GAME CHANGERS: BOOMERS IN THE CLASSROOM                       by Joanne Mackay-Bennett

originally published in the 2014 Summer Issue

These days when you say that your grandparents rock, you don’t mean in a rocking chair! Baby boomers, many of whom are now seniors, have dramatically changed the face of retirement. They are curious, healthy, engaged and more likely to be learning about social media or taking a dance class than retiring to a sedentary life.


In the eighteen year period following World War II, 8.2 million babies were born in Canada. Now firmly bracketed between the ages of 50 and 68, boomers continue to defy stereotypical notions of what is age-appropriate.


As the idea of retirement at 65 is itself becoming a relic, boomers tend to approach their senior years with the same iconoclasm that typified their youth. For them, ‘the golden years’ means a time for learning or improving skills, for exploring personal interests and for maintaining their physically fit lifestyles.


At Overland Learning Centre (55 Overland Drive), one of the TDSB sites for continuing education, General Interest classes cover everything from Art to Zumba. On a recent Saturday morning, I spoke to a group of senior students and discovered what it is that keeps them coming back to school.


Cynthia, an educator with a graduate degree who has taught every level from kindergarten to university, and a jazz musician, enrolled at Overland because she needed to develop her computer skills. She has job interviews coming up. “You simply cannot expect to get a job today without computer competence,” she tells me. Exuding an enthusiasm for the new, Cynthia sees her current class in Excel as just one in a long line of future classes: “It’s impossible to learn everything there is to learn about computers!”


Like Cynthia, Joan and Claire are also enrolled in computer-related classes, but for different reasons. It was Joan’s teenaged son who made it clear to her that her computer skills needed some serious updating. Like many parents, Joan feels that “getting” computers is one way of keeping in touch with the younger generation.


As a freelance visual artist and photographer, Claire is aware of the importance of being able to build and maintain a website in order to showcase her work. She has taken classes in Photoshop and Web Design and is already planning on taking a course next year in Microsoft Office.


Typically, boomers like Bob (not his real name), are highly-motivated learners. They are curious by nature. In fact, Bob was so ahead of the curve that when his parents discovered that he had bought a computer in the 1980’s, they wanted him to return it and get his money back! With almost ten years of Continuing Ed. courses under his belt, he knows that mastering computer technology is vital in today’s fluctuating job market. “Companies don’t have any loyalty anymore when it comes to their employees,” he says. “You have to keep upgrading your skills even for contract work.”


Boomers like Marietta, Kris and William, enroll in recreational classes for the joy of physical activity and for the social component. All three are taking ballroom dancing and to listen to them talk about how much fun it is, you want to sign up! For Marietta and Kris who have been married for 31 years and are both still working, dance class allows them to spend time together as a couple and immediately introduces them to a like-minded circle of friends. “We often go out dancing as a group during the week,” Marietta tells me. “It’s a great way to meet new people and to have fun.”


What came through loud and clear in my conversations, is that there is a huge demand for more General Interest classes, not fewer! Seniors are constantly being advised to remain intellectually, socially and physically active. Is there a better way to accomplish all three than to sign up for a class? The boomer market is well, booming, and the government would be wise to take note.


Here’s my advice to them: Tap into the spirit of curiosity that animates this demographic and save some of the costs of caring for isolated seniors. The drive to learn, that so many boomers and seniors possess, is all about health. As Bob told me, “I just can’t stop learning!” 

Toronto, Canada