Market Research: People who have recently left full time work

Two older women wheeling their bikes down an alleyway

u3as have been sharing ideas with each other and coming up with resources to help the movement retain and recruit members during this time and beyond. This series hosts these resources in a toolkit for u3a members to use when needed. See the Introduction and Guide to the toolkit, and the full toolkit.


This report has three parts:

  • The nature of the issue
  • What we know about the recently retired
  • Implications for u3as

In the u3a movement, we refer to retirement from full time work as a criterion for u3a membership rather than age. For the purposes of this report, we assume that people aged in their 60s are more likely to have recently left full time work, and vice versa.

For the sake of simplicity, the terms younger members, recently retired and having recently left full time work are used interchangeably unless otherwise indicated. The available data on u3a membership is from three substantial surveys of u3a membership 2001, 2009 and 2019.

Problem? What problem?

The profile of u3a membership is getting older and the membership numbers have ceased to grow substantially. In the age profile of national u3a membership, the proportion of members aged under 65 reduced from 21% in 2001 to 18% in 2009 and to 7% in 2019. The annual rate of growth for national u3a membership has slowed from 9.8% in 2011 to 3.3% in 2019 and to 2.5% in 2020. Last year, we lost members because of the pandemic.

The change in the age profile of u3a members cannot be attributed to the raising of the pension age, because the pension age for women in the UK only increased to 65, the same age as for men, in 2017. Nor have retirement ages increased substantially. The average age of exit from the labour market in 2021 was 65 (men) and 64 (women) .
The great majority of women (80%) and men (72%) aged between 65 and 69 are not in full time employment, and this proportion increases by age group. For the purposes of completeness, we need to note that the proportion of people who are continuing to work part time after leaving full time work is continuing to rise.

A more plausible explanation for the changing age profile is a combination of:

  • a slowdown in the rate of growth of the u3a movement, and
  • over reliance on ‘word of mouth’ as the major or even the sole method of recruitment.

Unless there are a substantial number of recruits each year from among the newly retired, they will form a smaller and smaller proportion of the overall membership, leading to a corresponding fall in the proportion of younger members as a proportion of all u3a members.

There is a considerable amount of anecdotal evidence that this makes u3as less attractive to some prospective members.

Many of us will have heard friends and acquaintances say that the u3a is ‘too old for them’ or that they ‘are not ready for the u3a’. All of us will be aware of voluntary groups of all types that are in danger of closing, or have closed, because they ceased to be attractive to younger members.

The problem with an over reliance on word of mouth recruitment is that like attracts like. As your membership ages, their social contacts, friends and relatives age as well.

What do the newly retired want?

Because of the dearth of serious research evidence about what the newly retired do want, the Third Age Trust (hence TAT) commissioned a telephone survey of 500 people aged 55+ in preparation for the u3a rebranding. Respondents were selected to give a structured sample by gender, geographical distribution and by age. The survey was supplemented by in depth telephone interviews of 12 respondents aged 55 to 67. Out of all respondents, only seven were u3a members, 26% of respondents had heard of u3a but never attended and 70% had not heard of it.

Respondents had a variety of interests in areas and topics which will be included in the range of interest groups of almost all u3as. Responses also demonstrate some distinct divergences between men and women respondents. Table 1 overleaf sets out the number or participants who identified each interest and the percentages of the total sample who identified each interest, and shows the splits between men and women.

Table 1 Interests identified by survey respondents

Male Female
Playing sports 20.66% 6.62%
 44  19
Playing games e.g. chess, card games 29.11%  25.78%
62  74
Arts and crafts 11.27%  37.98%
30.  24 31.  109
Cooking 41.31% 57.14%
88 164
Watching films 61.97% 62.37%
132 179
Exercising, cycling, walking 54.46% 54.36%
116 156
Listening to music 76.06% 65.51%
162 188
Learning languages 8.45% 8.36%
18 24
Learning to play an instrument 12.21% 8.36%
26 24
Dancing 4.69% 20.56%
10 59
Gardening 59.15% 60.63%
126 174
Reading 62.91% 79.44%
134 228
Discussion 21.13% 21.60%
45 62
Keeping up with current affairs 57.75% 43.55%
123 125
Sewing, knitting and needlecrafts 1.88% 43.21%
4 124
Creative writing 7.51% 6.62%
16 19
History 51.64% 33.45%
110 96
Visiting art galleries and museums 32.39% 34.49%
69 99
Socialising with friends 45.54% 51.22%
97 147
N/A / Don’t have any interests in particular 1.41% 0.70%
3 2
Other 6.57% 4.88%
14 14

Looking forward to learning in retirement

From our point of view, the most positive feature of the survey data is that the majority of the respondents seem to be interested in developing their learning in retirement.

Over half (54%) of all respondents said that they would be interested in new learning or developing a skill. This is a remarkably high figure, particularly since the proportion of respondents currently engaged in learning was small (2.4%). The proportion of people who felt that retirement would be a good opportunity to learn was even higher. 75% of respondents either strongly agreed or somewhat agreed that ‘retirement is a good time to learn something new or develop a skill you have not had the chance to before’. Only 2% strongly or somewhat disagreed with the statement. 22% of respondents neither agreed nor disagreed.

There were some slight variations by age, employment status or gender:

  • More of the lower age bracket would consider attending a group or class (58%) than the older age bracket (50%)
  • More women (57%) than men (50%) would consider attending a group or class
  • More people who are not retired (56%) would consider attending a group, compared to 51% of those who are retired
  • Marginally more of those who are retired currently do attend a group (3%) compared to 2% non-retired.

What could attract the newly retired?

The top reasons respondents gave for attending a group to learn or develop a skill were because they want to keep their brain active (75 %), they like learning new things (74%), they want to get out and about (53%) and they want the opportunity to meet other people (47%).

Those in the younger age bracket (60%) were more keen to get out and about compared to the older age group (47%). The older age bracket are more motivated by the group being specifically designed for people their age (40%) compared to the younger age bracket (31%).

A higher percentage of men (81%) than women (71%) would attend because they ‘wanted to keep their brain active’. More women (49%) than men (43%) wanted to meet people their age. More women (39%) than men (32%) want a group to be specifically designed for people their age, suggesting that women might be more motivated by the social aspect.

People who were already retired were more attracted by all the reasons given for attending (e.g. meeting new people, structure, keeping brain active, to learn new things and designed for people by age) than those still in full time work.

Respondents were asked what would motivate them to go to an open evening or taster session for a group. In descending order of priority, they selected:

  • the group would be fun (47%)
  • to learn something new (47%)
  • if it was free (45%)
  • there would be people there you could relate to (39%).

The in depth telephone interviews provided a bit more detail. The majority of the 12 participants were influenced by word of mouth and tried things recommended by friends, but also learned about things online, or were inspired by TV, local newspapers or apps they have, including Next Door and Meet up. They were motivated to attend interest groups or classes if they were local, low cost and convenient. Ease of travel and location e.g. parking spaces or a free travel pass, influenced their decisions and inclination to attend.

What could deter the newly retired?

This is more difficult to disentangle from the survey, since few respondents had any direct knowledge of u3a and those who said that they had no interest at all in group learning are unlikely to be potential u3a recruits. To explore this issue, I focus on the qualitative views expressed in the course of the 12 in depth telephone interviews, where these are further supported by and consistent with data from the wider survey.

Most of the 12 participants were a few years off from retirement and very few had started planning for it. Largely participants identified with ‘middle age’ or ‘the prime of their life’ rather than old age. Very few identified themselves in relation to retirement. Participants did not recall any examples of groups they had seen advertised for older people, because they do not identify with that age category [my emphasis] so would not have thought they were for them.

These perceptions and views are consistent with the survey in that survey respondents said that they would be motivated to continue learning by:

  • meeting people the same age (as the respondent)
  • the group being designed for people the same age.

These findings tend to confirm the anecdotal evidence that the newly retired could be put off u3a by perceptions that it is exclusively or even primarily oriented towards people who are a lot older than they are.

The telephone interviewees were happy to try something that friends were not attending, provided it was accessible and local, and ‘cost-effective’ or free. Many who were working full or part time felt they would not have time for it.

There were, however, some indications that respondents did not have an entirely positive attitude towards learning in retirement. Interviewees who were single or widowed were more inclined to attend groups in order to meet new people. Those with a partner or busy family life felt overall they did not need a group to do the activities they enjoy. This suggests that alongside and partly obscured by the generally favourable views of continuing learning after leaving full time work, there are some negative associations to the effect that such learning may be more attractive for people who don’t have many friends or family or who have ‘too much time on their hands’.

There is more than a hint of such negative perceptions in the survey. Asked about people who they thought would attend groups or classes for the over 55s, respondents identified:

  • people who are lonely (52%)
  • people with too much spare time (25%)

By contrast, only 17% or respondents thought that such groups would attract people who are not lonely.

Implications for u3as

The most obvious implication is that it would be wonderful if u3as could be flagged up in the pre-retirement courses which some of the larger employers offer their employees. Anecdotally, u3a experiences seem to be very mixed. Some u3as have been able to get access to such courses but many have not.

A second implication is that u3as might have to work quite hard to recruit younger members because of some negative associations of learning in retirement.

Fortunately, the Third Age Trust has published a u3a Recruitment Toolkit which has been developed and trialled by some 60 Pathfinder u3as. The Toolkit is quite large, and a good starting point is the Introduction and Guide to the u3a Recruitment Toolkit. Here and for all the Toolkit tools mentioned, there is a link to the Third Age Trust website.

Thirdly, u3as will need an attractive and varied interest group offer to encompass the range of interests of the recently retired. The Toolkit has two guides to help you do this: Making your u3a offer irresistible and 7 steps to recruiting more interest group convenors.

Fourthly, u3as need websites that can act as an attractive shop window for potential new members. A picture, moreover, really is worth a thousand words and u3as need to be able to appeal through the images they publish to people in their 50s and 60s. The Toolkit has a guide: Transforming your website into your shop window and a video: Transforming your website: case study video presentations from three u3as.

Given the high proportion of people in their 60s who use social media, u3as will need, fifthly, to have a social media presence. Some u3as are reporting great success in using Facebook. Some u3as have reported that they have been disappointed. It seems to be important to invest time and energy in the right way for social media investment to pay dividends. The Toolkit contains a large number of guides covering every aspect of social media and Facebook usage:

A downloadable version of this guide is available on our website.

See the Recruitment category for more of the series.