Literacy, numeracy and disadvantage among older people

This project explored the relationship between the literacy and numeracy levels of older adults and the extent on disadvantage in later life. It comprised a literature review and secondary analysis of quantitative data.

Main findings

  • Looking at data from a single point in time, there is no evidence that literacy or numeracy are related to the likelihood of an older person being in work once allowance has been made for other factors such as health, gender and education level.
  • Longitudinal analysis of respondents over time showed little evidence that moving from work to retirement is related to literacy or numeracy levels once allowance has been made for other factors.
  • For both men and women, numeracy levels have much more influence on pay than literacy levels, as well as a stronger association with spells of unemployment. This is consistent with evidence on younger adults that poor basic skills are associated with increased risk of unemployment.
  • Older people with lower levels of literacy and numeracy are more likely to have poorer health outcomes, including symptoms of depression. They are also more likely to assess their own health as poor than those with higher levels of literacy and numeracy.
  • The literature review highlighted some key gaps in the evidence base, including a lack of research on the associations between the levels of literacy and numeracy skills and labour market outcomes in later life.


Researchers used data from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA), which has tracked 12,000 adults over the age of 50 since 2002. This data is based on based on actual tests rather than self-reported competence, making it the only source of objective data on literacy and numeracy for this age group. This project was the first attempt to analyse this data and its implications.

Project details



Dr John Vorhaus, Centre for Research on the Wider Benefits of Learning, Institute of Education, London

Grant amount and duration

1 May 2009 - 28 February 2011