What research will show us – and what we need to understand about Competencies in Later Life

From left to right:

Jens Friebe
German Institute for Adult Education (Deutsches Institut für Erwachsenenbildung), Germany

Johanna Gebrande
Ludwig-Maximilians-University of Munich, Germany

Bernhard Schmidt-Hertha
Eberhard Karls University of Tuebingen, Germany

Abstract – The International PIAAC study has collected data on competencies of adults in three domains in 25 countries, in many of them for the first time ever. The article provides an overview of central terms, main aims and the methodological approach of this OECD study. It also discusses its potentials and limitations. One limitation is the focus on the labour force, excluding adults older than 65 years, a fast growing part of many populations in times of demographic change. To remedy this limitation, an extensional study in Germany was carried out with 1339 adults in the age group 66—80, using the PIAAC instruments and complementing them with additional qualitative inquiries.

The Millennium Development Goals and the Education for All goals are all set with measurable targets. This helps when we want to assess the success rate of the ambitiousprogrammes. Within Youth and Adult Education one problem is that we lack a lot of hard data to back up our claims and suggested targets. If the Adult Education community is to succeed in influencing the post 2015 agenda, we need more research results to underpin our claims. One interest ing research project comes out of OECD. It is called PIAAC. Rather than counting the number of enrolled students or the percentage of women and men in education, PIAAC takes another approach. It looks at what skills and competencies we have to get by in life.

The discussion on skills and competencies in adulthood, their meaning for different fields of life, and their development after leaving schools and vocational training is – at least in Germany – quite new and not yet very intense. This might change when the PIAAC results are discussed.

It is important to understand that the discussion on which competencies are meaningful in adulthood has been driven by pragmatic reasoning and the availability of assessments. As a result, only a few skills and competencies have been taken into account in assessment studies so far. These are skills which seem to be important for participation in modern societies. At the same time we must remember that considerably more skills and competencies exist. Only three of them are part of PIAAC.

25 countries compared

OECD initiated and organised the international survey PIAAC – Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies – in 25 participating countries (Schleicher 2008). International comparative studies are intended to produce basic information about competencies and educational activities of adults and to support political decision-makers to handle challenges stemming from demographic change. PIAAC consists of household surveys using a representative sample of the working age population (aged between 16-65). The international study is directed by a board of participating countries. A consortium of research institutes led by ETS (Educational Testing Service) is responsible for organising data collection and for the evaluation of the international dataset.

PIAAC is based on two international surveys of adult skills. These predecessors are known under the name of “International Adult Literacy Survey” (IALS) and “Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey” (ALL).

The understanding of competencies is based on the OECD project DeSeCo (Definition and Selection of Competencies), initiated in 1997, entrusted with the task of finding a definition of competency which can be used for further international surveys. Several experts and stakeholders already involved in PISA and ALL worked together to identify key competencies necessary for living in modern society. They came to the following definition: “A competence is defined as the ability to successfully meet complex demands in a particular context. Competent performance or effective action implies the mobilisation of knowledge, cognitive and practical skills, as well as social and behaviour components such as attitudes, emotions, values and motivations” (OECD 2003: 2).

The project is divided into three Competency Categories. The first one “Using Tools Interactively” (OECD & Statistics Canada 2005: 10) is important for PIAAC. The relevance of using texts and language, also described as literacy, to interact with others and to deal with information and knowledge, is shown. Technical skills enabling a person to use technical tools to get information are also mentioned as important in order to participate in modern society (Rychen & Salganik 2003).

PIAAC includes two parts, a background questionnaire and the assessments to identify competencies. In its first part, the survey paints a picture of the social situation. Respondents are not only asked for their socioeconomic status but also for their educational biography, their current and previous jobs, and their reading, calculating and media use in everyday life.

What competencies do we need for a good life?

The second part is dedicated to assessing competencies in three central domains (OECD 2012). Three basic skills were found and  considered relevant for “effective and successful participation in social and economic life” (OECD 2012: 10). PIAAC compares literacy, numeracy and problem-solving in a technology-rich environment. Literacy is defined as “understanding, evaluating, using and engaging with written texts to participate in society, achieve one’s goals and to develop one’s knowledge and potential” (OECD 2012: 20).

The definition of numeracy is derived from the Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey and encompasses 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 2012: 34).

The domain of problem solving has a particular importance, because it combines at least two different skills, as it provides information on problem solving skills on the one hand and additional information on key competencies in dealing with computers and the world wide web on the other. PIAAC defines problem solving in technology-rich environments as “using digital technology, communication tools and networks to acquire and evaluate information, communicate with others and perform practical tasks. The first PIAAC problem-solving survey focuses on the abilities 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 2012: 47).

Both problem solving and reading skills takes the digital environment into account, the latter through the use of websites and emails. In order to fully review the investigation procedure scientifically, it is necessary to publish the complete issues. But up to now, the OECD only intends to announce the results applied to social groups and some selected items.

The interviews of the main study were conducted in the years 2011/2012 and the first results were published in October 2013. On the basis of the PIAAC study, there will be an international ranking in the field of adult competencies. So far it remains unknown how results will be interpreted and how far there will be hints on deficits in school systems, vocational training systems or in Adult Education. However, it can be expected that the results point to future challenges for Adult Education and further vocational training in the participating countries. A specific challenge for the international consortium was to identify a suitable investigation programme for all countries involved.

But where are the older learners?

Germany is one of 25 OECD member states to participate in the PIAAC study. As Germany was not included in the IALS and ALL studies, for the first time a set of adult core competencies within an international assessment is measured in Germany to allow for an international comparison. However, the international sample includes only the economically active population up to 65 years of age. This seems deficient, looking at the demographic development in modern countries, not only because the number of people older than 65 is rising and more and more of them are still at work.

Fortunately, Germany has made an extensional study called “Competencies in Later Life” (CiLL), researching the competencies of elderly people between 66 and 80 years old, applying the same investigation programme as PIAAC (Friebe & Schmidt-Hertha 2013). The interviews took place from May to September 2012. This study was conducted by the German Institute for Adult Education in Bonn in cooperation with the Ludwig-Maximilian-University Munich and the University of Tübingen. It was financed by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF).

Germany is – like many other OECD states – an ageing society. Three factors have important effects on demographic change in Germany: low birth rates, increasing life expectancy and declining immigration. This will change the German population structure in the coming years, thus affecting the lives of individuals as well as the organisation of social life (Federal Statistical Office 2006). In the future, potentially fewer middle-aged people may support the older people in Germany. According to the German Federal Institute for Population Research, in 2006 the average life expectancy was 82 years for women and 77 years for men (Federal Statistical Office 2006: 38). Forecasts predict a declining population in Germany, including one third of the population at the age of 60 and older by 2050.

A third age?

The increase in “healthy life expectancy” (WHO 2002) is changing the possibilities of creating the third age. Older people wish to be increasingly active and engaged in society, they are still in employment or give family support. The fifth report of the German Federal Government concerning the situation of older generations states:

“There is a strong relationship between a stronger use of the potentials of older people in the after-vocational life phase and the participation in further training“ (BMFSFJ 2005: 344). Results of neuropsychological research show that learning in later life promotes the mental capacity of individuals, increases our ability to reflect on our actions and improves communication in groups (see Scheich 2006).

Who are these old people anyway?

But the elderly do not constitute a homogeneous group from an educational perspective (Strobel, Schmidt-Hertha & Gnahs 2011). Talking about training elderly people already raises questions related to the complexity of the topic. First of all, it must be clarified who the older ones are and which educational needs are to be discussed.

The common definition for the group of older workers covers the age-group 50 plus. But the answer to the question of when people are to be considered old or feel old is essentially based on social conventions. These conventions have cultural roots and change historically (see also Kruse 2008). Gerontologists differentiate between chronologic, biomedical and psychosocial age. Following practical research facts and scientific research that is already available for this particular age group (e.g. Tippelt et.al. 2009), the CiLL study expanded the PIAAC survey to the age range 66-80. On the other hand it is still possible to measure competency in this age group due to a low influenceof disease and handicaps.

The CiLL interviews were conducted by the survey institute TNS Infratest in Munich. 3,600 senior citizens in 111 municipalities were randomly selected from lists held at German registration offices. 90 TNS Infratest interviewers were active nationwide. 1,339 interviews were conducted which equals a response rate of 40%. The data for CiLL was collected by using the elaborate PIAAC background questionnaire, which covered socio-demographic data and information on educational and qualification processes as well as labour status or previous employment. Subsequently, the three central adult competence domains, literacy, numeracy and problem solving in technology-rich environments, were tested. Respondents with computer skills answered the test questions by use of a laptop; all other respondents were issued test booklets. Almost 30% of the elderly respondents chose the computer for answering the questions. The prepared data will be completed by the international coordinator ETS and supplemented by test results and weightings. The results of the study will be presented to the public in 2014.

The results are coming

The CiLL research programme also includes qualitative research on competencies of the elderly in the context of their specific life situation. Until today, around 50 qualitative interviews have been completed. These interviews contain self-assessments of competencies and background information on the environment of the life situation. In this way the data of the PIAAC study were supplemented, examined closely and critically evaluated (Friebe & Schmidt-Hertha 2013).

With the PIAAC results published in October 2013 and CiLL results in 2014, some relevant information on the state of adults’ competencies in different countries and for the elderly in Germany will be available, which may lead to even more unresolved issues. The quantitative database does not detect reliable causes for competency differences between countries and social groups, nor do the results provide instructions for the development of competencies in adulthood. Nevertheless, more or less the same applies to the PISA study, which was followed by many additional studies and innovations in the educational system. Even if public and political reactions on PIAAC results are probably more reticent in comparison to PISA, the international assessment of adult competencies might provide important impulses for further research and good arguments for the significance of Lifelong Learning and the necessity of public funding of Adult Education.



Bundesministerium für Familie, Senioren, Frauen und Jugend (BMFSFJ) (2005): Fünfter Bericht zur Lage der älteren Generation in Deutschland. Bericht der Sachverständigenkommission. Berlin. Available at bit.ly/17GCAl9

Federal Statistical Office (2006): Germany´s Population by 2050. Wiesbaden. Available at bit.ly/154Pv1D

Friebe, J. & Schmidt-Hertha, B. (2013): Activities and Barriers to Education for Elderly People. Journal of Contemporary Educational Studies, 64(1), 10–27.

Kruse, A. (Ed.) (2008): Weiterbildung in der zweiten Lebenshälfte. Bielefeld. Available at bit.ly/14xstgk

OECD (2003): Definition and Selection of Competencies: Theoretical and Conceptual Foundations (DeSeCo). Summary of the final report Key Competencies for a Successful Life and a Well-Functioning Society. Paris. Available at bit.ly/12lmu0m

OECD (2012): Literacy, Numeracy and Problem Solving in Technology-Rich Environments: Framework for the OECD Survey of Adult Skills. OECD Publishing.

OECD; Statistics Canada (2005): Learning a Living. Ottawa and Paris. Available at bit.ly/16rZvBM

Scheich, H. (2006): Lernen und Gedächtnis. In: Nuissl, E. (Ed.): Vom Lernen zum Lehren. Bielefeld, 75–92.

Schleicher, A. (2008): PIAAC: A New Strategy for Assessing Adult Competencies. In: International Review of Education. Available at bit.ly/165rAv4

Strobel, C.; Schmidt-Hertha, B.; Gnahs, D. (2011): Bildungsbiografische und soziale Bedingungen des Lernens in der Nacherwerbsphase. Magazin erwachsenenbildung.at, (13), 01–2 – 19–4. Available at bit.ly/qM6KAS

Tippelt, R.; Schmidt, B.; Schnurr, S.; Sinner, S.; Theisen, C. (Ed.) (2009): Bildung Älterer. Chancen im demografischen Wandel. Bielefeld.

World Health Organisation (WHO) (2002): Aktiv Altern. 2. Weltversammlung zu Altersfragen. Madrid. Available at bit.ly/13Ol1gF


About the Authors

Dr Jens Friebe is a researcher at the German Institute for Adult Education, Leibniz Centre for Lifelong Learning (DIE) and member of the department “Inclusion through Adult Education”. His main areas of research are intercultural further education and Lifelong Learning/learning in later life. At the DIE he has conducted projects such as: Intercultural further education for health professionals, Further education for nurses for the elderly with migration background, and since 2010 the project Competencies in Later Life. He has been a lecturer at the University of Applied Sciences, Bochum, at the University of Hamburg and the University of Magdeburg.


Deutsches Institut für Erwachsenenbildung
Leibniz-Zentrum für Lebenslanges Lernen e.V.
German Institute for Adult Education
Leibniz Centre for Lifelong Learning
Forschungs- und Entwicklungszentrum
Programm: Inklusion/Lernen im Quartier
Heinmannstraße 12–14, 53175 Bonn, Germany


Johanna Gebrande, M.A., studied educational science, psychology and European ethnology at the Ludwig-Maximilians-University in Munich. From 2010 to 2011 she was the scientific advisor at the German Youth Institute in a project dedicated to further education of skilled employees in pre-school education. Since 2011 she has been working as a research associate in the project Competencies in Later Life at the Chair for General Pedagogics and Educational Research in Munich. Her research interests are: Adult Education, competency development, artificial barriers in educational systems, education and learning of older adults.


Martiusstraße 4, 80802 Munich, Germany


Professor Dr Bernhard Schmidt-Hertha is full professor for educational research with a focus on vocational continuing education and on-the-job training at the University of Tuebingen (Germany). He studied educational research, psychology and sociology in Munich, where he finished his PhD in 2004 and his habilitation in 2009. He is co-editor of an online journal, reviewer for the German Research Association and different national and international journals, and member of European Society for Research on the Education of Adults (ESREA) steering committee. In 2009 he launched the European Network on Education and Learning of Older Adults (ELOA) which is still active.


Eberhard Karls University of Tuebingen
Institute for Education
Unit Adult Education/Further Education
Muenzgasse 11, 72070 Tuebingen, Germany



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