England is the only country in the developed world where the generation approaching retirement is more literate and numerate than the youngest, according to the first skills survey by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
In a stark assessment of the success and failure of 720 million-strong adult workforce across the wealthier economies, the economic think tank warns that in England, adults aged 55 to 65 perform better than people aged 16 to 24 in both foundation levels of literacy and numeracy. The survey did not include people from Scotland or Wales.
When the results within age groups are compared across participating countries, older adults in England score higher in literacy and numeracy than the average among their peers, while younger adults show some of the lowest scores for their age group.
The survey shows that out of 24 nations, young adults in England (aged 16 to 24) rank 22nd for literacy and 21st for numeracy. England is behind Estonia, Australia, Poland and Slovakia in both areas.
This compares unfavorably with the adult population as a whole; English adults (aged 16 to 65) rank 11th for literacy and 17th for numeracy.
The OECD cautions that the “talent pool of highly skilled adults in England and Northern Ireland is likely to shrink relative to that of other countries.”
The findings come as the skills of the next generation take center stage in British policy debates — with the prime minister last week calling for young people under the age of 25 to be stripped of benefits so that they can “earn or learn” their way through life.
The government blamed the last administration, saying that the young people covered by the survey “were educated almost entirely under the last Labour government — for example, someone aged 18 when they took the OECD tests would have started school aged five in 1998 and finished compulsory education aged 16 in 2009.”
In the survey, the first of its kind, 166,000 people in 22 OECD member countries as well as Russia and Cyprus, sat through two hours of intense questioning about their skills and background.
The report, launched on Tuesday in Paris, shows that there appears to be a distinct hollowing out of the workforce across the rich world — with jobs requiring highly educated workers rising by around a fifth while those needing a medium or low skills base dropping by about 10 percent each.
England stands out with a handful of nations where social background determines reading skills. Along with Germany, Italy, Poland and the US, the children of parents with low levels of education in England have “significantly lower proficiency than those whose parents have higher levels of education.”
The OECD also warns that when looking at information technology, which it says is key to reshaping the workplace in the developed world, only 42.4 percent of 16 to 24-year-olds in England and Northern Ireland are proficient to the extent they can handle unexpected outcomes. This compares with the average of 50.7 percent.
Even worse is that young adults in England and Northern Ireland scored 21 percent lower than those in South Korea — the best-performing country. Although the US has a reputation for being the information-technology center of the world, the survey found that its youngsters were the worst for basic technology proficiency — scoring 4.8 percent below young adult Britons.