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IES Grant

Title: A Mixed-Methods Study of Middle-Aged and Older Adults: Lifelong Learning, Skill Proficiencies, and Employment in the U.S. and Selected OECD Countries
Center: NCER Year: 2017
Principal Investigator: Cummins, Phyllis Awardee: Miami University
Program: Postsecondary and Adult Education      [Program Details]
Award Period: 3 years (7/1/2017-6/30/2020) Award Amount: $1,228,065
Goal: Exploration Award Number: R305A170183

Co-Principal Investigator: Takashi Yamashita (University of Maryland, Baltimore County)

Purpose: Middle-aged and older workers represent nearly half of the U.S. labor force, yet little is known about this population's skill levels and how they interact with education, labor, and other outcomes. In this study, researchers are exploring associations among older U.S. adults' skill proficiencies (i.e., literacy, numeracy and problem-solving skills), employment, labor force status, lifelong learning and educational attainment and cohort effects on these associations. Skill proficiencies and lifelong learning are critical malleable factors for understanding employment and labor force issues in later life, and because more adults are staying in the labor force longer, policymakers and institutions of learning need to understand how these factors and proficiencies interact and predict education and labor outcomes.

Project Activities: This mixed-methods study will leverage national and international data sets of adult skills, qualitative analysis of education/labor policies, and key informant interviews. The researchers will compare U.S. adults' performance and U.S. policies to those in other developed countries while refining the theory of life-long learning, educational attainment, skill proficiency, and labor outcomes.

Products: Researchers will produce a refined theory of lifelong learning and policies for improving outcomes for middle-aged and older adults. They will also prepare peer-reviewed publications.

Structured Abstract

Setting: The research will include data collected from multiple OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) nations.

Sample: This study includes samples of adults aged 40 to 74, with approximately 5200 U.S. adults across the different data sets. The researchers will also interview 5 to 7 key informants in each of the selected nations.

Intervention: Middle aged and older workers represent an increasingly significant segment of the U.S. labor force, accounting for nearly half of all workers. However, there is widespread underemployment among middle aged and older workers, especially those with lower skill proficiencies (e.g., low literacy), and this has implications for individuals, their families, and the economy as a whole. The ability to take part in and benefit from lifelong learning can improve employment outcomes for middle-aged and older workers. To improve outcomes for older workers, governments establish policies and programs to help working adults access lifelong learning opportunities. Yet, the relationships among lifelong learning, skill proficiencies, and employment remain poorly understood, and the benefits of different governmental policies are unclear. This study will explore those relationships and examine the benefits of different policies on educational and other outcomes.

Research Design and Methods: This study uses a mixed-methods research design, comprising statistical analysis of large survey data, qualitative analysis of education/labor policies, and key informant interviews. The survey data come from three nationally and internationally representative surveys of adults: the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), the International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS), and the Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey (ALL). These surveys cover a number of skills including literacy, numeracy, and problem solving in digital environments, and they can be combined to explore cohort effects. The researchers will pool samples from PIAAC, IALS and ALL and classify cases into synthetic cohorts for estimating age and cohort effects on employment, labor force, skill proficiencies and lifelong learning.

In addition to mining these survey data, the researchers will also collect documents regarding the participating nations' education and labor policies. They will analyze these and conduct interviews with informants in the U.S. and other targeted nations to help better understand the purpose and impact of the policies. They will triangulate the data from these qualitative components with the quantitative analysis of the surveys.

Control Condition: Due to the exploratory design, there is no control condition. However, U.S. data will be compared to data from other OECD nations.

Key Measures: Key measures include employment and labor force status, skill proficiencies (i.e., literacy, numeracy and problem-solving skills), participation in lifelong learning, skill use both in and out of the workplace, educational attainment, age and age group (i.e., cohort), and other basic demographic characteristics (e.g., socioeconomic status).

Data Analytic Strategy: The researchers will use linear and binary logistic regression models with complex sampling weights. In the qualitative analysis, the research team will use grounded theory to analyze data from education and labor policies and key informant interviews in the selected OECD nations.


Cummins, P. A., Yamashita, T., Millar, R. J. and Sahoo, S. (2018). Problem-Solving Skills of the U.S. Workforce and Preparedness for Job Automation. Adult Learning. Advance online publication. doi:10.1177/1045159518818407.

Millar, R. J., Sahoo, S., Yamashita, T. and Cummins, P. (2019). Problem-Solving in Technology Rich Environments and Self-Rated Health Among Adults in the U.S.: An Analysis of the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies. Journal of Applied Gerontology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1177/0733464819829663.

Yamashita, T., Bardo, A. R., Liu, D. and Cummins, P. A. (2018) Literacy, Numeracy, and Health Information Seeking Among Middle-Aged and Older Adults in the United States. Journal of Aging and Health, doi: 10.1177/0898264318800918.

Yamashita, T., Bardo, A. R., Millar, R. J. and Liu, D. (2018). Numeracy and Preventive Healthcare Service Utilization Among Middle-Aged and Older Adults in the U.S. Clinical Gerontologist, 1-12. doi: 10.1080/07317115.2018.1468378 PMID:29733753.

Yamashita, T., Cummins, P. A., Arbogast, A., and Millar, R. J. (2018). Adult Competencies and Employment Outcomes Among Older Workers in the United States: An Analysis of the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies. Adult Education Quarterly, 68(3), 235-250. doi:10.1177/0741713618773496.