DANGEROUS TIMES: Learning to manage them

27DANGEROUS TIMES: learning to manage them

Raymond Williams Memorial Lecture, Cardiff, Feb 2015


This lecture is a kind of double memorial.  It is formally in memory of Raymond Williams, and I’ll come to him in a moment.  I have also, unilaterally but I hope acceptably, written it in memory of Sir David Watson, who died earlier this month.  Amongst his many other contributions to education, David chaired the NIACE Inquiry into the Future of Lifelong Learning.  He and I were co-authors of its final report, Learning Through Life, and the analysis and recommendations from LTL are the focus of the adult learning part of this lecture.  He died suddenly and very prematurely, so I hope you’ll forgive the addition.  I’m pretty sure that Raymond Williams would have been happy so share the spot.

As it happens, I have a personal link with RW.    My father worked for a small publisher in London.  In his latter years he produced a series called the New Thinkers Library, and RW was his general editor.  I can’t recall ever having met him personally, but it’s a nice coincidence that some 60 years on I should find myself giving a lecture in his memory.

The invitation to give the lecture sent me back to some of RW’s remarkable range of work – in particular to Culture and Society, but also to other pieces, including a memorial lecture he himself gave, in memory of WD Thomas. I haven’t pursued the WDT link, in case I found that he too had given an interesting memorial lecture and I’d find myself involved in some kind of infinite memorial regress.  (A PG Wodehouse quote about memory that I heard on the radio as I was writing this:  “Memories are like mulligatawny soup in a cheap restaurant; they are both best left unstirred.”    I hope memorials lectures escape that rule. )

The central focus of the lecture is on lifelong learning:  where we’ve got to, and what the prospects are. I’ll do that directly by considering the LTL’s work some 5 years after its publication.  But I want to use the opportunity to give this a rather wider frame, prompted amongst other things by my rereading of RW’s work.  I have chosen to talk about ‘managing time’.  The central link to adult learning is simply the connection between learning and control – the capacity to exercise some degree of individual control over one’s own life, and the capacity to join with others in shaping decisions over our collective environment, in the broadest sense.

Time is central to this sense of control.   I shall argue at the end of the lecture that this extends to what can be seen as the ultimate decision, how and when we die – not just the moment of death, but the time leading up to it.  My dangerous idea is that we can and must extend our capacities in that respect, through what I call a ‘mortality curriculum’, and have barely started to address the issues that it raises.  But before I get to that, I shall focus on the changes that are happening in the world of work, and specifically on time at work.


Worktime and learning

There are three key relevant changes in how worktime patterns affect our lives.  The first is the extension in the duration of working lives.   Keynes’ prediction that the working week would come down to 15 hours was made well before Williams was writing, but this was the general direction of thinking for most of the post-war decades.  ‘Industry’ was, let’s remember, one of the central concepts in Williams’ set of ‘Keywords’; and already then the common expectation was that working time would shrink, both in the average day and the normal retirement age.  We are, I should stress, talking about norms which were strongly male, i.e. full-time work, and continuous employment.  I’ve been arguing for some time, under the rubric of what I have called the Paula Principle[1], that this is a norm which still exercises an enormously strong grip on our attitudes and policies, to the detriment of the way we use our skills and competences – especially those of women. The Paula Principle says that most women work below their level of competence.   I argue that the issues raised by it will be difficult to resolve unless more men choose not to work on a full-time continuous basis.


Anyway, the idea that the duration of working lives would continue to shrink was given an important, and often cruel, boost in the crisis of the 1980s.  Traditional industry in the sense that Williams understood it was crumbling under the impact of technological change and economic mismanagement.  Large numbers of people in their 50s – mainly men – were eased out or ejected from the labour market, made formally or informally redundant, with very varying compensatory packages.  Their skills were often redundant with them.   So for this generation working lives were becoming shorter, voluntarily or not.


We now have a reversal of this trend.  For a variety of reasons people expect and are expected to work longer.   Sometimes this is because they as individuals cannot afford to retire; and the state now pushes in that direction also by raising the state pension age – inevitably and correctly in my view.    It is also because people want to carry on working, whether that is because they enjoy the social aspects of work, need the money or want to keep exercising their skills.  But when it comes to acquiring new skills we still have to make the change of attitude which sees training as something that carries on throughout this extended working life.  There is still a sharp drop-off in the mid-50s age range when it comes to access to training.  It is the result of a mix of employer attitudes, and a form of self-censorship, as older people implicitly label themselves as old dogs.


The response should obviously be far greater effort to maintain learning opportunities throughout life, including learning at and for work.  In LTL we argued for a new model which makes a decisive break with the traditional and now massively outdated division at 60/65.[2]   Since we cannot do without categories, we suggested drawing the line instead at 50, and then again at 75.  The first line marks a point at which people might start thinking about their careers in the Third Age: perhaps changing jobs, and/or moving to part-time and/or mixing paid and unpaid work in new quantities.  We suggested, more than half-seriously, that everyone reaching the age of 50 might get a learning voucher (or a boost to their Personal Learning Allowance –see later) which would amongst other things encourage them to take stock on what they need to learn over the coming decade, for their work and more broadly for their personal development.  NIACE has recently been working on the notion of a mid-career review which produces plenty of evidence in support of such an initiative.[3]


Drawing the upper line at 75 is more controversial.  After all, very few people work through until that age, even on a very part-time basis.  But our perspective was a long-term one.  We chose 75 partly for shock value, to make people think harder about this process of the extended duration.  But we chose it also because it ties in with the average age at which chronic illnesses set in.  The combination of the two gives this a stronger justification than most, even though we recognise that chronological age is always going to be a very crude way of defining our categories.


So much for duration of working life.  The second key temporal dimension is one I have already touched on: whether the default assumption is that work will be ‘fulltime’.  These are heavy quote marks:  the binary distinction between full- and part-time is almost as outmoded as drawing the retirement age at 60/65.   Millions of men, and many more millions of women, work part-time.  It is one of the reasons why unemployment has not soared in the past few years, as all the economists predicted.  People have preferred to keep some employment rather than lose it altogether, and employers have enabled or compelled them to do this.


The implications of this for our conception of work are potentially enormous.  On the one hand, we can sustain the view that every effort should be made to regain the numbers of full-time jobs that existed a decade ago.  I sympathise with this.  There are many people who desperately need more work, especially because of miserable wage rates.  Many of those working part-time want more hours.  However in my view it would be tragic if we could not forge a more forward-looking line of argument which looked to higher-productivity work, with fewer hours yielding higher output and better hourly wages.  This is a huge area of debate.  All I would say is that better learning opportunities have a major part to play; but if we focus only on the skills supply side we cannot make the step change necessary.  In other words, we should now be paying much more attention to the way skills are actually put to use at work.  Analysts such as Ken Mayhew, Ewart Keep and Alan Felstead have been doing their best to shift the balance of the debate in this direction for some time.  We need this to go much further. It presents a serious challenge to those of us whose primary concern is with education.  For we are used to welcoming any statement – and there have been many over the years – which says that we need more and better skills.  But more and better skills will only have an effect if they are put to use; and rewarded; and seen to be rewarded.  So those of us who deal in the supply side need to get stuck into the other side of the equation.


In Culture and Society Williams discusses at some length the classic C19 authors who wrote about the effects of capitalist industrialisation.    Here is what he had to say about Ruskin’s indictment of the nature of work:


“  ‘A right understanding of labour’:  this is the fundamental emphasis.  Not labour for profit, or for production, or for the smooth functioning of the existing order; but ‘the right kind of labour’ – the ‘felicitous fulfillment of function in living things.’ “


So a central concern for Williams was the quality of work, and respect for the skills involved, in manual labour as elsewhere.   There is an obvious link to what I have just argued, about the way our skills and competences are put to use in the workplace.  Our fifth recommendation in LTL was ‘improve the quality of work’, by which we meant a better utilisation of our skills and competences.  This comes under the same rubric:  the control of working time, and the relation of learning to that control.   It is about the rhythms of work:  how our daily, weekly, annual and lifecourse patterns of work do or do not mesh with our own development and capabilities.  The quality of work is intrinsically bound up with how good this fit is.  EP Thompson was one of the first modern scholars to point this out in his classic work on industrial time.[4]  There have been many others since who have explored the tensions between the more or less natural rhythms of human endeavour and the demands of contemporary work schedules.   It’s worth adding in particular that a growth in quality jobs that are not fulltime allows time for exactly the kind of personal creativity in the broad cultural sense which Williams would have warmly supported.


I turn now, very briefly, to the third dimension, the trajectory of working careers, i.e. how people progress or not at work, over time.  We can only judge how well learning and work are integrated when we look at people’s careers over time.   Weberian ideas of bureaucratic careers, and the steady upward progression which came to be associated with them, were always reserved to a minority.  Now many highly qualified professionals face a very uncertain future.  It’s unclear to me how far the stability of continuous progression of this kind can return.    What I would like to urge is that we consciously reappraise the notion of ‘career’ as something that involves vertical progression only, with upward steps reflected in increased pay.   Once again, this is the male model, whose time is coming to an end.  There are major stresses involved in the fragmentation of this model.  But access to learning is a key means of alleviating those stresses, and of enabling people to think differently about what careers are open to them.  Learning is also, in my optimistic view, a key part of how people will make judgments about the kinds of material and non-material rewards they can aspire to, and the balance between those different rewards.



Learning Through Life: a stocktake

I turn now to the Inquiry which David Watson and I conducted into the future of lifelong learning for NAICE, some 5 years ago.[5]  It was an ambitious affair, taking a couple of years and a large chunk of NIACE’s reserves, and I want to pay tribute to NIACE and especially Alan Tuckett, its then chief executive, for having the boldness to take such an initiative.  We commissioned some 30 papers, on a variety of themes and issues, which are a valuable continuing resource.  We drew the threads together in Learning Through Life, with 10 major recommendations.  Some of these I have already touched on, explicitly or implicitly, but here is the list.  The question is, what has happened since then?


Learning Through Life: Recommendations

  • Base lifelong learning policy on a new model of the educational life course, with four key stages (up to 25, 25-50, 50-75, 75+)
  • Rebalance resources fairly and sensibly across the different life stages
  • Build a set of learning entitlements
  • Engineer flexibility: a system of credit and encouraging part-timers
  • Improve the quality of work
  • Construct a curriculum framework for citizens’ capabilities
  • Broaden and strengthen the capacity of the lifelong learning workforce
  • Revive local responsibility… …within national frameworks
  • Make the system intelligent.

I am not going to go through the list item by item.  (A special issue of Adults Learning published in December 2014 did just this, and David and I also wrote a review piece for a forthcoming issue of the European Journal of Education.)  But the short answer is that progress has been minimal on most of them; and on some of them we have, unarguably, gone backwards.

I will take first the question of balance of learning opportunities.  Here we have two very clear trends.  First, a shrinkage of adult learning opportunities generally, with cuts to FE provision and to adult/community learning.  Some 300,000 adult learners have disappeared from the system in the last couple of years. I note this is happening in Wales too, as part of the overall reductions in public expenditure.  Secondly, there is a process of homogenisation in higher education, in the sense that the sector is defining its teaching more and more in terms of young full-time students.  I won’t go through the depressing details here.  It is symbolised by the real collapse in part-time students, whose numbers have dropped by over 40% in the last three years.  So instead of a more diverse university student population we have an increasingly homogeneous one, at least as far as age and experience is concerned.  This, incidentally, detracts significantly from the quality of the education that younger students get; any teacher will tell you, at least in humanities and social science subjects, about the advantages of having students in the group who have life experience.  Williams as an extra-mural lecturer would surely have appreciated this.   This homogenisation is a danger that is very much with us already.  I fear that this holds true of Welsh institutions as well.

Secondly, we called for greater flexibility in the system, especially through a system of credit accumulation and transfer.  This was one of David Watson’s personal priorities over many years.  Sadly, he did not live to see the system which he argued for so strenuously.  There has been very little progress here.   David was very clear that this is simply a matter of political will, nationally and institutionally; there are no technical or major resource problems why we should not have made far more rapid progress.  It is, of course, linked directly to the decline in part-time study.

Thirdly, we were very keen to see much stronger local strategising in respect of lifelong learning.  Here the picture, in England at least, is one of the emasculation of local authorities.  They are struggling to even to meet their statutory obligations, with the result that anything else is almost automatically downgraded.  There is, it is true, a good deal of rhetoric in the current electioneering about the need to restore vigour to local democracy.  I’m afraid I’m quite cynical about this; Westminster politicians have conspired constantly with the Treasury to ratchet up centralised control, in education almost more than anywhere else.  What I would say is that there are some hugely committed, hardworking and competent councillors who deserve a better press, and a higher reputation than they are given by those who lazily dismiss all politicians as being in it for themselves.

I want to come back now to our first recommendation, for a different approach to thinking about the lifecourse, and link it to our sixth, which was for experimentation around a citizen’s curriculum.


Mortality curriculum

There has been some awareness of demographic change, and the ageing of society[6].  But this has largely been couched in terms of the need for more health and social care – and how the NHS can provide for older people.   This is a dangerously one-sided approach to the issue.    We need crucially to take a longer run at the issue; to start earlier, and to enable people to do more in the way of managing their own third and fourth ages.  So let’s do this by considering how the four capabilities which we proposed for a citizen’s curriculum – digital, health, financial and civic – might apply.  I have time only for some very schematic suggestions.   And I’m going to be even more restrictive, not aiming to cover all the third and fourth stages, but talking directly, and dangerously, about the process of dying.

Maybe I’m overestimating the dangerousness of the topic.  But in my (limited) experience, death and dying remain if not taboo subjects then ones which many people find difficult to address at all. (I apologise if any in the audience came unprepared for this and are uneasy with it.)   In my conception, we should be talking not just about death as the final event of our lives but about the process of dying in extenso.  When does this start?  Impossible to define. RD Laing once said that life is a sexually transmitted disease with a 100% mortality rate.  We don’t need to take quite such a morbid view, but I do emphatically believe that we do need to start thinking about this earlier than most of us do – and to do it as a community, not just as individuals.   We might call this a curriculum for mortality.

So, to the four capabilities.  We know that digital exclusion is an issue for older people.  But the potential here is huge, especially as current generations bring their greater digital capability into their later stages of life.   Good access can surely do much to reduce the major issue of Isolation – though I’m well aware of the danger of relying unduly on technology, when what is needed is direct human contact.   Digital capability can enhance people’s ability to manage the other dimensions – health, finance, civic participation, and to access expertise on this.  It can also help them to explore and discuss issues relating to ageing and dying:  how it affects them and their families, what their plans are to deal with it and so on.

Understanding the health aspects of ageing and dying is essential.  We are in the middle of a general election where the single biggest issue is the NHS, and how it will be funded.  There are sensible proposals for integrating health and social care as a means of meeting the challenge of the ageing population.  But the debate is still framed very much in terms of health and care professionals delivering a quality service.  Far less attention is paid to how we might enable people to look after themselves (and others) better, to prepare for their fourth age and for a good death.  As the New Economics Foundation has pointed out in a recent report[7], only a tiny fraction of England’s £96billion health budget goes on prevention.   I think particularly of the mental health challenge, ahead of the final moments of our lives.  So we need health literacy to enable greater co-production of services, with much stronger consumer involvement.  We need it particularly to enhance our capacity to choose when we are to die: to avoid undue prolongation of biological life (or some approximation to it), and to deal with the personal issues that this throws up.

Financial capability came third.  In LTL we stressed that we meant not only the banal though important issues around managing personal finance (which incidentally has a particular sense in the context of dying, i.e. the need to put one’s finances in order for the next generation – meaning how to do this fairly and justly, as well as neatly).  We pointed also to the capacity to have some understanding of broader economic issues, since these dominate our lives so much:  how is financial capital accumulated, distributed and used?  I’m not, obviously, proposing that every citizen should have some equivalent of Economics 101; but an understanding of the magnitudes is pretty basic to citizenship.  How, for example, do we grasp the notion of intergenerational equity, which is creeping up the political agenda?  And to take an even more topical example, what are the sums involved in tax avoidance, set against welfare fraud?

This obviously overlaps with the final capability – civic.  The intergenerational distribution of resources is another item involved here.   I will only mention here the importance of legacy:  what kind of legacy are we handing on to future generations?  This question stretches across all levels of human activity, from the very local to the planetary.    The learning challenge, it seems to me, is to enable each of us to know that we have done what we could do to make that legacy a good one.   When we enter the later stages of life, that challenge is at least as salient as it has ever been.

I have here to introduce a further possible capability, not mentioned in our report.  You could call this the philosophical, or perhaps even the spiritual.    How do we reconcile ourselves to dying?   This is surely an area where there will be a huge diversity of response, and I have absolutely no intention of prescribing a way forward.  But for those who do not rely on established religions to give them the answer, there is a lack of procedures, institutions, traditions and services to help us; and this is in an era when we know that many of us could have a long fourth age ahead.

The issue is, above all, one of boundaries – or borders, as Williams might have called it.   Border Country was the title of his best-known novel, where he explored the tensions involved when people stray across boundaries of class, country and community.  Where do we draw the lines, between the different stages of life and, especially, between life and death? This final boundary is becoming increasingly blurred, as medical techniques for prolonging life become more and more sophisticated.  It is a huge challenge to us to learn how to respond to this:  for ourselves as individual mortals; as members of families; and as citizens who should play a part in creating new rules, new capabilities and new ethics so that we can manage these developments.   Managing this shifting boundary is the task of what might perhaps be called a mortality curriculum.


Knowable communities

Enough of that.  I want finally to turn back to Raymond Williams and his legacy.  One of the pleasures of reengaging with his work was to come across his notion of knowable communities.  Williams used this to analyse, through literature, attitudes to the city and the country.  An example of his analysis is the way he describes very acutely how Jane Austen’s communities consist only of the propertied classes, with everyone else airbrushed out of the picture.   He punctured the notion that country communities are knowable because they are small; and he rejected easy divisions between organic and alienated communities as well as urban and rural. His conclusion is:

“An important split takes place between knowable relationships and an unknown, unknowable, over- whelming society. The full seriousness of this split and of its eventual consequences for the novel can be traced only towards the end of the century. . . . We can see its obvious relation to the very rapidly increasing size and scale and complexity of communities: in the growth of towns and especially of cities and of a metropolis; in the increasing division and complexity of labour; in the altered and critical relations between and within social classes. In these simple and general senses, any assumption of a knowable community — a whole community, wholly knowable — becomes harder and harder to sustain.”   (R Williams 1970)

So we should not assume that ‘community’ brings with it a readymade set of cosy relationships. This was the thrust of Williams’ WD Thomas memorial lecture, which I referred to earlier.  I find the notion of ‘knowable community’ a fascinating one, which is surely freighted with implications for learning.   Which learning communities do we belong to, at work, or outside, locally or globally? How much do we know about our fellow learners and how might we get to know them better?  How much can the members of any ‘knowable community’ help each other to learn?  There can be few more important tasks than learning to get at least a little closer to that concept, in these most dangerous of times.



[1] www.paulaprinciple.com

[2] With deeply sad irony, David Watson was exactly 65 when he died.

[3] http://www.niace.org.uk/current-work/mid-life-career-review

[4] EP Thompson (1967), ‘Time, Work-Discipline and Industrial Capitalism’, Past & Present 38, 56-97.



It is worth noting that Williams alluded to demographic change, in his best-known novel Border Country, published in 1960.  The main character, Matthew Price, returns to see his dying father, Harry.  Harry is in his early 60s, so his imminent death conforms to the norm.  The neighbour, Mrs Hybart, has just left after dropping in to see Matthew and his mother Ellen.  Matthew asks:

“How old is she now?”

“Over eighty she is.”

“It’s like an extra life, isn’t it?  After Dad’s age.”

‘Well, yes,” said Ellen sharply.  “Yes, it is.”

“We think first of two generations, then three.  The on top of the three there’s this other seeing us all spread out.”   (Border Country Penguin 1960 , p68.)

[7] Anna Coote (2015) People, Planet, Power: towards a new social settlement New Economics Foundation