative professional development courses. Often it was little more than auditing regular courses, sometimes for free, sometimes at a reduced rate, or, in these cash-strapped days, at full fare. No homework, no reading, no exam, no credit – but for many, no challenge, and therefore no fun.

Then, in the last few decades, demographics shifted, and programming for seniors began to shift with it. There is no common model for these courses yet – they’re being developed as they grow, at least in part to respond to demand from the local community. Programs popped up under different monikers: Lifelong Learning, Learning in Retirement, 55+, Elder College and, in Quebec, Université du troisième âge. Most offer lecture series of about six weeks, some with esoteric subjects like marine archeology, others more practical, like how to operate a digital camera. Macramé has reappeared in some venues, along with courses in collecting rushes and weaving them into baskets. At the University of the Fraser Valley’s ElderCollege, courses are offered in wine tasting, eagle watching and curling, but also in restorative justice.

In 2014, SFU’s Vancouver campus had 1,500 students in its Adults 55+ program and 3,800 registrations, meaning that many, like Susan Robinson, were taking multiple courses. Ms. Robinson says she often spends a good part of the week on campus and was recently awarded, at a small ceremony, a liberal arts certificate for her studies. Participants write short reflections on what they learned in the course and are graded satisfactory or not satisfactory. After 11 courses, they qualify for the certificate.

At the other extreme is Saint Mary’s University. It has a “pop-up university” lecture series at the city’s new central library and a close partnership with an independent group called Elder Learners, much like SFU’s Lifelong Learners. Nova Scotia has the country’s oldest population, and that will have a dramatic impact on its economy. Gordon Michael, director of continuing education at Saint Mary’s, says that when he saw retired men whiling away their afternoons in Tim Horton’s, “I thought there must be some way of engaging them.”

On May 1 of this year, the university launched the Silver Economy Engagement Network, or SEEN, to a sell-out crowd. Interested community groups are wait-listed to get involved. SEEN reverses the notion of a senior sitting in a classroom and instead starts with the needs of the community’s seniors and works back to the university, then out to the community again. It acts like a broker or an overarching web, bringing retired people and their skills together with members of the community who want to access them. It will offer courses to hone and repurpose those skills so the volunteers will be more effective. For instance, one course explains how to be an effective board member.

Mr. Michael says the school will charge for the services and, looking down the road, “this is also about recruitment. It’s an intergenerational model. This is a microcosm of how it might work to strengthen communities, making them stronger.” And, he muses, “Could these sorts of initiatives help attract retirees to communities like Halifax?”

At Université de Sherbrooke, the average age of senior students has remained unchanged over the last decade, at 67, but there is little of the same-old at Quebec’s oldest and biggest Université du troisième âge program. (In French, the over-65 age bracket is called the “troisième âge”). The number of students has nearly doubled to about 13,000 and the number of course enrolments has more than doubled to 20,000, likely the largest program of its kind in the country.

Founded in 1976, the self-financed program offers activities through 28 satellites at 48 locations across 10 regions of Quebec. More than 600 volunteers, the vast majority of them students in the Université du troisième âge, help the program’s nine-member on-campus staff to create, manage, evaluate and run activities. These range from 10-week courses to one-day workshops; the most popular subjects are politics and history, especially art history.

Monique Harvey, program director since 2004, credits the program’s adaptability in providing courses that people want, together with “our over-arching emphasis on the person,” for U de Sherbrooke’s dominance among the handful of Quebec postsecondary institutions that are in the field.

“We did a survey on motivation that 1,300 students answered in 2011,” says Ms. Harvey. “The results showed that knowledge acquisition and quality teaching are the two main motivating factors, followed closely by accessibility and socializing with other students. We think we’ve got all those bases covered.”

Most continuing education departments have to operate on a cost-recovery basis, and their staff and resources can’t meet demand for these kinds of courses. Many have encouraged participants to form their own groups to do as much as possible through volunteer work. Then the university supplies classrooms, instructors and some marketing and administrative support.

That’s what happened at Carleton University. Vigorous, intelligent seniors, many of them former university professors or staff, were so excited about the lectures that they kept making suggestions and requesting services that staff could not begin to fulfill, says Tim Pychyl, director of the Centre for Initiatives in Education. For example, they wanted the centre to extend its operations into the community and offer “one-off events that were beyond our capacity.” He proposed that they run the program themselves.

“I could see that they were movers and shakers, with lots of energy and time and insight, so what I wanted to do was create a mechanism for them to harness that, as opposed to me being a service provider.”

Peter Watson, a physicist and former dean of science at Carleton, was one of the founding members of the Carleton University Association for Life-Long Learning. “We thought the learning in retirement program was extremely good, but just not enough for – what’s the current euphemism – the mature generation.”

Their clientele wanted more social structure and discussion groups yet they expressed “an absolute revulsion” for any course aimed at seniors. One survey respondent replied: “We do not need stitch and bitch.” Says Dr. Watson: “We realized community centres do that sort of thing much better than we can. We shouldn’t be competing with them.”

If these programs are so successful, why not just expand them? A look at Carleton’s situation shows why it’s not that simple. The university offers five sessions a year, with roughly 10 courses per session. About half are wait-listed at any given time, particularly those taught by the charismatic Eric Weichel, whose classes on art history sell out within 10 minutes of registration opening. Coordinator Mirka Snopkowska says they used to have trouble finding instructors to offer the courses; now they often have twice as many proposals as they can handle.

Mrs. Snopkowska needs classrooms that are large enough for approximately 50 people, close to parking for seniors and available at civil hours of the day. With such precise requirements, she must go through the university’s conference services and rent the rooms for about $100 a day. The department considered renting classroom space off campus but was told the liability insurance would be prohibitive. In any event, its profits are already spoken for.

In 2003, Learning in Retirement moved from continuing education to the Centre for Initiatives in Education, which also offers programs to bridge the gap for high school students and Aboriginal students needing a leg up into mainstream curricula. Both programs need tutors, and the lecture series’ surplus goes towards paying for them. In fiscal 2014, Learning in Retirement took in more than $223,500, and it’s on track for gross income of more than $263,000 this year. After expenses for professors’ fees of $1,000 for each course and rent of $100 a day for campus classrooms, about $90,000 is available for the bridging program.

Seniors’ struggle to access the resources on campus raises the uncomfortable question: as worthy as all this is, what’s it really for? Dr. Watson says seniors will be the major clientele of the future, so “in the interest of survival, [universities] ought to be doing something for these people.” In 2008, he notes, the city of Ottawa had more 18- to 22-year-olds than people over 65. But this year, the groups are equally balanced, and by 2020 there will be twice as many people over 65 than those in the traditional university-age group of 18 to 22.

For many students and their instructors, a love of learning is reason enough to offer and to take these courses. Stephen Richer is professor emeritus of sociology and former chair of the sociology and anthropology department at Carleton. At 73, his mission is to keep alive the spirit of protest music in the civil rights, peace and labour movements. He lectures with a banjo around his neck, and he often leads the class in song.

“They grew up with those songs. … By a collective singing experience we recreate those moments of history, when the power of song was an important instrument of political resistance.”

Several years ago, on a whim, he sent folk singer Pete Seeger his course outline. “He sent back two pages of hand-written comments, which blew me away. We continued to correspond until shortly before he died (in January 2014). Now I want to keep his legacy alive.”

Dr. Richer says it takes about six hours of preparation for every hour in the classroom, but it’s a labour of love – in two senses. His wife helps him with the research, acts as a sounding board and comes to classes as his techie. The pay doesn’t begin to cover his time, but, he says, “This peer mentoring aspect is one of the [centre’s] main expenses, so it sustains this. This is one of the major motivations for me. It’s a really worthwhile cause.”

Dr. Richer admits he has a coterie of groupies, former college teacher Judy Bernstein among them. She and her friends liked his three courses so much they are considering taking them again. Not only was it fun to sing away the afternoon, but the participants made their own contributions to the class. One woman talked about the McCarthy-era witch hunts of left-wing sympathizers in the United States, and how her parents brought Pete Seeger to Canada so he could find work. “He stayed at their home,” says Ms. Bernstein. “It was like living history.”

She and her friends suggested a trip that would follow the Underground Railway, the path that American slaves followed, hopefully to freedom in Canada. “There’s a large population with money, people who can pay to travel and have these experiences. If someone can figure out how to do it,” she says, “the people are there.”

Meanwhile, the University of Alberta could no longer afford to administer its spring lecture series for seniors, so in 2000 it partnered with the Edmonton Lifelong Learners Association, or ELLA. The course schedule is short, at just three weeks, but the 42 classes run daily, not weekly.

ELLA’s president Ms. Vaage says the program is growing so quickly that organizers have studied how to handle the growth without losing the intellectual rigour of the courses. They are looking into a pilot project for webinars and possibly one- or two-day programs as well. Despite Edmonton’s cold climate, survey respondents want winter courses to beat the seasonal blahs.

“We have people in walkers and canes, and I just really admire them,” says Ms. Vaage. “I thought, is that ever a testament.” Twice they’ve had to give refunds to the estates of registrants who died before their courses began. As sad as it was, she says, “These people live with passion and a thirst for knowledge right up to the end.”

Jenny Green, a writer and journalist, is based in Ottawa. Mark Cardwell, who lives in Quebec City, also contributed to this article.

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  1. D / August 10, 2015 at 1:55 pm

    “This generation is used to getting what it wants, and these days it wants continuing education that’s fascinating, ever changing, never ending – lecture series and programs that will sweep them off their feet. […] The courses now demanded by seniors are bringing them full circle, back to one of the original ideas of the university: learning for learning’s sake.”

    That makes sense.

    The generation that demanded universities be run like businesses, ensuring that niche programs be closed and tenured faculty positions be replaced by adjunct labor, wants the industry to return to its roots so they can amuse themselves in the classroom.

    If Carleton University’s Learning in Retirement program is the model, they want a six-week course from a lecturer making just $1,000… but hey! Professor! You had better be engaged and fascinated and be ready to indulge those seniors or you “will not be invited back.”

    That takes a lot of nerve. We should expect nothing less from the Boomers.

    • Luke / August 13, 2015 at 12:17 pm

      Couldn’t agree more! For a generation that supposedly has such a passionate and indomitable spirit, I can’t understand why they are then so incapable of taking classes in the same conditions as regular students, even though they still don’t have the psychological burden of grades or programme requirements to worry about. After all, most of their professors of the same generation and they’re still capable of teaching, marking and going to classrooms that aren’t immediately adjacent to a parking lot (in theory, at least). Could it be that their “passion and thirst” is not so much for knowledge as for themselves? Why don’t we call a spade a spade: they annoy everyone but they’re a big enough demographic that there’s money to be made. Short of that, universities wouldn’t give them a second thought. And helping them wile away the long hours of their retirement most definitely does not fall into the university’s core mission.

  2. Susan Hunter / August 29, 2015 at 6:00 pm

    May it be said of me right up until the end that I wanted to keep learning, and that my estate will promptly be issued a refund if I have another appointment to keep with a different lecturer before my class begins.

  3. Lech Lesiak / September 2, 2015 at 5:22 pm

    Thank God I’m not one of those greedy self-absorbed boomers!

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