MET:Education for the 3rd Age

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This page originally authored by Melissa Ayers (2010). This page has been modified by Dee Dee Sung (2011) This page has been modified by Kimberley Gibson (2016)

The "Third Age" is the stage of life reached after the Second Age of working life and home making. For many, the Third Age provides opportunities to spread their wings and do things they could only dream about when they had work and family responsibilities.



Third Age n (Sociology) the. old age, esp when viewed as an opportunity for travel, further education, etc. Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged © HarperCollins Publishers 1991, 1994, 1998, 2000, 2003 [1]

Third Agers are characterised as being in the latter half of their working lives. Their children are maturing and ready to fly the nest. For those who are working they are at the peak of their careers and most likely in the midst of their prime earning years.

Notably in the 21st century they are living longer and staying healthier than ever before. Above all, it's the time of their lives characterised by a sense of accomplishment and possible fresh starts. They are the most affluent of all generations holding two-thirds of the private wealth of their communities. [2]

Evolution of the Third Age

Who are the Third Agers?

The Third Age is a relatively modern phenomenon which includes men and women in the age range between 50 to 70 years of age. Some have to continue working due to their economic status while others have the freedom to enjoy life without financial concerns.

One research study reported that two most typical characteristics of people who enrol in U3A educational institutes and activities were high economic status and an extensive educational background - with almost 80% possessing undergraduate or advanced degrees (Bynum, Seaman, 1993).

Motivations for enrolling in educational programs in the Third Age are different than in previous Ages where education is primarily to prepare individuals for society and the work force. With more leisure time, more money and better health than previous generations, today's retirees embrace continual learning for a number of reasons. Retirement increasingly provides the opportunity for people to learn things not previously feasible due to work and family commitments, lack of opportunity, availability or cultural reasons. Research has identified some key motivational themes of why retirees embark on continued learning.

  • Desire to give something back to the community - half of all adults aged 50 to 70 are interested in work that will help improve the quality of life in their communities (Craiglow, 2009)
  • Cognitive interest - one study listed this as the most influential motivator (Ahjin & Sharan, 2004)
  • Concerns about dementia - the notion of “use it or lose it” in connection with brain health is widely believed by the general public to be true and is gaining increasing support from the scientific community. (Elderhostel, Inc. 2007)
  • Social contact - one study listed this as the second most influential motivator (Ahjin & Sharan, 2004)
  • Live changing events - such as forced early retirement or death of a spouse
  • Desire to remain independent - not wanting to rely on family during their old age.

Historical Place in Society

William A. Sadler, Ph.D, Director of Research at the Center for Third Age Leadership developed a "Four Age" framework to interpret the life course associated with aging.

  • The First Age. A time for growing up – Preparation
  • The Second Age. A time to establish ourselves – Achievement
  • The Third Age. A time to change course – Fulfillment
  • The Fourth Age. A time for integration – Completion

Dr. Sadler recategorized the Third Age of the life cycle. Originally referred to as a time of 'retirement', it is now regarded as a time of fulfillment. This period, from approximately 50 to 70-80 years, is now taking on new dimensions as a result of one redefining what retirement looks like. In his research, he discovered that the Third Age presents new possibilities in the life course. This discovery is of great importance to individuals, our society, and lifelong learning programs.

Formal Educational Opportunities for Third Agers

Nearly 3 in 10 Americans will be over the age of 55 by 2030. With an increase in longevity and growing economic uncertainties come monumental shifts in life transitions for older adults. As a result, this group is looking for greater mobility across learning, work, and community environments.

Now, lifelong learning will play a more critical role than ever before. With that in mind, how can colleges and universities more effectively address the factors that drive older adults to postsecondary education? How might they broaden this group's participation? And given the country's current economic crisis, how can colleges and universities work collaboratively, creatively, and resourcefully with other sectors to meet older adults' educational needs? [3]

University of the Third Age (U3A)

The U3A concept was founded in 1972 at L'Universite du Troisieme in Toulouse, France. The intention was to provide lifelong learning opportunities to older adults. Met with next to immediate success, it soon spread to other European countries. Soon an international body known as the International Association of Universities of the Third Age (AITUTA) was established with the aims of promoting active learning, research and community among Third Agers everywhere. The French U3A model was based on the current university model and U3A committee members negotiated with the universities for use of its facilities and tuition.

In 1981, U3A was introduced to Britain at Cambridge University. The model differed from the French model in that it was more for community-based groups rather than direct affiliation with a university. It became a movement based on self-help and mutual aid—a kind of "intellectual democracy" and went on to become known as the "Cambridge" or "British" model.

Peter Laslett along with other founders created the Objects and Principles that would be the basis of U3A in the UK, which got up and running in a timeline between 1982 to 1994. The following table contains some of main founding objectives.

Sample of U3A Objects and Principles Laslett Principle #
By sharing their learning, U3A members help one another to develop their knowledge, skills and experience. 1
U3As neither require nor award any qualifications. 2, 8 & 14
U3As arrange and support their own programmes as appropriate to their chosen learning activities. 10
U3A members regard themselves as both learners and teachers. 1 & 7
U3As offer learning activities which reflect members’ wishes and which aim to satisfy the widest possible range of interests: educational, cultural, recreational, physical and social. 6,9,14 & 15
U3A members regard themselves as both learners and teachers. 1 & 7

The self-help model was very successful in both the UK and many other countries throughout the world. In his article An International Perspective of the University of the Third Age, Richard Swindell (1995) gives and excellent overview of the U3A education movement in each country. It is doubtful the movement would have been as successful as it has if it had had to rely on support from Government and Universities (STM Learning Support Group, 2003).

Although the two models differed, they continue to share the same objective - that of encouraging older people to remain active in their retirement and to continue lifelong learning.

Meanwhile in the USA, where the term U3A is relatively unheard of, Lifelong Learning Institutes (LLIs) and Institutes of Learning in Retirement (ILRs) emerged. Like the British model, these are community based and often member conducted and like the French model, many are affiliated with colleges and universities (Swindell 1995). One of the first of these organisations was the Institute for Retired Professionals founded in 1962.

Along with campus based universities, online/virtual offerings came about specifically aimed at Third Agers who were geographically, physically or socially isolated. The first of these being U3A Online hosted by Griffith University in Australia. Throughout the 80s another type of educational experienced gained popularity - educational travel. One of the first such companies was Exploritas from the Elderhostel Institute Network in the USA which was soon followed by other such as Odyssey Travel in Australia.

The following highlights some of the typical U3A/ILR course offerings, these are from U3A Melbourne City

  • languages –French, Italian, Japanese, Spanish, German
  • history and insights into other cultures
  • cinema, literature, writing, book discussion, Shakespeare
  • economics, current affairs, media insights
  • music ensemble, choir
  • painting, craft, floristry
  • chess, mahjong, cryptic crosswords
  • nutrition, exercise, relaxation and yoga
  • philosophy, psychology, personal development
  • digital photography, computers, internet

U3A Movement

" U3A - the University of the Third Age - is an international movement that encourages retired people to take part in lifelong learning activities for pleasure. U3As allow people to study in a relaxed environment at low cost. There are no prior qualifications, no exams and no degrees awarded. U3As are like universities in the original sense of the word - communities of people who come together to learn from one another. U3As are learning cooperatives of older people. By offering many educational, creative and leisure activities to their members, they encourage positive ageing.

U3As draw on the huge resource of skills and experience of people in their Third Age, which is sometimes called 'the age of active retirement'. It's the stage of life reached after the First Age of childhood and dependence, and the Second Age of working life and home making. For many the Third Age provides opportunities to spread their wings and do things they could only dream about when they had work and family responsibilities."

Globally, U3As now have millions of members but for various reasons not all call themselves by that name. Some use the title Seniors' Universities, especially in China; some are called Institutions of Learning in Retirement, as in the USA; while in Australia the name varies, according to the state or territory, on the use of the word "University".

U3As can be found in many countries around the world including, the UK, France, Australia, Dominican Republic, South Africa, Scotland, USA and New Zealand. Programs are offered both in a classroom environment as well as online.

Simon Fraser University (SFU) Seniors Program

SFU was the first university in North America to create a series of specially designed courses for seniors at the post-secondary level. Its mandate was to provide educational programs for older adults that were responsive to their unique psychological and physiological characteristics.

"One of the greatest needs of older adults is the challenge of an important personal goal. Such a program, the first of its kind on this continent, could serve that need and others. I think it is within S.F.U.’s capability to mount a diploma program for older adults that in content and methodology would be highly rewarding both for its students and this institution." - Jack Blaney, Dean of Continuing Education, 29 November 1974.

Informal Educational Opportunities for Third Agers

Volunteerism & Mentorship

Lifelong learning can include volunteerism and mentorship. Many Third Agers find themselves in a position to give of their time and talent to help others learn from their expertise and experience in their fields of interest.

Non-credit continuing education

While many U3A Universities offer courses in a broad range of categories including languages, cooking, yoga, personal development, and music, Third Agers also seek these learning opportunities through more informal instructional settings. Participating in these informal programs offers the ability to further expand one's network of friendships and the ability to broaden one's scope of interests.

Economic Implications for Third Agers

Third Agers represent a powerful economic force and for this reason are of significant interest to a number of industries. This segment accounts for more than half of consumer spending, more than three-quarters of all prescription drug spending, 60% of over-the-counter medicine and 80% of all leisure travel. In addition, Third Agers boast high home ownership rates and education levels. The American Council For Education (ACE) report suggests that higher education institutions should proactively court this group for the pivotal role these institutions can play in maximizing this group's role in the nation's future.

See also




  • U3A Signpost - signposts to educational resources of a (mostly) non-computer nature to be found on the world-wide-web.

Associations & Universitites

  • The Third Age Trust - the national representative body for the Universities of Third Age (U3As) in the UK.
  • U3A in China - Which country has the largest number of U3As? The answer is clearly China, with 19,300 U3As and 1.81 million members (2002).


  • Thornton, J., Harold, S. (1992). Education in the third age: Canadian and Japanese perspectives. Vancouver: Pacific Educational Press.
  • A fresh map of life: the emergence of the third age By Peter Laslett - Laslett argues that the Third Age - beyond the breadwinning and child-rearing years - is that of greatest personal fulfilment, the apogee of life. Combining social history, sociology and philosophy, this book provokes new thinking on one of the crucial changes in the modern world.
  • Learning in later life: an introduction for educators & carers By Peter Jarvis - "Third age" learning is increasingly commonplace, as is the provision for teaching those in later life, whether it is pre-retirement training provided by employers or more formal education. Alongside this, the study of gerontology is now common as part of education studies and on most nursing, social work and medical courses. This is a book about learning throughout the whole of life. Written as a text for both educators and carers, it demonstrates how the learning process works though life and how learning at all stages of life is best achieved
  • Introduction to educational gerontology By Ronald H. Sherron, D. Barry Lumsden - Educational gerontology is the study of the changes in the learning process caused by old age. This new edition provides an update of developments in this field of research. The volume probes topics such as implications for education for the aging, reminiscence, methods of teaching, social exchange and equal opportunity.
  • Old age and agency By Emmanuelle Tulle - This book is about rethinking the ways in which we make sense of social action or agency in later life. The contributions in this collection challenge traditional academic approaches to the study of later life, which, arguably, often deny older people agency. Social gerontology, and the wider society, should be more reflexive and rather than contribute to the continued marginalisation of older people, should draw attention to the extent to which the latter's actions may be understood within the set of normalising discourses which people have to manage and negotiate as they get old. The purpose of this collection is to continue this process, by providing philosophical, theoretical, conceptual and empirical direction for a reflexive social gerontology. This book argues that the management of later life has become complex, caught as it is within a broad discourse which continues to construct old age as a time of decline and dependency but has shifted the burden of responsibility for the avoidance of decline on individuals.
  • Adult learning and development: perspectives from educational psychology By M. Cecil Smith, Thomas Pourchot - Adult education occurs whenever individuals engage in sustained, systematic learning in order to affect changes in their attitudes, knowledge, skills, or belief systems. Learning, instruction, and developmental processes are the primary foci of educational psychology research and theorizing, but educational psychologists' work in these domains has centered primarily on the childhood and adolescent school years. More recently, however, a number of educational psychologists have studied learning and development in adulthood. The results of these efforts have resulted in what is now called adult educational psychology.
  • Intergenerational approaches in aging: implications for education ..., Part 1 By Kevin Brabazon, Robert Disch - In Intergenerational Approaches in Aging: Implications for Education, Policy, and Practice, leading practitioners and academics from a variety of disciplines come together to discuss theoretical issues, current practice, and future directions for this rapidly developing field. The authors address key topics such as defining the intergenerational field, the effects of the segregation of groups by age on social function and organization in our communities, and designing, implementing, and assessing programs that create cross-generational connections.

Research groups & reports

  • FIRST REPORT - Reinvesting in the Third Age: Older Adults and Higher Education - the American Council on Education’s two-year research project which through an extensive literature review, as well as discussions with leaders in higher education and other sectors, Framing New Terrain provides a profile of the country’s older adults, aged 55 to 79—the prime years during which people are actively choosing how they will spend the third age of their lives.
  • [4] - "Reinvesting in The Third Age", First Report from the American Council on Education and the MetLife Foundation
  • [5] - "Reinvesting in The Third Age", Second Report from the American Council on Education and the MetLife Foundation
  • [6] - "Changing Life Options: Uncovering the riches of the Third Age"
  • [7] - "Retirement? Getting a whole new definition" - For people in the 45 to 75 age bracket, they might be leaving their jobs, but they are not slowing their careers. They are finally boldly doing what they have always wanted to do.

Stop Motion Animation

Education for the Third Age - Stop Motion by Kimberley Gibson


  • Ahjin K., & Sharan B. M. (2004). Motivations for Learning Among Older Adults in a Learning in Retirement Institute. Educational Gerontology, 30: 441–455, Retrieved on Feb 24th, 2010 from
  • American Council on Education. (2007). First Report - Reinvesting in the Third Age: Older Adults and Higher Education. Retrieved on Feb 24th, 2010 from
  • Bynum, Louise L., & Seaman, Michael A. (1993). Motivations of Third-Age Students in Learning-in-Retirement Institutes. Continuing Higher Education Review, v57 n1-2 p12-22 Win-Spr. Retrieved on Feb 24th, 2010 from ERIC
  • Craiglow, J. (2009). Re-careering Older Adults to Serve Society. Retrieved on Feb 24th, 2010 from
  • Elderhostel, Inc. (2007). Mental Stimulation and Lifelong Learning Activities in the 55+ Population. Retrieved on Feb 24th, 2010 from
  • Formosa, M. (2000). Older Adult Education in a Maltese University of the Third Age: a critical perspective. Education and Ageing, Volume 15, Number 3. Retrieved on Feb 24th , 2010 from
  • Kerka, S. (1999). Universities of the Third Age: Learning in Retirement. Trends and Issues Alert No. 2. Retrieved on Feb 24th , 2010 from
  • Linnehan, M., & Naturale C. (1998). The Joy of Learning in Retirement. The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, Vol. 69,. Retrieved on Feb 24th , 2010 from
  • Picton, C., & Yuen, C. (1998). Educational interests and motivations of older adult learners: A comparative study between Australia and China. Ageing International, Volume 24, Numbers 2-3 / June, 24-45
  • Sadler, W. (2004). Growing through the Third Age and Redefining Retirement With Life Portfolios and Third Age Careers. Retrieved on Feb 22nd, 2011 from]
  • STM Learning Support Group, (2003). The UK/U3A approach to Life Long Learning. Retrieved on Feb 24th, 2010 from
  • Swindell, R. (2002). U3A Online: a virtual university of the third age for isolated older people. International Journal of Lifelong Education, Volume 21, Issue 5, 414-429. Retrieved on Feb 24th , 2010 from
  • Thornton, J., Harold, S. (1992). Education in the third age: Canadian and Japanese perspectives. Vancouver: Pacific Educational Press.
  • Williamson, A.(2007). You're never too old to learn!': Third-Age perspectives on lifelong learning. International Journal of Lifelong Education, Volume 16, Issue 3, 173-184