Does age matter? Informal learning practices of younger and older adults


  • Laurie Vermeylen University of Calgary
  • Scott McLean University of Calgary


Informal adult education, Adult learning, Self-help, Age differences, Qualitative research


Conventional wisdom in adult education suggests that processes of life cycle change make for differences in the learning experiences of younger and older adults. Popular demographers argue that generational differences exist between those born in distinct historical periods. Outside the realm of higher education, there are relatively few empirical studies of the learning practices of adults of differing ages. In this article, we present the results of qualitative interviews undertaken with 134 readers of self-help books. Half of these readers were thirty years of age or younger. We found modest age differences in learners’ engagement with self-help reading. Relatively older readers were more likely to define explicit learning goals, engage deeply in the learning process, experience linear learning pathways, and express disagreement with authors. We conclude that the modest nature of age differences found supports a maturational or life cycle interpretation rather than a generational interpretation, and that learning processes are more similar than different among people of various ages.

Author Biographies

Laurie Vermeylen, University of Calgary

Laurie Vermeylen is a graduate student in the Department of Sociology at the University of Calgary. Laurie’s research interests include gender and family and she is currently working on her Master of Arts degree in which she explores the topic of parenting advice. Correspondence may be sent to

Scott McLean, University of Calgary

Scott McLean is Director of Continuing Education, and Professor of Sociology, at the University of Calgary (906 - 8th Avenue SW, Calgary, AB, T2P 1H9, CANADA). Scott’s work has ranged from teaching adult basic education to developing university extension programs in agricultural leadership and health promotion. Correspondence may be sent to


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How to Cite

Vermeylen, L., & McLean, S. (2014). Does age matter? Informal learning practices of younger and older adults. Canadian Journal for the Study of Adult Education, 26(1), 19–34. Retrieved from