Rock ’n’ roll legend Alice Cooper may equate learning with pencils, books and teachers’ dirty looks, but tens of thousands of Canadians – all flocking to embrace new challenges inside and outside traditional classrooms – couldn’t disagree more. 

For some, returning to school in their 40s, 50s and 60s is about career advancement; for others, the allure of lifelong learning is deeply personal. For many, like Amanda May, it’s both. “At 49, I never thought I’d be going to school to get my PhD,” says May, a doctoral student at the University of Ottawa. “The graduate degree will undoubtedly help me professionally, but what I’ve discovered is that learning is also about personal growth. And that is immensely rewarding.”

Michael Nicin, executive director of the National Institute on Ageing at Ryerson University in Toronto, points out that contemporary society has redefined the traditional work span and reinforced the need for lifelong learning. “The idea of hitting 55 or 65 and retiring has gone by the wayside.”

In its place are individuals like Chris Hornberger, a partner with Halifax Global Inc., a management consulting company based in Nova Scotia. For seven months this year, Hornberger juggled the demands of a full-time job and family as she completed her Graduate Certificate in Executive Coaching from Royal Roads University in Victoria. “I wanted to diversify,” says the recent grad. “I wanted another skill set to talk to my clients. Coaching is a different conversation than you have with consulting.”

While no national statistics are available on mature students generally, executive MBAs are dominated by individuals returning after having been in the workforce for a decade or longer. The average ages vary across the country, but tend to hover around the 40-year-old mark, according to enrolment statistics published in Maclean’s magazine. 

People are eager to acquire fresh insights or master a new skill, notes Mary Lou Turner, a board member with the Seniors College of Prince Edward Island, which provides courses to residents across the province. Turner understands the quest to expand horizons at first hand. “I enjoy learning new things,” she says simply. 

For John Gillis, publicity chair with the Seniors’ College Association of Nova Scotia, the enjoyment inherent in lifelong learning is enhanced because participation is not usually mandatory. “I was looking for things to do, but not things I had to do.” 

Lifelong learning is not constrained by timetables or rubrics. The possibilities are numerous for how we choose to learn – and enjoy learning. “It could be a dinner program, a movie program or an investment club. There are no rules. You’re limited [only] to what the fire marshal will let you put in a room,” says Nancy Christie, president of the Third Age Network in Toronto.

“If we’re learning, we’re healthier”

Pure pleasure aside, lifelong learning and third-age learning are good for us. Indeed, the Seniors College was started as a result of a study in the 1990s led by the University of Prince Edward Island and the PEI Centre on the Study of Health and Aging that found the onset of dementia was delayed or avoided thanks to ongoing learning. “If we’re learning, we’re healthier,” says Gillis.

More recently, a study published in Psychological Science in 2013 found that certain activities – for instance, learning a mentally demanding skill such as photography – are likely to improve cognitive functioning. “It is important to get out and do something that is unfamiliar and mentally challenging, and that provides broad stimulation mentally and socially,” according to lead researcher Denise Park of the University of Texas at Dallas. “When you are inside your comfort zone, you may be outside of the enhancement zone.”

Getting out into the community is also an important benefit of taking a class, learning a new skill or returning to school. “Staying in touch with your peers – this is a positive force,” says Nicin. “There is a requirement for social and intellectual engagement that goes beyond yourself. … It’s not sufficient to be an island.” 

A new demographic is reshaping post-secondary institutions

Meeting the educational needs of older Canadians is becoming a priority for many organizations – including post-secondary institutions. Ryerson University, for example, has recently been designated a member of the Age-Friendly University Global Network, an international effort dedicated to the role that higher education can play in responding to the challenges and opportunities associated with an aging population. Ten principles, including encouraging participation of older adults in all the core activities of the university, help members put in place programs while identifying gaps and opportunities for growth.

Ryerson is not alone in supporting the learning needs of older Canadians. Many universities, including Dalhousie University and the University of British Columbia, offer deep discounts to learners 65 years and older. It’s money well spent. According to Alan Shepard, president and vice-chancellor of Concordia University in Montreal, continuing education is “no longer an alternative – it’s a key to the future.”

And that future is delightfully full of pencils, books and participants’ smiling looks.