Competencies in later life

PIAAC is limited in ignoring older generations. A German study CiLL analyses seniors' skills. Findings point to underused potential of seniors.



The article provides an overview on two studies on competencies in adulthood, PIAAC and CiLL. Limitations in the sample of PIAAC (16- to 65-year-old people) led to a further study called CiLL, which analyses the 66- to 80-year-old population in Germany. Study design and first results of the interviews and assessments are presented and potentials of competencies in later life are discussed with regard to six aspects. In conclusion, consequences for education policy and adult education practitioners are suggested.

Background and limitations of PIAAC

The “Program for International Assessment of Adult Competencies” (PIAAC) marks a next generation in research programs on the basic skills and literacies of adults, following the tradition of the “International Adult Literacy Survey” (IALS) and the “Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey” (ALL). In line with these previous studies, PIAAC delivers internationally comparable data on literacy and numeracy among adults in 23 OECD member states; however, it also includes a third domain called “problem-solving in a technology-rich environment” (PIAAC Expert Group, 2009), which hasn’t been investigated in other studies yet. The data PIAAC provides offers a lot of important information on the state of adults’ competencies in the three domains, thus opening up a rich field of opportunities for national and international comparison and analysis (OECD, 2013).

PIAAC results point to the need for basic education for adults, even in many highly developed countries, and reveal social disparities and inequalities in several states. While the ranking of countries in the different fields of competencies may be useful in that it triggers a public debate in some of these countries, the number of illiterates is probably the most important message for adult education practice and a call to improve educational offers in that field. From a scientific point of view, it is not so much the distribution of competencies in the different countries, but rather the differences between subgroups which point to social inequalities and structural disadvantages within educational systems.

A previous national survey in Germany – called the Level One Study (LEO) – has already pointed on a high number of illiterates in Germany not only among the school dropouts (Grotlüschen & Riekmann, 2012). LEO started an intensive debate on illiteracy and was followed by a wide range of initiatives to promote and foster literacy in adulthood. Like PIAAC LEO was conceptualized as a cross-sectional study focusing on adults in their working phase of life. While LEO is only looking at reading abilities and in particular on the lower levels of literacy, PIAAC is broader by assessing three competency domains with a wider range of levels.

However, it has to be kept in mind that there are methodological limitations – mostly caused by the cross-sectional research design – as well as limitations regarding the focus of research, which was adjusted to OECD policies. Even though the temptation to see causal inferences in the PIAAC results seems to be so attractive that policy makers and even researchers can hardly resist interpreting the data in that way, it has to be made clear that a cross-sectional research design never allows for conclusions on causalities (Nagengast, 2009). In the case of PIAAC, this means that the data provides no evidence for any conclusions on factors determining literacy or other skills, nor does it yield new knowledge about the consequences of illiteracy. PIAAC reveals differences between different countries and different groups within a society by looking at their skills and competencies, but it is more than difficult to draw conclusions for political decisions purely based on PIAAC. All interpretations of causes and effects remain on the level of hypotheses or have to be informed by other research work. In line with that, PIAAC is above all an excellent starting point for further research, as had been true for the PISA studies some years ago, when – inspired by the PISA results – a lot of research work was done on the quality and effectiveness of school education in Germany (e.g. Prenzel et al., 2013).

When interpreting the PIAAC results, it also has to be taken into account that the study was not initiated by a neutral body, but inspired by politics and the interests of the OECD. This explains the strong focus on labor markets and on skills strongly related to employability. As the OECD is above all an association aiming at promoting economic development, there is no interest in educational activities and skills considered irrelevant to labor force and the sample is limited to adults of working age (up to the age of 65). Accordingly, PIAAC is not so much a study on adults’ skills, but on human resources for labor markets based on an assessment of some selected basic skills which, however, might also be highly relevant to other areas of life.

One of the most important achievements of PIAAC is that it provides a very solid base for further research and has inspired follow-up studies by pointing out highly relevant questions. In many countries, additional studies have already been realized and many more are to follow. In Germany, there are plans to incorporate PIAAC into a longitudinal study and two additional studies will provide deeper insight into the groups of low-skilled workers and older adults.

The CiLL study: Central idea and research questions

The study “Competencies in Later Life” (CiLL) is a supplementary study to the international research program PIAAC. The first phase of the study was begun in 2009, with the second phase starting in 2011. Identical survey tools were applied to a representative number of persons between the ages of 66 and 80. The study’s initiators, the German Institute for Adult Education and the Pedagogical Institute at the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich (LMU), based their project on the fact that educational studies on adult competencies should not exclude people over 65 years of age. On the one hand, individual life situations at an advanced age become increasingly diverse and may even include the continuation of professional activities; on the other hand, ageing societies require more competencies and involvement among senior citizens to cope with the demographic challenges.

Like many other OECD states, Germany is an ageing society. According to the German Federal Institute for Population Research, the average life expectancy in 2006 was 82 years for women and 77 years for men (Federal Statistical Office, 2006, p. 38). Forecasts predict declining population figures for Germany, suggesting that one third of the population will be aged 60 or older by 2050.

Table 1: Size of CiLL sample and gender/ age distribution (unweighted data)

Table 1

The CiLL survey phase revealed that the PIAAC survey program would have been also applicable to older age groups without any major problems. Out of 3.600 addresses drawn, 1.340 household interviews were conducted (response rate 40%). Several people were either not available or refused to participate. The predominant excuse for not participating was a general refusal to take part in surveys of this kind. Age-specific reasons for non-participation were hardly to be found. When comparing the PIAAC and CiLL survey results, two major differences immediately become apparent.


  • The background questionnaire of PIAAC focuses on the current employment situation. During the interview, detailed questions about the profession and employment situation were asked, which could not be included to the same extent in CiLL.
  • Senior citizens less often used a computer for competence assessment than younger test persons. This was particularly significant since the assessment of “problem solving” could only be carried out with the use of a computer.


Overall, nearly 30% of the age cohort surveyed used a computer to solve the tasks of “problem solving in a technology-rich environment”, but the vast majority of more than 70% used the test booklets instead (Friebe & Gebrande, 2013, p. 56). Additional steps are now taken to establish the competence levels attained, and particular variables are examined with regard to their effect on competence characteristics. The following independent variables are taken into account: age, gender, education, family background, urban environment/rural environment, former profession, health, use of media, and participation in continuing education.

The following research questions are covered by the CiLL project:

(1) Which everyday competencies can be observed among senior citizens?
(2) To what extent do elderly people show competencies in reading, writing, calculating and problem-solving?
(3) Which are the connections between the social data gathered by means of the background questionnaire and the competence levels?
(4) Which role do continuing education processes play in forming specific competencies?

The research program CiLL also includes qualitative research on competencies of the elderly in the context of their specific life situation. To date, around 50 qualitative interviews have been completed. These interviews contain information on how the interviewees perceive their competencies and on their living environment. Thus, the data provided by the PIAAC study was supplemented, examined closely, and critically evaluated (Friebe & Schmidt-Hertha, 2013).

Selected competencies of older adults in Germany

Following PIAAC, competencies of older adults were assessed in the three domains of literacy, numeracy and problem solving in a technology-rich environment.


Literacy was conceived of as “the ability to understand, evaluate, use and engage with written texts to participate in society, achieve one’s goals, and develop one’s knowledge and potential” (OECD, 2013, p. 59). It is important to note that the focus here lies exclusively on the ability to understand written texts, not spoken language. In both PIAAC and CiLL, “proficiency is considered a continuum of ability involving the mastery of information-processing tasks of increasing complexity” (OECD, 2013, p. 60). The literacy and numeracy scale range comprises 500 points and is divided into 6 levels. Levels 1 to 4 have a range of 50 points. Less than 175 points is below level 1 and over 376 points is level 5.

The average on the literacy scale is 236 points – located on level 2 – with a standard deviation of 43 points for the 66- to 80-year-old adults. This means that the average adult in the sample is able to handle texts with a low level of complexity, to distinguish relevant from irrelevant information, and to identify, evaluate and compare information given in the text. The highest level of literacy (level 5) is not reached at all in this age group and only 0.8% is located on level 4. Furthermore, the reading proficiency of half of the older adults’ sample is located on level 1 or below, which means that, at best, they are able to read short texts with a simple vocabulary and a simple structure.  Splitting the sample into three age-groups reveals significant differences. The two younger groups (66-70 and 71-75) show a significantly higher level of literacy (23 points more on the scale) than the oldest group of the 76- to 80-year-olds (p < .001). 

Figure 1: Percentage of adults in three age groups scoring at each proficiency level in literacy

Figure 1

Men and women do not differ significantly with regard to literacy levels, whereas a person´s level of schooling is a meaningful predictor for literacy even in later life, same being true for the level of education of the older adults’ parents.  Participants with less educated parents reach 222 points on average on the literacy scale, in contrast to participants with well-educated parents, who reach 252 points.


Numeracy is defined as “the ability to access, use, interpret and communicate mathematical information and ideas in order to engage in and manage the mathematical demands of a range of situations in adult life” (OECD, 2013, p. 59). On average, the 66- to 80-year-olds have a scale value of 240 points (standard deviation = 49 points). This means they are able to handle mathematical information with a low level of abstraction and to process tasks that afford only a small number of steps to solve the problem. In these cases, the older adults are able to order, count, estimate, compute, measure and interpret the data. In numeracy, there is a meaningful difference (16 points) between men and women, which remains significant (p<.001) even if level of schooling and age is controlled for. While almost the same percentage of men (41%) and women (42%) is located on level 2, by far more men (27% vs. 15%) show a proficiency level of 3 and more women a proficiency level of 1 (30% vs. 20%).

Figure 2: Percentage of men and women scoring at each proficiency level in numeracy

Figure 2

In numeracy, too, levels 4 and 5 are reached only very rarely. Less than 0.1% of the sample is to be found on level 5 and only 2.8% are located on level 4. A comparison of the three age groups within the sample shows that they differ significantly. The highest score can be found for the 66- to 70-year-old men (m=261), while the lowest score is found for the 76- to 80-year-old women (m=210), of whom 61% rank on numeracy level 1 or lower.  Looking at the educational background, numeracy increases with a higher level of schooling. Even if data is controlled for gender and age, older adults with no or only a low-level certificate achieve 27 points less on the numeracy scale than older adults with an intermediate school certificate and 48 points less than those with an A-level (p<.001). Only 12% of older adults with an A-level are allocated on proficiency level 1 or lower.

Problem-solving in a technology-rich environment

Problem solving in a technology-rich environment is defined as “the ability to use digital technology, communication tools and networks to acquire and evaluate information, communicate with others and perform practical tasks. The assessment focuses on the ability to solve problems for personal, work and civic purposes by setting up appropriate goals and plans, and accessing and making use of information through computers and computer networks” (OECD, 2013, p. 59).

As mentioned above, in the domain of “problem solving in a technology-rich environment”, data for only 29% of the sample is available because participation in this test affords basic computer literacy.  Only 9 % of the subsample able to handle the computer-based assessment is 76 or older. Competence levels here range from below 1 to 3. Level 3 is only reached by 0.3% of the older adults and level 2 by 10%; the majority of that group (49%) is located on level 1. The average score is 244 points, at the bottom of level 1. This means an average older person is able to process tasks with a clearly defined aim that afford only very few steps to get solved. The technology application should be simple and familiar, such as E-mail software or a web browser.

Potentials for competence development in later life

Competencies and skills in later life have to be seen primarily as a result of learning across the lifespan and consequently as a product of individual biographies and learning opportunities in different stages of life. Not surprisingly, basic skills like the ones measured by PIAAC and CiLL highly correlate with initial education, vocational biographies and engagement in adult education. Even for adults older than 65 the level of general and vocational education – usually achieved in youth and early adulthood – can explain a significant part of the variance in literacy and numeracy. Consequently, social disparities, which cause inequalities in the educational system, also influence competencies in later life as well as their uneven distribution across the population. When trying to develop competencies in later life, learning experiences in initial education and at the workplace have to be taken into account and the different groups of older adults have to be addressed with their specific competencies and experiences in mind.

However, even in later life new skills and competencies are developed, while others may be “unlearned” if they are not used any longer. What abilities and knowledge older adults possess is thus not only determined by their past but also correlated with current requirements, challenges, and inspirations, just as their attitudes, habits, and points of view govern the way they are dealing with learning opportunities. While the past is meaningful in explaining the genesis of competence profiles, current challenges and requirements drive the further development of skills. Our qualitative interview data revealed the significance of challenges in different areas of everyday life for learning and competence development in later life. On the one hand, this is true for tasks directly related to the organization of everyday things, such as the management of private financial resources or the gathering and understanding of information, e.g. related to health care. On the other hand, different activities in later life, like hobbies, civic engagement, honorary offices, etc., offer a broad range of new requirements and challenges to older people and can thus stimulate learning processes.

During their life course, adults develop strategies and heuristics to cope with challenges and new tasks (see also Kirchhöfer, 2000); this can be observed in later life, too. Previous learning experiences shape their attitudes towards learning and education (e.g. Schmidt, 2009) as well as their expectations regarding their own potential for learning and competence development. However, research on social milieus informs us about different concepts of personality as an inborn disposition or a developable set of competencies (Tippelt, Weiland, Panyr & Barz, 2003). In our case studies we found that differences in individual habits, in coping strategies, but also in self-perception are fundamental to older adults’ attitudes towards challenging tasks and to their openness to new experiences.

Even though this might be true for different stages in life, motives for learning change in later life when aims and challenges change. With the end of working life and the transition to retirement, new activities may be taken up to fill the additional time now available. Even if new interests may arise in later life, too, usually activities and fields of engagement that had already been part of a person´s life before retirement are now intensified, thus providing new tasks, challenges and opportunities for competence development. Research carried out in Germany indicates that these interests and activities are very important for a successful transition into the post-retirement phase of life (Adis, Reinhart & Stengel, 1996), and that one third of the older adults living in Germany are in one way or another active in fields of civic engagement, and even more would be interested and willing to participate (BMFSFJ, 2010). These engagements – like leisure activities – help older adults to structure their everyday lives and to discover new challenges, giving them the opportunity to contribute competencies developed during the lifespan and to develop new ones.

Changing roles within the family also provide learning opportunities, e.g. when adults become grandparents, thus taking on a new role and new tasks. It seems that older adults take this role very seriously; at least, this is indicated by the growing number of training concepts and educational programs aimed at adults becoming grandparents (e.g. Strom & Strom, 2000). Caring for grandchildren, helping them with their homework and participating in their activities (sports, excursions, etc.) offers new learning opportunities and helps older adults to revitalize school-related competencies. The social competencies and life experiences of older adults, in particular, gain in importance in the interaction with grandchildren.

Grandchildren may also play an important role in coping with age-specific developmental tasks like those theorized about by Erikson (2008). According to Erikson, the confrontation with one’s own biography and the acceptance of the individual life history constitutes a central need and a potential crisis in later life. The exploration of one’s own biography can lead to better self-knowledge and may thus contribute to the development of personal and emotional competencies. Furthermore, the transition from employment to retirement can be seen as a central developmental task in later adulthood, providing impulses for competence development, as mentioned above.

All in all, competence development in later life depends on former learning experiences and individual biographies as well as on current exigencies and challenges. The potential to build up new competencies or to develop existing skills is a permanent feature of human development at any age, and the same is true for developmental losses and the decrease of competencies (Baltes, 1993). When looking at the fourth age and the increased risk of suffering from dementia at a very old age, preventing or slowing down the loss of skills and abilities becomes a matter of concern to educational programs, too. The PIAAC and CiLL data cannot tell us in how far educational interventions are effective; however, it provides strong evidence for a correlation between individual lifestyle, living conditions, educational biography and selected basic competencies at any age.

Consequences for education policy and adult education practitioners

The PIAAC studies have been conducted in the participating countries on behalf and under the supervision of the OECD. The OECD sees a direct link between necessary basic competencies, individual education systems and educational policy in the participating countries (OECD, 2013). The knowledge and skills of present and future generations are regarded as factors essential for economic competitiveness, for the adaptability of labor markets, and for addressing the challenges of demographic change:

“With this information, the Survey of Adult Skills can help policy makers to:
-examine the impact of reading, numeracy and problem-solving skills on a range of economic and social outcomes;
-assess the performance of education and training systems, workplace practices and social policies in developing the skills required by the labour market and by society, in general; and
-identify policy levers to reduce deficiencies in key competencies.”
(OECD, 2013, p.25).

Two main arguments are introduced by the OECD and the national organizations responsible for PIAAC:

  •  The international comparison of competencies enables the participating countries to assess their rank in international benchmarking and to establish the weaknesses and strengths of the individual education systems. Development processes are revealed by the regular repetition of the survey.
  •  The national evaluation of competencies can be analyzed by referring to the data gathered with the background questionnaire. Thus, socio-demographic influences can be detected and performance differences between individual segments of the population can be identified and rectified.

Critics from the field of continuing education, both scientists and practitioners, are more skeptical towards the PIAAC study results. They wonder which adult competencies are actually covered by the three assessment domains (literacy, numeracy, problem solving). A second objection refers to the international comparison. Can different education systems and historical backgrounds actually be compared when assessing competence levels and credits? Finally, it has to be kept in mind that only a small proportion of the people surveyed participated in organized continuing education on a regular basis, thus raising the question whether the competencies and achievements assessed provide reliable information on the quality of the continuing education system (Gnahs, 2010, p. 102).

Overall, despite this criticism, PIAAC presents essential data for the science and practice of continuing education. However, it is necessary to conduct a differentiated evaluation of the extensive data record. Some factors influencing competencies of certain population groups are presented convincingly in the first evaluation reports (Rammstedt, 2013), e.g. the significant impact of school-leaving qualification. Other factors of influence are difficult to assess without further study, for instance the migration background of population groups is hard to grasp due to major changes in migration, in the reasons for immigration and the flow of refugees. Consequently, it is important to compare PIAAC results with other national and international surveys and to include findings from qualitative and longitudinal studies.

The CiLL study, although it relies mostly on the same research strategy as PIAAC, does differ in some points and therefore requires further evaluation with regard to its transferability. To begin with, since other OECD countries did not follow the German initiative, CiLL does not include an international comparison. Also, due to the higher age of the survey group, CiLL focuses more on everyday skills and less on job-related skills. And finally, CiLL data was supplemented by qualitative case studies, which support interpretations or refer to greater competencies at an older age. Although evaluation of the CiLL data has not yet been completed, an important need for action in educational policy and practice is already evident: it is necessary to increase educational participation of the elderly.

Table 2: Participation rates in adult education of the last 12 months, age-groups and gender

Table 2

Contributions to coping with the task of demographic change are a significant part of adult education. The connection between educational activity and a “general high potential for participation in various cultural and social activities” is evident (Strobel, Schmidt-Hertha & Gnahs, 2011), and educational activities help cope with typical age problems (Friebe & Gebrande, 2013, p. 50). An increased “healthy life expectancy” (WHO, 2002) has changed the possibilities of designing the third age. Older people wish to be increasingly active and engaged in society, they are still in employment or give family support. There is a strong link between a greater use of the potentials of older people in their post-retirement phase of life and participation in further training (Friebe, Gebrande & Schmidt-Hertha, 2013, p. 88).

Improving the basic preconditions for adult education is a central prerequisite for the better use of the resources of senior citizens. It implies realizing the right to continuing education, increasing funds, new forms of outreach educational work, overcoming access barriers and reinforcing lifelong learning. On this basis, the resources of the elderly, their experiences, social competencies, as well as the potentials assessed in PIAAC and CiLL can be included more effectively in social processes.


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