Ageing in an Unequal World
I was fortunate to be able to attend the annual conference of the British Society of Gerontology this month, one of 650 delegates from 30 countries, including many, as me, attending for the first time.
This was a huge conference with plenaries, symposiums, papers and posters presented across 10 parallel thematic and contemporary concerns around the topic of ageing in an unequal world.
From the various discussions and presentations, I have identified the following themes which appear of particular interest in relation to the issues and policy challenges for the 50 to retirement generation.
As the theme of the conference – ageing in an unequal world – inequality was a repeating theme in presentations, from keynote speakers and individual symposiums, and was shown to underpin much of the experience of ageing today. But the focus here was on intra-generational inequalities – those experienced amongst the ageing population rather than with other generational groups. Inequalities were identified across space, socio-economics, class, gender and ethnicity. The consequent variation in potential later life experience was disturbing.
Studies showed that public provision, income, savings and pensions, poverty, social connectedness and health and well-being were all subject to variation in later life. Causality encompassed the success and longevity of working lives, ability to accumulate savings and pensions, health and well-being across the lifecourse and a range of psycho-social factors, as well as the manifestations of public policy interventions.
An examination of global perspectives highlighted that ageing inequalities are as present in the global South as in the North. Thoughts were raised about the function of old-age pensions as a part of family income in the global South, and hence wider questions of how basic individual and family income might best be provided for, across both South and North.
Individualisation of risk
Individualisation of risk was raised in a number of presentations, including Professor Nazroo’s keynote on inequality and symposiums on work, retirement and economy. In current liberal market economies, individuals are left to make their own decisions and hence determine their own risk.
The consequences of this were particularly clear in discussions of the new pensions environment, where individuals must make their own provision at retirement. In the absence of adequate retirement education, the appropriateness of a default option for pension drawdown was discussed – with a similar objective to the development of auto-enrolment to ensure all employees achieved default participation in a pension plan.
The concept of including lay people, including research subjects, in the research process is an emerging methodology. In the context of ageing research this seems particularly beneficial. Much popular discussion, policy and practice has to date drawn on a narrative of victimhood. Involving older people in research to further their own interests will both challenge ageist images and develop the agency of older people.
Additionally, a number of studies presented illustrated potentially contradictory findings about real and perceived circumstances, as in the cases of health and well-being. Involving the subjects of research might shed useful light on such potential contradictions.
Club sandwich careers
Professor Harald Kunemund presented a challenging paper on a redistributive model of education, work and retirement. This is an alternative to the traditional and institutionalised tripartite split of early life education, mid-life career development and later life retirement which offers low levels of individual control and flexibility. His redistributive model conceived of a pattern of repeating periods of education, work and career break through the lifecourse, which I am here envisaging as a ‘club sandwich’ career.
The model provides for a most welcome normalisation of career breaks and non-linear career pathways. In the UK, career breaks are currently a very difficult career option to navigate, with restricted opportunities to return to work. Most that do exist are focused on post-maternity breaks and workplace returns and do not envisage other pathways and reasons for breaking a career, for example to care for older relatives at a later career point. The scope of this model to accommodate non-linear careers, often a feature of women’s careers, was discussed and the potential to reduce inequalities as a result identified.
Working life expectancy
In the final symposium on health, work and retirement, Professor Jenny Head made a valuable articulation of the concept of working life expectancy as expected years in paid work from 50 to 75, and the related issue of healthy working life expectancy. This is a most valuable concept, offering a positive expectation of working life.
The working life expectancy concept offers a useful counter to stereotyped impressions that working longer is an exceptional extension of economic participation. Variations, such as arising from voluntary or involuntary early exit, can be observed and causation considered, and light can be shone on variation in healthy life expectancy as determined by socio-economic position and health status.
Career breaks are good for you!
Dr Giorgio Di Gessa presented fascinating findings on a study of the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing. Men and women who were out of the workforce throughout their adult lives were found to be more likely to experience poorer health trajectories. Work was associated with better health outcomes in later life. Importantly, those who had taken career breaks and spells of part-time employment were less likely to experience health decline with increasing age.
This is a significant finding and would appear to warrant further examination. Observation of improved health outcomes arising from taking career breaks could provide a quantification of the cost benefit of non-linear careers, which could be compared to the costs of lower health outcomes in later life for those who worked all the way to retirement. Perhaps career breaks could be beneficial to the public purse as well as to the individual?