on’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 qualifi
cations for that second career, the boomers are ready for short,
demanding courses taught by passionate, wellprepared pro
“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 gen
eral, 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 under
standing 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,
Across Canada, very few seniors are pursuing regular credit courses,
says Mr. O’Heron; just 366 fulltime and 2,500 parttime seniors are en
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 consid
ering continuing for a PhD. But as a break from his serious studies, Mr.
O’Reilly took some personalinterest 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 treat
ing 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 Univer
sity 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 pop
ulation, 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 educa
tion. It was tucked into continuing education departments under commu
nity 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 cashstrapped days, at
full fare. No homework, no reading , no exam, no credit – but for many, no
challenge, and therefore no fun.