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1The French dictionary Larousse defines ageing [vieillissement] as “the whole set of phenomena that mark the evolution of a living organism toward death.” [1] This definition, formulated in biological terms, considers ageing as the degradation of an individual and as the final stage of their life. Anthropological scholarship, however, has uncovered numerous other ways of thinking about old age, particularly by highlighting the social role of older individuals and by maintaining that old age, like any other age, is primarily a social fact. What are its forms and functions in the modern world where, it seems, we are dealing with “new ageing”? Based on case studies carried out in different European countries, the purpose of this special report is to invite its readers to engage with this question.

2Old age has long been regarded negatively (economic effects, dependency, social costs, isolation, increase in pension costs), but its image has transformed over the past few decades. As Claudine Attias-Donfut and Martine Segalen (2007) have pointed out, the cause for this change lies in worldwide political and economic shifts as well as a reconfiguration of family structures. Here, we aim to understand its stakes within families: in so doing, we will shed light on the influence of public policies in setting up the care process, and on the resulting tensions within the private sphere.

3A crucial challenge for anthropology consists in identifying the contribution made to society by older individuals as well as the new ties created by ageing, particularly in the current context: according to Eurostat, projections for 2050 suggest that people over 65 will make up 29.9% of the population, i.e. almost twice the current figure (16.4%). Along with recent publications, (Marec and Reguer 2013; Leider and Moulaert 2014; Amiotte-Suchet and Anchisi 2017), [2] this special report aims to take up this challenge.

“New ageing” within contemporary societies?

4Although ageing is not a new anthropological topic—Maine, Morgan and Boas have already discussed it—the variety and diversity of its manifestations have not been sufficiently examined, both in terms of social class, gender, or ethnicity (Cohen 1994) and in terms of the political, economic, and cultural context. This context, along with the rapid and far-reaching transformations of the modern world, increases the complexity of the situations involved in the issue of ageing.

5Some years ago, Claudine Attias-Donfut and Martine Segalen (2001; 2007) suggested the notions of “new grandparents” and, most importantly, of “the invention of grandparenthood” with regard to family evolutions: they likened the simultaneous presence of four generations to a revolution from the point of view of social and family life (ibid. 2007). This resulted in new forms of ageing, produced by unprecedented intergenerational relationships as well as the evolution of gender roles, of care needs, and of public policies aimed at older individuals.

6We can distinguish ten main characteristics in the “new ageing” observed in European societies, which are discussed in the articles listed here:

71. The number of older people has increased considerably in all countries, and will soon comprise the majority of the population. Future policy-making should account for the place that the older generation occupies in society.

82. Societal ageing creates not only a larger class of dependents, but also a new type of professionals (Easterlin 1974; Hummel et al. 2014).

93. Longer lifespans create a new perception of the life cycle. A seventy-year-old French person currently has the same life expectancy as a fifty-nine-year-old did in 1965. Consequently, changes occur in the definition of what an old person is, but also in the representations of biographical trajectories. The milestones between the different periods of life have been blurred as new age groups have been defined, such as the “fourth age” and even the “fifth age,” based less on chronology than on interests, behaviors, intellectual and social abilities, or similar levels of strength and vitality (Neugarten 1996, 225–226).

104. The profile of older individuals strongly differs according to social class. Financial resources, along with emotional and familial networks, are among the markers of this heterogeneity. This variation should be taken into account in order to go beyond the dichotomy between the figure of the “independent, active elder” and that of the “dependent and pathetic old man” (Caradec 2012).

115. The gender divide is one of the most pervasive inequalities in the experience of old age. As Julio Pérez argues (1999), demographic changes have not only caused social structures to receive new distribution according to age and gender, but have also produced a new social meaning for gender relations and roles at any age. The question of life expectancy thus creates new configurations and becomes a prime vantage point for rethinking gender (Osorio 2006).

126. An increased lifespan calls into question the notions of dependence and independence and gives greater importance to systems of mutual assistance. Care practice is organized as a central part of family dynamics, with the elderly being both the recipients and the main providers, also playing the role of caregiver to their children, grandchildren, and, obviously, to their partner (Roigé 1998).

137. The elderly implement various strategies in order to adapt to the self-transformations that make everyday life more challenging and to retain as much independence as possible for as long as possible. According to Jean-François Barthe et al. (1990), three main “events” dictate these strategies: retirement; restriction of activities due to diminishing physical abilities; and the transition into dependency.

148. The social and symbolic role of the elderly has increased in the family sphere (Reher 1997). Extended family has not disappeared, but rather gained new strength by taking on an essential part in the transfer of memory (Attias-Donfut et al. 2002). Furthermore, the cohabitation of three or four generations bears upon the dynamics of family representation (Miljkovitch 2005) and upon the emotional relationships between these generations. (Schneider et al. 2005).

159. Not only are the elderly part of the current transformations of family structures: they are key to them. They have experienced the evolutions caused by a declining birth rate, divorce, same-sex parenting, family reconfigurations, multi-parenting, couple instability, or single parenting. Their experience of ageing has built itself around these transformations (Le Bourdais et al. 2013).

1610. The elderly have an ambivalent relationship with technological developments, especially when it comes to using social networks: on the one hand, while social networking allows for (or even strengthens) generational ties, it also widens the gap between the abilities of the young and those of the old.

17These ten characteristics inform the articles throughout this special report and can be examined according to two main perspectives around which this publication is organized: the question of diversity in situations of old age, and the issue of the care process delivered to as well as by the elderly, played out in a context of considerable transformations of the family model.

The different experiences of old age

18Old age, taken as a stage in the lengthy process of ageing, is interpreted and experienced very differently depending on individuals and their life path (Myerhoff and Simic 1978; Ramos 2017). An initial factor of diversity is the contingent character of life’s progress: the stages of existence are no longer ordained by the norms and roles that were formerly associated with a particular age. Consequently, individual life paths are becoming increasingly individualized and varied (Guillemard 2008; Roigé and Soronellas-Masdeu in this special report). In addition, Mary Catherine Bateson (2013) has argued that increased life expectancy is more than an extension of old age and has created a new stage, which she terms a “second adult age.” This “second age” begins when one of the milestones of adulthood is reached (retirement at the end of working life, children becoming independent), and ends when a significant deterioration occurs in an individual’s health status (ibid., 27). This active “old age” is multifaceted, as is shown in this special report by Michel Bozon, Joëlle Gaymu, and Eva Lelièvre, as well as by Chiara Saraceno. The loss of independence, however, although it varies widely from case to case, properly marks the entry into “old age” (Galčanová and Kafková in this special report) and into what has been called the “fourth age” (Gilleard and Higgs 2010).

19Gender differences are an additional variable. The performance of gendered roles across a lifetime establishes inequalities, which are subsequently replicated and strengthened in old age (Ramos 2017, 35). Women are more vulnerable to these inequalities from an economic standpoint. Having devoted a large amount of their time to taking care of their family, a significant part of the current generation of older women now only have access to a very modest pension. But their caring role is also what ensures their biographical continuity, which constitutes another major difference between them and men. Older women continue to provide their attention and assistance, in their own home as well as in that of their children. Several articles have shown that this role, upheld and carried out by older women, constitutes an essential function in Mediterranean countries with minimal social policies (Sacchi and Viazzo; Saraceno; and Barou, all in this special report).

20Still, in the representations that are made of them, men appear to be better adapted to ageing than women (Sontag 1972), as femininity is associated with youth, beauty, and the body (Charlap 2013; Clarke and Griffin 2008; Lagrave 2009). This has led women to increase their strategies for concealing signs of ageing so as to maintain a certain power of seduction and to avoid the invisibility linked with old age. In this special report, Michel Bozon, Joëlle Gaymu, and Eva Lelièvre analyze the “inequality of aesthetic roles” between genders by means of interviews conducted with women around the age of sixty. Interviewees tend to express an interest in taking care of their body, in “ageing young,” and in eluding the stigmatization that comes with being an “old woman.”

21This is all the more challenging considering that “old women” outnumber “old men.” French women live for almost six and a half years longer than their male coevals (as of 2015, life expectancy at birth was 85.5 and 79.2 respectively); Spanish women by five and a half (85.7 and 80.1). [3] Spain and France are the EU countries where women’s life expectancy is highest, followed by Switzerland, Luxembourg, Italy, Finland, and Portugal. This situation thus increases the likelihood of living alone and raises various questions: does living alone afford women greater freedom, autonomy, and independence? Do new forms of extended family make room for those left aside by divorce and old age? In their article, Paola Sacchi and Pier Paolo Viazzo show how, in countries on either side of the Mediterranean, the nuclearization of families comes with strategies aimed at ensuring residential proximity between family members. Furthermore, women do most of the work when it comes to maintaining family ties, particularly through the role they play in the informal care economy.

22Another variable of old age results from social disparity. Health inequalities indicate that life expectancy differs between wealthier and poorer social groups. The data is explicit: in Barcelona, for instance, life expectancy is as high as 86.5 in the neighborhood of Pedralbes, where family income is highest in the city: 250.5 on a basis of 100. In Torre Baró, however, which has a low family income of 47.1, life expectancy is 75.2. But wealth is not only economic. It also manifests in the density of the social and familial network built around an individual. Strong family and community ties act as a protective network against adverse situations that may befall the elderly, as pointed out in the articles by Chiara Saraceno, by Dolors Comas-d’Argemir, Natalia Alonso and Blanca Deusdad, and by Paola Sacchi and Pier Paolo Viazzo.

23Lastly, migration is a good vantage point for examining the diverse ways in which old age can be experienced. More and more migrants are older individuals whose image of themselves and of being “old” is rather different to that of other older people—an image that is, moreover, not homogeneous. Jacques Barou, in his work on the migrants who came to France from the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa in the 1960s and 1970s and are now part of the older generation, identifies three possible categories to characterize the diversity of profiles: 1) lonely men, unhappy in their host country; 2) women, who are happier on the whole; 3) individuals of either gender who seek to live between two countries so as to benefit from the happiness and the security provided by each of them. In this regard, the host country’s public policy on health and social infrastructures obviously plays an important role.

Caring for the elderly: Social policies and family practices

24A longer lifespan not only affects the elderly, but all generations. Both old and young are caught in the reconfiguration of care relations, in the conflicts and the solidarity they involve, and in the appreciation and the exclusion they lead to (Danely and Lynch 2013, 5). End-of-life-care is a critical issue in understanding how a longer life expectancy can shape experiences and their meanings, mobilize social relations and resources, and be an overlapping area between moral economy and political economy (Buch 2015).

25In a poignant exercise of self-ethnography, Martine Segalen here relates her experiences in accompanying her husband through Parkinson’s disease. She describes the feelings experienced in daily life in the context of a destructive illness that changes the patient’s life as well as the lives of the people around them: bodily deterioration, behavioral changes, dwindling social interactions, denial of the disease, vulnerability and loss of independence, household adaptations, a change in habits, the chaos brought about by illness, and the alteration of married life. These aspects contribute to the problem of dependency, which has often guided the health and social policies set up to handle long-term care in the European context where “ageing” was de facto treated as an “illness” (Carrasco et al. 2011; Comas-d’Argemir 2015; Saraceno 2010).

26In contrast to this conception of old age under the criterion of dependency, the current European and North American political programs have promoted the paradigm of “active ageing.” This idea rests on: 1) the principle of retaining individual autonomy and control; 2) prolonging independence and avoiding dependence; 3) taking steps to enable the elderly to carry out individual activities; 4) an effort to ensure that they retain their individual nature over time (Lamb 2014). These “ethical” principles certainly aim to improve the wellbeing of the elderly, but they also seek to reduce the resources dedicated to their care by focusing on individual responsibility in the ageing process (Guillemard 2013; Lamb et al. 2017). On the transition into the “fourth age,” Lucie Galčanová and Marcela Petrová Kafková highlight the awareness that their interviewees have of physical decline, of the break from their former life, and of social detachment, and they focus on the struggle of these individuals to retain their own image. This struggle also features in Alessandro Gusman’s article: the terminally ill tend to express their wish to die at home, a “lived-in space” charged with experiences, perceptions, memories, and affects that participate in sustaining their personal identity. In addition, Anja Hiddinga and the Beyond Hearing. Cultures Overlooked research collective explain that the attachment of deaf people to their own culture and to their independence in relation to the non-deaf world through the ageing process is one of the main reasons stated by those who seek admittance into a specialized institution such as De Gelderhorst, a Dutch institution that cares for the elderly deaf.

27What are daily care practices? What does “care” mean? What are its social and political implications? Taking care of one another is an activity that gradually takes hold of daily life in old age, particularly when it comes to partners. In all European countries, most people aged sixty-five and over live with their partner, but cases of loneliness should also be pointed out. In Europe, 31.1% of elderly people live alone. Greece, Spain, Italy and Portugal are below this average, while Finland, Denmark, and Sweden are at the other end of the scale (over 39%). [4]

28But beyond national differences, which are both cultural and political, some cases of isolation present a different “environment,” which ethnography enables us to reveal. Paola Sacchi and Pier Paolo Viazzo, for instance, point out the tendency for people to live in a situation of “near co-residence” and how members of the same family may gather together and carry out activities such as eating, grocery shopping, or working despite living in different households. The authors draw the logical conclusion that the nuclearization process has in no way overshadowed extended family dynamics. In this situation, care practices come to extend beyond the home. In a Europe-based study, Patrick Heady (2012) reminds us that two people living together are the most likely to take care of each other, but that when assistance comes from outside, it is more likely to come from the closest family members and from the ones who live nearest (ibid., 92–95). However, all things being equal, women take on most of the caring duties, particularly daughters.

29Family, demographic, and social changes have done away with the traditional care model. Each generation has fewer children than in the past; women fight for an equal distribution of household tasks; working professionals who care about their employment generally try to retain it. Together these factors diminish the helping potential of families. Women, however, continue to feel the pressure to combine the care “due” to their close relatives with their professional activities, although men have also started to become involved in long-term care, especially older, retired husbands. As Dolors Comas-d’Argemir, Natalia Alonso and Blanca Deusdad show in their article, the long-term care delivered by husbands to their sick wives is a relatively new phenomenon linked to the children being less available to take care of their parents. Xavier Roigé and Montserrat Soronellas-Masdeu look at the issue from another angle, examining whether the support for separated or divorced older people, who have greatly increased in number over the past few years, is organized differently than for married people. The authors show that the men who have lost touch with their children clearly suffer the consequences. This concern for continuity also manifests in the wish to grow old at home for as long as possible, and the even greater wish to die there. In his article, Alessandro Gusman details the changes made to the domestic space to adapt it for what is considered “a good death.”

30This begs for a more global question: how is the responsibility of care currently distributed across generations? In Europe, the far-reaching social transformations of the past fifty years in gender relations and in the relations between generations have made it necessary to renegotiate the tasks related to the care process (Carsten 2004; Finch 1989). A study conducted in Ireland (Conlon et al. 2016) points out that these renegotiations mainly apply to families with an average to high income. By fostering the education of their daughters and their access to a profession, older women have encouraged them not to replicate the model that they experienced themselves. Families of a lower socio-economic level, however, replicate the old model, forcing upon their daughters the responsibility of providing care to the generations above them.

31The foundational principles of intergenerational reciprocity have thus been modified. The moral basis of care has been transferred from a family ethic that relies on the dedication of women to an individual ethic which, in the case of the elderly, is expressed through their desire for independence and the wish to not be a burden to their children (Comas-d’Argemir et al., in this special report). Longer life expectancy contributes to these changes because today’s elderly tend to rely less on the support of their children and to anticipate their old age by ensuring they have the individual resources that will be key to their independence. Keeping resources for oneself rather than passing them on to the following generation (Gotman 2010) is therefore an indicator of these changes in the logic of intergenerational reciprocity: the model of closed-off, restricted exchange (transferal of resources from parents to children; care delivered by daughters to their parents) gives way to a more open model that may or may not include transferal. Some elderly people, mainly those of a low socio-economic status, find these changes harder (Mandell and Kin 2017). They often belong to what can be called the “pivotal generation” between two models of exchange: the old system wherein they gained social status, and the new system, still under construction and within which children feel free from the responsibility of caretaking. An additional consequence of this increasing life expectancy is the pressure on the “sandwich generation,” consisting of people aged forty-five to sixty-five and caught between their children’s needs, those of their ageing parents, and their working commitments. This generation represents the values of individualism, of gender equality, of material wellbeing, but also those of compromise and of a sense of duty toward their elders (Burke 2017). Chiara Saraceno analyzes the case of these older women “under pressure,” who find themselves having to take care of their parents, their children and, in some cases, their grandchildren, all while they are still working.

32An individual’s family is not the sole provider of care, however. The state and the care market (with services like home help, remote assistance, retirement homes, and day care centers) are significant players in the general care economy and, along with family practices, they shape the institutional architecture of social care (Daly and Lewis 2000). While in some countries long-term care is largely covered by the state, family solidarity in providing care remains essential in others. The articles in this special report highlight these differences. France and the Netherlands seem to be among the countries with the most “generous” social policies (Barou; Hiddinga, in this special report). In Spain and Italy, where welfare abides by other principles, a greater intergenerational solidarity remains necessary, which causes an overload within families and significant strain in terms of resources and time (see, in this special report, the texts by Comas-d’Argemir et al; Roigé and Soronellas-Masdeu; and Saraceno). The small scope of public policies results in an increase in private services, especially in the field of home help. This inevitably leads to significant inequalities between families of very disparate incomes.

33Domestic employment, particularly in the personal care sector, has reached an unprecedented level, shaping a sort of “new worldwide domestic order” (Benería 2010; Ehrenreich and Hochschild 2003). The increase in care needs has brought about an internationalization of the care personnel market as well as resulting in the immigration of female workers to countries like Italy or Spain, which may have been encouraged by migration (Anderson 2012; Papa and Favole 2016). In this context, what are the relations between the care personnel and the employer? How do cultural differences manifest and how are they negotiated? Studies looking at such questions have focused in particular on the perspective of female migrant workers, but there is a research gap when it comes to the families that employ them. In order to fill it, the article by Maria Offenhenden and Yolanda Bodoque-Puerta analyzes employers’ hiring strategies. These are people of average to high income who, by their own admission, become care managers. The article details their selection criteria, including the qualities and aptitudes that they look for, and also examines the employees’ working conditions. The work, often precarious, generally requires full availability and, although it entails close, personalized relationships, shows little consideration for the rights of these workers.

34Lastly, new technologies have a very strong impact on care practices. With a wide variety of devices such as remote assistance and telemedicine, new support techniques, and so on, it is now possible to greatly improve the comfort and quality of life of elderly people, and even to maintain or increase their independence (Rialle 2015). This does raise questions, some of them ethical, about the role of these technologies within the world of care and social support. As Marc-Éric Bobillier-Chaumon and Raluca Oprea Ciobanu (2009) explain, these systems can sow the seeds of a new form of dependency, similar to that of technical assistance, and paradoxically exacerbate their stigmatization through the construction of a new profile: the “new, technically assisted elderly.”

Ageing into the future

35Living ever longer creates the conditions for the appearance of a “new ageing.” This phenomenon is certainly one of the most profound changes in our society insofar as it modifies living experiences, transforms intergenerational relations, and impacts the economic and political logics of contemporary states.

36Some predictions, however, anticipate transformations of an even greater scope, revealed by the data provided by Kaare Christensen et al. (2009). Fifty percent of Europeans born in 2000 will still be alive in 2100. As pointed out in the World Health Organization’s 2015 World Report on Ageing and Health, “[t]hese extra years of life and demographic shifts have profound implications for each of us, as well as for the societies we live in. They offer unprecedented opportunities, and are likely to have a fundamental impact on the way we live our lives, the things we aspire to and the ways we relate to each other.” [5] How will society change, and how will it adapt to this new situation? What roles will elderly people play as their number increases?

37There are significant consequences to this evolution both in social and economic terms, but also when it comes to the representations of old age. In 1961, Bernice Neugarten argued that biological age should no longer be the factor of consideration in social policies on health (Neugarten 1996): according to her, an “ageless society” and “age-neutral social policies” should be considered instead (Moulaert and Léonard 2011, 28). The articles in this special report thus provide key elements for grasping the complexity of ageing in societies, the diversity of experiences, the ways of experiencing old age, the new family order brought about by an increased life expectancy, and the unease associated with the vulnerability and the gradual decaying of bodies. Studying the state of ageing today means identifying the experiences of age in the singularity of its social and national contexts, so that we may influence public policies and prepare for the future. This point is, ultimately, our ambition for this issue.


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Dolors Comas-d’Argemir
Rovira i Virgili University
Xavier Roigé
University of Barcelona
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