Some countries have made significant progress in improving skills proficiency
Older Koreans have low skills while younger ones are top performers.
The Survey of Adult Skills results show how effective countries have been in developing literacy skills through successive generations. The gains made in some countries illustrate the pace of progress that is achievable. For example, Korea is among the three lowest-performing countries when comparing the skills proficiency of 55-65 year-olds; however, when comparing proficiency among 16-24 year-olds, Korea ranks second only to Japan. Similarly, older Finns perform at around the average among the countries taking part in the Survey of Adult Skills while younger Finns are, together with young adults from Japan, Korea and the Netherlands, today’s top performers.
In other countries, the talent pool is shrinking…
However, progress has been highly uneven across countries. In England/Northern Ireland (UK) and the United States, improvements between younger and older generations are barely apparent. Young people in these countries are entering a much more demanding labour market, yet they are not much better prepared than those who are retiring. England/ Northern Ireland (UK) is among the three highest-performing countries in literacy when comparing 55-65 year-olds; but England/Northern Ireland (UK) is among the bottom three countries when comparing literacy proficiency among 16-24 year-olds. In numeracy, the United States performs around the average when comparing the proficiency of 55-65 year-olds, but is lowest in numeracy among all participating countries when comparing proficiency among 16-24 year-olds. This is not necessarily because performance has declined in England/Northern Ireland (UK) or the United States, but because it has risen so much faster in so many other countries across successive generations.
…which could imply a decline in the relative standing of these countries.
Of course, the survey data are results from a cross-section of populations, not cohorts, so some of the observed differences across generations are attributable to changes in the composition of populations, such as increased social diversity, income inequality or migration, or to different rates with which skills depreciate with age. At the same time, the fact that socio-economic patterns explain part of the observed changes is little consolation to countries whose economic success depends on the quality of their actual labour force, not the hypothetical labour force that they might have had in a different context. The implication for these countries is that the stock of skills available to them is bound to decline over the next decades unless action is taken both to improve skills proficiency among young people, both through better teaching of literacy and numeracy in school, and through providing more opportunities for adults to develop and maintain their skills as they age.
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