• Summary
  • Contents
  • Subject index

Aging has emerged as a major and urgent issue for individuals, organisations and governments of our time.

In this well-timed and comprehensive handbook, key international contributors to the field of study come together to create a definitive map of the subject. Framed by an authoritative introductory chapter, the SAGE Handbook of Aging, Work and Society offers a critical overview of the most significant themes and topics, with discussions of current research, theoretical controversies and emerging issues, divided into sections covering:

Key Issues and Challenges; The Aging Workforce; Managing an Aging Workforce; Living in an Aging Society; Developing Public Policy

Older Workers in the Professions: Learning Challenges and Strategies
Older workers in the professions: Learning challenges and strategies

Policy focus on older workers (50+ years of age) has steadily increased in many countries concerned about retaining these workers in the paid labour force – more specifically, retaining skilled and satisfied older workers (EU 2007, HRDC 2000, HRSDC 2013, OECD 2006, UK 2006). These policies are often linked to concerns for increased ratios of aging citizens to active workers, projections of a general critical shortage in skilled labour, and evidence of workplace ageism and exclusion. Studies have shown, for example, that older workers experience devaluing of their knowledge, stereotyping, subtle barriers to learning opportunities, and pressure to present themselves as younger and technologically savvy (Ainsworth 2006, Carroll 2007). Policy measures have been directed to address these issues, argues Weller (2007), in four main domains: removing regulatory structures that may discourage older workers’ participation in employment, highlighting their work skills and other positive contributions, encouraging participation through ‘moral’ injunctions to serve the labour market, and penalizing employers that discriminate.

Older workers’ learning has also been identified as an important potential lever to counter perceived declining skill relevance of older workers. In Canada, for example, policy has focused on encouraging older workers’ greater access to and participation in learning opportunities (HRDC 2000, HRSDC 2013). This focus is premised on assumptions that older workers engage less than younger workers in skill development, and generally do not participate in work learning as much as would be desirable to increase their employability and retain them in the labour market.

However, only limited evidence has been produced yet to examine the actual nature of older workers’ engagement in learning. These studies indicate that the story is more complex than simply increasing older workers’ access to learning. First, it appears that older workers may have unique attitudes to learning and perhaps even distinct approaches and processes for work learning (Canning 2011, Tikkanen and Nyhan 2006). Second, many have argued that these workers’ learning cannot be simply understood in human capital terms as increasing individuals’ acquisition of skills, but must be linked to workplace culture and its embedded learning opportunities (Fuller and Unwin 2005), and analysed in the context of capitalist relations that produce and value particular kinds of knowledge and work (Moore 2009, Roberts 2006, Porcellato et al. 2010). In general, Tikkanen and Nyhan (2006) conclude that older workers’ learning is poorly understood, contributing to its low recognition and support in work organizations.

A further issue is that the few available studies have concentrated on non-professionals such as workers in hospitality or trades. If we turn to professionals and professional learning, much literature has accumulated to examine the learning of early career professionals, but little attention has focused on older professionals’ learning. Even if we acknowledge the problematic category of ‘older workers’ (Roberts 2006), the fact remains that policy and related programmes are continuing to target this group for rehabilitation. Among professional groups, where continuous work learning has been emphasized as an important dynamic in late capitalism's global economy to supply flexible, multi-skilled and entrepreneurial knowledge workers), the case of older workers throws up additional questions. How do these older professionals conceptualize their work knowledge and learning in the face of increased demands for continuous learning? In what specific ways, and to what extent, do older professionals participate in learning?

These are the questions addressed in this chapter. The discussion centres upon research conducted in Canada to examine the professional learning of older Certified Management Accountants (CMAs).1 Like other professionals in the financial sector, this group may be particularly pressured by changing financial regulations and industry restructuring in ‘new capitalism’ (Sennett 2006) to maintain a high level of skill and skill adaptability. The chapter proceeds in four sections, beginning with a more detailed discussion of age and learning in the workplace. The second section describes the methods and population of the study, and the third presents findings showing older professionals’ distinct approaches to and conceptions of learning. The concluding section argues that far from withdrawing from learning, these older professionals are particularly focused in what, when and how they engage. While few position themselves as critical or resistant to the intensified learning demands towards adding organizational value, many of these workers seem strategic and self-protective in their compliance. In fact most are astute in employing diverse strategies and resources in knowledge development, according to the knowledge orientation they adopt in their practice. These understandings may suggest ways to more effectively recognize and support older professionals’ learning in organizations and professional associations.

Conceptions of Older Workers’ Learning and Professional Learning

The category and definition of ‘older worker’ is troublesome, as Roberts (2006) has argued, partly because it makes little sense to abstract one age group from the intergenerational mix of work and knowledge activity to study in isolation. However, given the current policy emphases on older workers, the category is useful to retain if workplace research is to contribute to these policy debates. For purposes of this discussion, an ‘older worker’ is defined simply as 50+ years of age, following the delineation adopted in Europe and Canada (EU 2007, HRDC 2000). In studies examining issues pertaining to older workers, three inter-related issues have been raised: ageism, perceptions of older workers’ insufficient competency; and lower participation in learning.

Some studies have focused on ageism in the workplace. Their evidence has raised concerns that age-related discrimination and discourses of ‘decline’ and obsolescence have generated negative stereotypes and ultimately, devaluing of aging workers by colleagues and employers, constructing them as ‘problems’ taking up jobs and resources (Ainsworth 2006, Carroll 2007). This ageism may function in very subtle ways, to the point of invisibility for many workers including those 50+. Or, it may only materialize clearly at the point of recruitment and selection, as Weller (2007) argues, where most of the 33 interviewees in her study claimed to have experienced age discrimination in some form in their search for employment. It also is likely the case that age is viewed differently in different vocational sectors, or different organizational settings. Ainsworth (2006) shows, for instance, that older workers are perceived as more acceptable in some professions such as law than in others such as the high tech industry. But stated views and everyday practices are, of course, not necessarily consistent. A body of research has accumulated revealing that even in cases where organizational rhetoric praises traits such as reliability, personal maturity, stability and punctuality that are assumed to characterize older workers, in practice what are valued and rewarded are the flexible dynamism and technological competence associated with younger workers (Riach 2007, McVittie et al. 2003).

Older workers’ learning has become a particular policy focus through a perception that their qualifications become obsolescent or devalued in their current employment, and inadequate to permit entry to new employment (Porcellato et al. (2010). There is also some evidence of older workers’ underparticipation in learning opportunities (Pillay et al. 2003). This may partly be their own choice not to participate due for example to low self confidence and negative self perceptions (Porcellato 2006: 493) and partly to lack of provision. Billett and van Woerkom (2008: 336) claim that ‘the evidence consistently suggests that across Europe, employers are far more likely to spend funds on training the young and well-educated, rather than older workers’. Concern over inequitable training provisions have sparked further policy response. In Canada for instance, where this study was conducted, the national Human Resources and Skills Development department launched a major Targeted (training) Initiative for Older Workers to help retain or re-integrate older workers into the workforce (HRSDC 2007).

Such concerns must be understood within broader discourses demanding continuous learning in the workplace, where learning is represented often uncritically as a requirement for all workers in a fast-changing technologized knowledge economy emphasizing innovation, entrepreneurism and resilience (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development 1996). Notions of workers’ learning and skill development framed in the rational assumptions of human capital accumulation often fail to account for the non-linear, participative processes that are now widely understood to characterize workers’ learning (inter alia, Billett 2002, Bratton et al. 2003, Hager 2004, Hodkinson et al. 2008). Work-related learning has been demonstrated in many contemporary studies to be interwoven with individuals’ identities and desires as well as the social relations and cultural-historical dynamics of particular communities, discourses and activities (Evans et al. 2006, Rainbird et al. 2004). In terms of older workers’ learning, policy rhetoric still expresses concerns at their need, for instance, to acquire technological skills and capacity to adapt to changing workplaces (Pillay et al. 2003).

But there is more to this story. Older workers’ learning is not often very well understood and therefore not always appropriately supported – indeed, as Weller (2007) showed, older workers say they encounter direct barriers to learning opportunities. One European study of 27 small-medium enterprises in England, Finland and Norway (Tikkanen and Nyhan 2006) found that while both older and younger workers are challenged by the same changes in working life, technology and workplace structures, older workers’ learning is not acknowledged and developed to the extent of younger workers. In Canada, researchers examined the extent to which collective agreements in each province responded to the call for retraining older workers to meet new information technology demands imposed by organizations. They found that training opportunities and resources for older workers varied greatly by sector and specific organization (Fourzly and Gervais, 2002). Older workers were more often called upon to mentor younger workers than to participate in learning opportunities themselves. The study called for more awareness of older workers’ learning needs, greater recognition and valuing of their strengths, and more inclusive support of their lifelong learning including targeted initiatives and promotion of intergenerational learning in the workplace.

In comparing companies in the UK, Fuller and Unwin (2005) found that older workers’ attitudes to learning and uptake of opportunities for meaningful workplace learning depended very much on the way that these opportunities were embedded, supported and managed within a wider culture of workforce development. Among older hospitality workers in particular, Canning (2011) found that their learning is best supported and their contributions to the organization maximized by valuing their experience and emphasizing team building. That is, instead of emphasizing older workers’ acquisition of new skills, organizations should focus on utilizing the skills that older workers have already developed, within arrangements of collaborative practice and opportunities for informal mentoring. However, older workers’ participation in learning also appears to depend on their own beliefs about knowledge. Pillay et al. (2003), in studies of hospital administrative/security staff and transport workers, concluded that more older workers held ‘low level’ conceptions of learning, viewing work as a routine job and learning as acquiring skills to survive – beliefs which the researchers noted were inconsistent with a workplace culture of knowledge generation and critical reflection. Billett and van Woerkom (2008) examined similar phenomena of older workers’ ‘personal epistemologies’ among six health care workers in a psychiatric clinic, but differentiated them according to their performance ratings as high or low. While both groups engaged in critical reflection for learning, Billett and van Woerkom observed that the ‘low-regarded’ workers focused their learning more on simply maintaining their practice rather than upon goals valued by managers – goals echoing knowledge economy discourses of innovation, continuous knowledge development and so forth.

The results are certainly mixed, and suggest that older workers’ different engagements in learning are mutually related to vocational cultures, the nature of work activity/knowledge, and broader discourses establishing what knowledge counts most. Overall, researchers have raised a collective call for nuanced and differentiated research to understand how older workers themselves understand and approach learning, understood as embedded within particular work practices, knowledge traditions and environments.

Turning to professional groups, the issue of older workers’ learning has not yet begun to attract much attention. Professionals’ learning is particularly interesting given the rapidly changing knowledges and professionalisms reported in a growing body of research (inter alia, Evetts 2009, Guile 2010, Nerland and Jensen 2010). Individuals are pressured to become more flexible and entrepreneurial to adapt to radical shifts in public demands, decline in professional authority and discretion, and sharp drops in institutional resources (Evetts 2003). External accountability requirements and managerial regulation of professionals’ autonomy have increased alongside proliferating new knowledge resources and technologies. Emphasis on professionals’ continuous lifelong learning is growing, and increasingly audited through assessment of professionals’ annual participation in learning activities to meet a minimum standard (Fenwick 2009). Stronach et al. (2002) show how public service professionals juggle these different discourses simultaneously: the ‘economies of performance’ and the ‘ecologies of practice’, in everyday work that reflects multiple performances of identity and professionalism. In general, Evetts (2009) argues that professionalism is shifting more to an organizational orientation and away from an occupational professional allegiance. That is, professional practices and outputs are increasingly determined more by organizational demands and measures and less by the professional disciplines and community. Expectations for inter-professional collaboration have increased, demanding new knowledge through ‘co-production’ work (Lee and Dunston 2009), and new competencies in ‘relational agency’ (Edwards 2007) to build common knowledge across what Nerland and Jensen (2010) refer to as professionals’ ‘epistemic communities’. In fact Nerland (2010) argues that knowledge dynamics need to be foregrounded in professional practice in terms of knowledge resources, ties and strategies. These forces and their consequent tensions affect all professionals, but perhaps particularly those older professionals who may be expected to lead and mentor others through such changes, as well as to adapt to difficult new demands without the same developmental support and understanding extended to their younger colleagues.

Study Methods and Population

The study, conducted in 2008–2009 in Alberta Canada, focused on older (50+ years) professional Certified Management Accountants (CMAs). The CMA group seemed particularly appropriate for a study of professional learning for four main reasons. First, CMAs are continually subject to massive changes presumably requiring constant learning: national regulations in tax structures, international financial regulations, and new IT systems. They also appear to experience relatively high occupational mobility, with job changes across diverse sectors ranging from heavy construction or oil and gas to government or retail, and across diverse roles ranging from financial systems analysis to senior management, with many changes demanding new specialist expertise. Second, more often than not, CMAs do not work with other CMAs: many firms or organization units would hire only one CMA as Controller. Therefore, common models of professional learning in a ‘community of practice’, or organization-based mentorship and training do not necessarily apply easily to CMAs.

A surprisingly large number of 117 older CMAs volunteered for the interviews, and we selected 60 (32 women and 28 men) to represent a range of experiences in participants’ years of experience and current employment (sector, organizational size and type). Two-thirds of the sample were aged 50–54, fifteen were 55–59, and five were 60–65. One-third worked in large businesses (engineering, law, construction, insurance, forestry), one-sixth in different multi-national oil and gas companies, and one-sixth in government departments (municipal, provincial and federal). Of the remainder, six individuals were instructors in post-secondary institutions, five worked in not-for-profit organizations, two in large banks, five were independent consultants, and two were unemployed. Interviews explored the individual's meanings, practices, values and motives in their work-related learning, how these have changed over time, particular challenges or opportunities in learning experienced as an older worker, and desired supports for learning. What struck us in particular was the confident, strategic positions that these older professionals took up in relation to learning pressures and continuous change. What follows is an overview of these positionings: first in terms of an entitlement to control one's learning, and secondly in terms of adopting a particular orientation to knowledge and knowledge development.

‘I'm in Control’: Learning as Focusing and Managing Knowledge

In contrast to a strong theme in the literature, most of these older professionals recalled relatively little age-related discrimination. In further contrast, most indicated enthusiastic and wide-ranging participation in work-related learning. Professional learning was commonly portrayed as a fundamental responsibility, even a pleasure, and an important part of their organizational roles. All indicated that they drew from wide-ranging knowledge resources, most of which were informal (unplanned and rooted in everyday activity). They readily identified moments and events as ‘learning’ activities that are not often recognized as such by workers: hallway conversations, surfing the web, solving problems, meeting informally with colleagues, and so forth. Only five interviewees referred to continuing professional development sessions offered by the CMA association as helpful: others described the content as too general or basic for their needs, using methods they didn't find useful. Interviewees were quite clear, for instance, about whether or not they learned effectively through ‘network’ gatherings. Most had developed strategies and confidence to access less evident knowledge sources. One had created his own knowledge network, another had sought out webinars hosted by different financial agencies, and several were sufficiently confident to contact knowledge elites directly:

If I need information, I go to the experts on the subject. So, take carbon capture and storage for instance. Go to the expert to find out, you know, where can we capture this stuff and, you know, where can, where could we possibly store it? Who is going to build the pipeline and how do we go about doing that?

Above all, focus was valued, often described in terms of a late career stage.

Your time becomes more precious. You're more aware of where you want to spend your time. I think that you're less interested in career development and growth. You really want to just target in on the things that you're interested in. (male VP of finance and administration, insurance, 52)

Some chose a specialist knowledge focus, such as in international auditing which required developing new competence, as a way to remain competitive and employable. Others spoke of focusing as being about learning to negotiate, and to avoid being overwhelmed by the increasing onslaught of information.

One of the problems that I actually struggle with is how much we have coming at us, so to try to sort that out as to what is important and what isn't. It's just impossible to take it all in. And so part of my learning now is learning how to figure out what I actually need and to pay attention to that and let the rest go. (woman senior manager, international chartered accounting firm, 60)

As this senior manager notes, one eventually learns to accept that keeping up with everything is impossible and that it is okay to be selective. There were also some references to age-related weariness influencing individuals’ tendency to limit and focus their participation in learning activities: ‘when you come home, you're tired’ (male financial supervisor for multi-national oil and gas firm, 58).

Overall, it became clear that advanced CMAs – which described most of the interviewees – felt, or expected to feel, personal control over how, when, and for what purposes they engaged in learning. They also expected to use knowledge resources and strategies that they believed worked best for their own needs at specific times.

I'm choosing to learn, whereas 10 years ago others chose. This is what I do for a living and these are the areas that I need to improve to better do what I'm doing. I'm actually learning more than when I was working years ago … because what I'm choosing to learn is related to what I'm doing, it's more specific. Right now I'm more in control. (male, controller of small tool business, 50)

This expectation of exercising control of their learning is perhaps obvious given the ‘controller’ positions that so many occupied. But beyond the influence of professional role, these older professionals seemed particularly strategic and deliberate in focusing their endeavors to develop knowledge. Most positioned themselves confidently as knowers: expert on some things and weak in others, and concerned with mastering only what they themselves had identified to be immediately important:

I'm totally out of touch with accounting … sophisticated modeling is definitely something I'm not learning. I'm not quite sure if I have the inclination and the energy to even learn that stuff. But that is an area that I'm kind of I'm weak in … [what's important to me is] to keep abreast with what is happening out there, for instance on the climate change front. Like, so I need to know how the Europeans are thinking about it. How the Japanese and Australians are thinking. How the Americans are thinking and this is where the reading becomes critical, right? (male, senior business adviser, large oil and gas corporation, 58)

This became most evident when interviewees described the annual external assessments of their learning conducted by the CMA Association. All but three of the 60 expressed strong resentment about being treated as ‘learners’.

The constant logging learning activities is onerous I've got enough paperwork and files. That's the last thing I'm going to think about before I go home at night. It takes away from what you assume is something that is part of your professional obligation anyhow. (male, chief accountant, pulp mill, 56)

They treat you like a school kid a bit. I suppose that's an old guy thing. I don't like being treated like a school kid. (man, manager large chemical firm, 59)

Here I am and I'm advancing and people respect me and they really want me to do their work and yet I still have to prove that I'm learning. It seems kind of weird. (man, systems analyst, international concrete manufacturer, 57)

These statements are reminiscent of Boud and Solomon's (2003) contention that workers dislike the ‘learner’ label because of its incompatibility with their identities as ‘competent workers’. However particularly here, these older professionals positioned themselves as knowers worthy of respect. They expected to be trusted to assess and develop their own knowledge.

Learning to Position Oneself to Professional Learning

Looking more closely at this broad theme of older professionals positioning themselves as knowers with control over their learning strategies and focus, some distinctions appeared in terms of their actual orientations to knowledge. That is, individuals’ overall direction and specific foci for knowledge development appeared to be oriented in different ways, and some similarities began to emerge across these orientations. These orientations were not clearly linked to any specific sectors of work, or specific forms of professional practices or roles. Instead, they seemed to reflect diverse deliberate ways to position oneself in late career amidst the onslaught of professional change and information. Four orientations were identified, which we called consolidating, outreaching, re-directing, and disengaging. Like all categorizations, these four orientations are fallible: the boundaries must be understood to be blurred and overlapping at best, and the categories indicative rather than definitive.


One orientation to learning reflected among these older professionals could be described as a ‘consolidating’ approach. This orientation reflected a desire to deepen and focus what one already knew, rather than seeking new information or developing new specialisms.

All I need to do is keep myself aware of changes in the areas that are relevant to my clients. So instead of continually increasing and adding new knowledge and skills as I would have done and did do 15 years, 20 years ago now I'm simply broadening the knowledge base that's relevant to me at this point. (woman independent accounting practice, 52)

Individuals that reflected more of a consolidating orientation seemed to be particularly strategic, choosing knowledge according to what they needed at that particular time to consolidate their expertise. More than any other orientation they described themselves as ‘focused’, or as ‘being choosey’. One woman, a 52-year-old government administrator who had been a practicing CMA over 21 years and four job changes, reframed her focus in professional learning as being more about ‘practicing what I've learned over the years’. She talked about consolidating and deepening her existing knowledge base, ‘honing the quality’, instead of attempting to learn new knowledge. Some described a careful parsimonious approach, ‘learning according to what the project needs’ or ‘just learning what's needed to keep up’. There were references to the need to focus selectively, given the overwhelming demands and information.

One of the problems that I actually struggle with is how much we have coming at us, so to try to sort that out as to what is important and what isn't. It's just impossible to take it all in. And so part of my learning now is learning how to figure out what I actually need and to pay attention to that and let the rest go. (woman senior manager for international chartered accounting firm, 60)


A second learning orientation, in some ways representing an opposite movement to consolidating, was what could be characterized as ‘outreaching’. Older CMAs whose learning descriptions reflected an outreaching or divergent orientation described themselves in terms of ‘stretching’, ‘insatiable’ for new knowledge, and ‘learning what's of interest to me’. For example, one woman Chief Financial Officer for a large health not-for-profit organization, 50 years of age, described a wide variety of learning pursuits as tied in with her own attitude of energy, ‘following what's interesting, what I feel like doing … I'm not dictated by what's needed for my career’. Another, particularly enthusiastic, example was a 56-year-old man who had worked for the federal taxation office for 28 years and was planning to retire in two years and open an accounting consulting practice. He had recently begun a postgraduate degree in business, but was also undertaking other courses in computer-assisted auditing for personal interest. He went on to list other passionate interests that he pursued through learning activities in Chinese, yachting and photography.

Two individuals who were currently unemployed also described their orientation to learning in terms of seeking challenge and ‘stretching’. One, a 58-year-old woman described herself with ‘an insatiable appetite to learn’, but feeling that sometimes she was ‘unable to pull together knowledge’. The other, a 56-year-old who had been made redundant from a large bank and actively seeking work, was in the meantime enjoying seeking ad-hoc learning opportunities through volunteering on different boards, contracting with health care, and attending arts lectures. Beyond these two individuals who were not tied to any particular organization at the time of interviewing, the others who reflected this diverging inclination said they chose learning endeavors according to what questions interested them most. In some cases this was related to the job, and in others to their broader lives. As a 52-year-old sales manager said, ‘learning is not about what will help me at work, but is it interesting and relevant to my life now – is it about the bigger me’.

Overall, an ‘outreaching’ orientation does not appear to be particularly linked with employment status or success, role, access to resources and networks, or even proximity to retirement. In fact, the motivating theme voiced by many interviewees who we associated with outreaching was similar to those who performed a more consolidating orientation to knowledge: a commitment and the confidence as an older professional to follow one's own interests in knowledge development.


A third learning orientation suggested a decision to re-direct or re-position one's knowledge development in a new focus. Sometimes this was related to a new job, or a decision to reframe one's job – not just another career transition involving new learning, but a major re-directing of one's energies and professional identity. One 54-year-old man who had left his position as director of finance due to company restructuring, for example, said that he was now deliberately re-positioning himself by learning cost accounting for specific implementations. Another had, at 59, decided to become the ERP (enterprise resource planning) expert at his chemical firm: he explained that he had watched this area grow in importance, and finally had decided to learn all he could about it as his final contribution to the company. He also was clearly re-positioning himself as a knower within the firm, as someone with valuable and recognizable knowledge to offer.

In direct contrast to literature expressing concern about older workers’ capacity or willingness to learn in and for such major adjustments, these professionals expressed enthusiasm for the knowledge development processes required in re-positioning. One woman, 62, who left a job as systems analyst in manufacturing after 15 years to become controller for an insurance firm, describing this as a ‘big change in scope of responsibility and nature of activity, explains this willingness:

[T]he learning is easier now than in previous job shifts. Before it was a struggle to find out how to do it, who I had to talk to, who I had to get authorization from. Now it's a lot easier – because, my age, you know, the confidence in what I'm doing and the maturity from my age.

The increased ease and desire for learning as an older professional is attributed not only to personal confidence and ‘contentment’ with one's own decisions and positions as a knower, but also to the increased learning opportunities that some felt they enjoyed in later career stages.

I've reached a level that I'm comfortable at. I'm content. And that changes your perspective on a lot of things. But my intensity and my desire and need to learn has increased over the past five years compared to 10–15 yrs ago. It's because the job that I have, there is more to it, responsibility and scope. If there is something I need to learn I want to learn it. It's a question of an opportunity to learn. (male, senior bank manager, 59)

About one-third of this group talked explicitly about re-positioning themselves to mentor the knowledge development of younger professionals: ‘ending my career doing something really, really good. Really positive and to help someone, you know, really help them to be successful’. One explained this as a general re-positioning away from self-interest to promoting others:

You're progressing in your career and moving upwards and want to have the sharpest best skills to move ahead, show you're better than others, and continue to be promoted. Then you reach a certain stage of a career where it becomes less self-focused and a progression to mentoring others. This starts to drive areas you're more interested in, which tend to be more around leadership and management capability – that's what I can help others in my organization with rather than the technical skills. (male, corporate secretary multi-national oil and gas company, 57)

Whether re-directing their knowledge development focus to their own new job and new area of expertise, or to developing other, younger professionals’ knowledge, these older professionals appear to do so deliberately, strategically and enthusiastically. More than a simple transition, this orientation seems to reflect changes that shift one's professional learning in fundamentally new directions. As one woman explained, ‘Re-positioning is about re-positioning your own knowledge identity’.


A much smaller percentage of the interviewees reflected an orientation to knowledge development that was more about distancing than re-engaging in learning. Here, this orientation has been termed ‘disengaging’, but this should not be taken to indicate resistance or any sort of disengagement from good professional practice or from knowledge practices in particular. More accurately, these older professionals described themselves variously as ‘slowing down’, ‘phasing myself out’, or as ‘giving the new guys the training’. This position was most often expressed in relation to impending retirement:

Of course I'm gearing up, I don't have that many years, so you know you get this kind of ender's disease where you're going to go pretty quick, so – how much do you want to invest in a project? I don't really want to learn this new model and these new skills. (woman, academic in a business faculty, 61)

Besides a personal decline in developing new professional knowledge, there was also a sense of wasted organizational resources.

Would you send me and spend 5 to $7,000, when I only got two to three years to be here? when the guy two doors over is more likely going to be the chief accountant and maybe you'd be bringing him up to speed.… What I'm more interested in learning is, do I have enough to retire on and what do I need to do to retire? (male chief accountant, pulp mill, 59)

Clearly, too, at least some older professionals were turning to focus more on knowledge related to their lives post-employment. However, some indicated a sense of having learned as much as they could with no real desire to develop any further knowledge, at least, not in terms of their professional work. One man, 63, a controller at an engineering firm, described his learning as having ‘slowed down, I've already covered most of what's on offer’. Another man, 61, controller at a large construction firm said that although he had no interest in retiring, that there also was ‘not much more I can learn to do the job better – life has stabilized’. One man explained that ‘fifteen years ago I was more accepting and gung-ho [about learning] … I don't see anything I need to develop at this stage’. There is in these statements a suggestion of a learning trajectory, one that was more active at some period in the past, but which has come to rest with the contentment of one's practice and position as a knower.

While interviewees who expressed a ‘disengaging’ orientation to professional learning and knowledge development were mostly in their late 50s or early-mid 60s, it must be recalled that other professionals in this age group expressed very different orientations of increased engagement, either in consolidating, outreaching, or re-positioning their knowledge. Nonetheless, it seems natural that at least some individuals were conscious of shifting interests as they enacted a final stage of a professional career, preparing for what came next.


Amidst the increasing concerns about retention and development of older workers, particularly through increasing what has been perceived to be their declining participation in continuous learning, research has shown that older workers are a complex group that cannot be universalized with such assumptions. We focused specifically on professionals, asking: How do these older accounting professionals conceptualize their work knowledge and learning in the face of increased demands for continuous learning? In what specific ways, and to what extent, do older professionals participate in learning? We found, first, that these older professionals engaged intensively and eclectically in developing knowledge through wide-ranging resources and strategies, in some cases more intensively than they recalled doing so in their earlier career periods. Second, these older professionals were particularly focused and strategic in how they engaged with knowledge. Most also resisted being viewed and assessed as ‘learners’, particularly evident in the almost unanimous resentment of the ‘school kid’ requirement to submit annual records of their ‘professional learning activities’. They expected to decide for themselves what knowledge to develop and how. They expressed a sense of position and capacity as knowers, understanding their own priorities according to the demands of particular professional situations and roles, and deliberately selecting knowledge strategies accordingly. Again and again they referred to finding freedom, as older professionals, from learning driven by others’ decisions of what knowledge was most valuable – whether in relation to managers’ goals, accreditation requirements, professional development courses, or just the general onslaught of change and new information.

However it is useful to note that the kinds of knowledge they spoke about was, with very few exceptions, all related to improvement of professional practices. That is, almost all examples of learning offered by these older professionals focused on job performance rather than on critical questioning of factors compelling particular job performances or privileging particular knowledges. Clearly their narratives revealed many of the dynamics dominating literature about changing professionalisms and conditions of practice: the shift to organizational accountabilities with increased audit and managerialism (Evetts 2009), the co-production and interprofessional work arrangements (Lee and Dunston 2009), and the intensified workload and pace of change. However, most interviewees seemed comfortably accustomed to manouevring in and around these structures to balance what Stronach et al. (2002) called the conflicting discourses of ‘ecologies of practice’ with ‘economies of performance’. That is, in each new situation whether a job change or new regulatory protocol, most figured out the activities and level of challenge that suited them most, then arranged ways to learn what they needed to engage these effectively. While some mentioned the relentless pace of change and the deluge of information, and incidentally the need for self-protective strategies of focusing and selecting what they engaged with, none registered critical concern about this change other than a few mentions of being ‘tired’. In fact, many of their own knowledge development strategies were for adapting to continuous organizational restructuring, new jobs and new procedures. Yet they didn't simply continue to drift through different knowledges according to demands of market and organization: they adopted orientations like ‘consolidating’ and ‘re-positioning’ through which they created a stance, an anchor for themselves, almost a self-protective way of retaining recognizable value without being forced to continually ‘shapeshift’ to adapt to new work orders (Gee et al. 1996). In total there seemed to be, among these older professional workers, little critical challenge to the larger systems and forces in which they they worked, and in fact they appeared to accept the demand for their personal resilience. While almost all resented the drive for learning exerted by their professional association, this resentment never appeared to be directed at the pace or structure of their work organizations themselves.

Overall, these older professionals appeared to determine for themselves, and to defend, particular positions as knowers. This discussion highlighted four orientations to knowledge development that emerged in their descriptions of themselves as knowers and their knowledge-seeking endeavors. These four orientations of consolidating, outreaching, re-positioning, and disengaging are intended to suggest broad and overlapping tendencies, not discrete categories or a comprehensive typology. More accurately, they can be taken to suggest identifiable differences across older professionals in how they position and direct their learning, while demonstrating a strong general commitment to and interest in learning. Only a small percentage reflect the sorts of disengagement from continuous professional learning that have been envisioned in a general policy concern about older workers’ participation. This finding alone raises interesting questions about how little we may understand older professionals’ approaches to and participation in learning.

Most prescriptions for older workers and learning begin and end with recommendations for more learning opportunities to be provided. This study suggests that rather different approaches might be more helpful. First, employers and the professional association perhaps should be concerned less with provision of learning/training and more with explicit recognition and valuing of mature professionals’ knowledge, their views of professional knowledge, and their approaches to learning. Second, processes for assessment of learning may focus less on listing quantities of personal learning activities and more on engaging older professionals in explaining their current areas of interest, the resources/activities that they find most useful, or the ways they are fostering knowledge development in their organizations. Third, employers and professional associations might take time to understand older professionals’ unique orientation to knowledge development, and their reasons for this orientation. Some may desire new challenges, others to deepen what they already know, some more explicit opportunities to share knowledge with colleagues, and others to focus on learning for a new, post-employment sphere of living.

Finally, given the disparity between this study's findings and previous research indicating older workers’ lower participation in learning (Pillay et al. 2003, Porcellato 2006), there clearly is need for greater precision in conceptualizing the category of ‘older worker’. Perhaps important distinctions accrue to professionally trained knowledge workers, or to practitioners in the financial sector, or to professionals experiencing high rates of change in regulations or job change. It is also possible that older professionals’ engagements in learning vary regionally, culturally and historically: the findings of this study of management accountants trained in the 1970s and 1980s practicing in oil-rich western Canada just prior to the global financial crisis may be very different from studies based in parts of Europe at the present historic moment. Further comparative research on different locations, disciplines and work arrangements of older workers and older professional workers, in context of changing regulations, expectations and conditions of practice, may be very useful in the general development of this body of research.

This study has established that at least some groups of older professionals take professional learning very seriously, on their own terms. They position themselves in diverse ways as knowers and are strategic and focused in accessing learning strategies related to these particular knowledge orientations, which may range from consolidating to outreaching, or from re-positioning to disengaging. Policy development might consider a dual foci: first, promoting employers’ and professional associations’ recognition and valuing of older professionals’ distinctive and contextually effective knowledge strategies; and second, promoting wider understanding and response to older professionals’ adoption of particular knowledge orientations. While these may not on the surface appear to be consistent with fashionable notions of continuous innovation, they may offer a more realistic insight into how people actually engage knowledge and position themselves as knowers in mature career stages.


This chapter is based on articles published in Vocations and Learning (Fenwick 2012a) and Human Relations (Fenwick 2012b).


1 The two-year study ‘Informal learning and the Older Professional Worker: Learning Practices, Challenges and Supports’ conducted 2008–2009 in Alberta was funded by the Canada Council for Learning/CCA. Sixty individuals 50+ were interviewed and 270 were surveyed. Full details of the study and methods are available in Fenwick (2012a) and Fenwick (2012b).

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