Ageing in Europe: Beyond the Work Centered Life Course

By Zemfira Khamidullina

In 2015/16 we ran our conference funding for Early Career Researchers scheme for the second time. In this series of posts, some of the winners report from the conferences they attended with our support.

2016 Mid-term Conference of the ESA Research Network on Ageing in Europe
“Ageing in Europe: Beyond the Work Centered Life Course?”
September 14-16, Goethe University Frankfurt, Germany

The conference took place in Goethe University Frankfurt, named after Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, a polymath renowned for his exceptional contributions to literature, science, and philosophy. The university, located in Germany’s most cosmopolitan and international city, is among the top international research universities, focusing on interdisciplinary approaches to solving complex problems. It is unsurprising, therefore, that the specific focus of the conference was on cross‐national and comparative perspectives in ageing research, drawing on the recent insights into ‘active ageing’ and the work-centered discourse in modern European societies.

The first day of the conference started with a warm welcome from Vice-President of the university, Prof. Schubert-Zsilavecz, and Dean of the Social Sciences Department, Prof. Roßteutscher. The conference went into high gear from the outset with an enlightening keynote speech from Prof. Asghar Zaidi, University of Southampton (UK) “Evidence of Active Ageing in Europe: what lies beyond employment?”. Highlighting the most recent insights into the Active Ageing Index and its role in policy-making, the keynote speech triggered a lively discussion of the application of the index and the new findings on the extent of active ageing in Europe.

After a much-needed coffee-break the conference split into two panel sessions: “Images of Ageing in Changing Societies” and “Active Ageing: Comparing Country Evidence”. Chaired by Dr. Jaroslava Hamanova Marhankova, the first session started with the discussion of how age is related to wisdom (Monika Ardelt “Age, Wisdom, and Education: A Comparison of Internet Surveys from The Netherlands and Germany”), proceeded to the issues of gender differences in educational participation (Renfeng Wang “Gender Difference in Relation to Educational Participation and Quality of Life Among Older Chinese Adults”) and then turned to the issues of old age and digital divide. In my presentation “Digital World: Is It Indeed Where Old Folk Fear to Tread?” I discussed how stereotypes about older people’s engagement with Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) differ from the actual experiences of real flesh-and-blood people. I was focusing on how senior citizens in isolated rural communities use digital technologies in their everyday lives, and how these experiences destabilise the generalisations about universal digital illiteracy of the aged.

The particular focus of my presentation was how ICTs help older citizens living in remote areas stay connected to their families, peers, ex-colleagues, social and community services, and how they contribute to civic engagement and learning in later life. My presentation briefly outlined how narrative inquiry and ethnographic methods can be used in exploring older peoples’ experiences of adapting to, and engaging with, new digital technologies. I also argued that focused research within a microcosm of people in isolated remote communities offers an interesting perspective in terms of peoples’ class, background, cultural capital and employment history, and helps looking beyond generalisations and stereotypes. My presentation received positive feedback from the audience, and I was approached afterwards by fellow researchers from different countries who use similar methods in their own projects.

After my presentation, the discussion turned to the issues of the portrayal of old age in media. Hanna Varjakoski discussed the experiences of elderly people in Finland and the effect of media imagery in later life (“The portrayal of old age in Finnish media: the elderly people’s response”). The issues of portrayal of old age were further deliberated by Zdenko Zeman in his presentation “From the day of birth we all getting old”, where he reflected on images of old age from the perspective of professionals in care homes. The last paper of the session was Jenni Spännäri’s “Aging and innovatativity at Work” where she offered thought-provoking conclusions about an ageing workforce. After some very interesting questions from the audience, the session closed at 7 pm.

The second day of the conference started with a keynote from Dr. Jonas Radl, Universidad Carlos III de Madrid (Spain) “When older workers lose their jobs: short and long-run effects on retirement behavior and pension income” and split into two sessions “Active Ageing: Balancing Activities” and “Active Ageing: Family and Care”. Chaired by Rita Borges Neves and Roos Galjaard respectively, the sessions explored various issues: work-life balance in later life (Helen Barnes “Putting work in its place? Rebalancing labour market activities, leisure, family life and voluntary work after retirement”), grandmothering (Jaroslava Hasmanova Marhankova “I want to be an active grandmother” – the impact of the discourse of active ageing on the social norms of “good” grandmothering”), volunteering (Sarah Dury “Volunteering: an alternative way to valorise the competences of older citizens?”) and ageing femininities (Marija Geiger-Zeman “He called me a ‘granny’, I must look bad”).

The second keynote of the day “The transmission of inequalities into later life: what matters?” was delivered by Prof. James Nazroo, The University of Manchester, Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity (UK), and was followed by four parallel sessions “Ageing and the workplace”, “Ageing and Well-being”, “Ageism”, “Quality of Life and Life Satisfaction in Old Age”. With fifteen excellent afternoon presentations to choose from, my only regret was not being able to attend all of them, and having to prioritise. Two of the many highlights of the afternoon included Eithne Sexton’s presentation “Are experiences and perceptions of ageism barriers to community participation in later life?” and Mariann Ziss’s “Mid-life Career Visions of Women in Different Organizational Settings”. The afternoon session concluded at 7.30 pm and progressed seamlessly into a barbecue party in the garden next to the conference venue.

The last day of the conference started with two parallel sessions, “Work and Retirement: From early to late retirement” and “Ageing and Health” where the issues of work identity (Michelle Pannor Silver “Reticence to retire: An examination of work identity, intergenerational conflict and retirement from medicine”), longevity (Martin Lakomý, Marcela Petrová Kafková “Longevity as a result of perseverance”) and frailty (An-Sofie Smetcoren, “New theoretical perspectives on frailty: focus on prevention and empowerment”) were brought into focus. The mid-day keynote “Shifting life-course patterns: past trends and possible futures” was delivered by Assistant Prof. Kathrin Komp, Helsinki University (Finland) and chaired by Prof. Dirk Hofäcker, one of the conference organisers. The keynote started an active discussion which continued through into the coffee break with some excellent strudels and pretzels.

Revived by coffee and pastries, the participants re-convened for the last session of the day, “Work and Retirement: Preferences, Expectations and Transitions”, where Noora Järnefelt offered some interesting insights into later retirement (“Financial incentives or working conditions – how to encourage older employees postpone their expected age of retirement”), Jürgen discussed how part-time options can affect retirement “Hours Flexibility and Retirement Age”, Sarah Gibney examined the links between retirement and civic engagement “Are retirement decisions and preferences associated with social participation in later life?”, and Simone Braun offered some preliminary findings on the relationship between retirement and work conditions (“Workplace conditions and retirement intentions: A cross-cultural comparison between modern European and Asian countries”).

In his concluding remarks, Prof. Dirk Hofäcker congratulated Anne Göttert and Elisa Szulganik, the conference committee, for their excellent work for organizing an international event that brought forward the issues of ageism, quality of later life and the stereotypes of ageing. The conference offered unique opportunities for early career researchers like myself to network with academics from different countries and disciplines and to get feedback from fellow researchers, thus getting a cross-national and comparative perspective on ageing studies and related issues.

For me personally, the conference was an amazing opportunity to meet people with similar academic interests, present my findings, and ensure that my research reached a broader audience. I would like to sincerely thank The Sociological Review Foundation for supporting my application and giving me this fantastic opportunity which I would otherwise not have attended.

Originally published 13th October 2016.

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