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The Many Meanings of “Active Ageing”. Confronting Public Discourse with Older People’s Stories

Silke van Dyk, Stephan Lessenich, Tina Denninger et Anna Richter
p. 97-115

Résumé

In recent years and throughout the European Union, “active ageing” has become a prominent conception of how to “age well”. In analyzing the governmentality of old age inherent to the “active ageing” paradigm, this paper tries to avoid the short-cut from program to praxis commonly being taken in governmentality studies. It reports on the findings of an empirical research project that asks for the specific images of “old age” and “retirement” becoming prominent in the context of last decade’s push for “activation” in German politics. The analysis combines the reconstruction of so-called “story lines” emerging in public discourse with the evaluation of qualitative interviews with “young” elderly people, conceptualizing older people’s narrations as being an integral part of the discourse itself. Moving from simple, ad-hoc illustrations of theoretical claims concerning a “neoliberal” government of old age to a systematic empirical reconstruction of what may be called the dispositif of “active ageing”, the paper claims to make an innovative contribution to an “empirical theory” of governmentality.

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I. Demographic Change and the Emergence of the “Active Ageing” Paradigm

1 In recent years, the socially shared conceptions of how to age well have changed dramatically, the notion of “successful” ageing increasingly being identified with the so-called “active ageing” paradigm. Trivial to say, it is ongoing (and expected) demographic change that marks the background of the rise of “active ageing”. Less trivially, however, what gave the concept its remarkable political dynamic and ideological success was the discovery of what has been called the “new elderly” (van Dyk/Lessenich, 2009): the post-war cohorts of the wealthy, healthy and educated “young old” currently moving into retirement. When reviewing both phenomena, that of demographic ageing and that of the “new elderly”, it comes as no surprise that a solution to what is often framed as the “old age crisis” (World Bank, 1994) is commonly thought of as being feasible with the active help of elderly people themselves. Or, to put this in terms of the compelling logic of “sustainability”: why should the originator of the problem not also be the solution to it, or at least part of that solution?

2From the “active ageing” viewpoint, retiring from the active workforce does not necessarily – and indeed should not – mean disengaging from all productive activity. Back in 1999, the European Commission urged its member states to « change outmoded practices in relation to older persons » and make use of the « wealth of under-utilised experience and talent » that the growing number of healthy and well-educated retired people were said to constitute:

3Both within labour markets and after retirement, there is the potential to facilitate the making of greater contributions from people in the second half of their lives. The capacities of older people represent a great reservoir of resources, which so far has been insufficiently recognised and mobilised (European Commission, 1999:21).

4 Inspired and intellectually powered by influential gerontologists, “active ageing” was being praised – at least in the early stages of its politicisation – as a “win-win solution” to the multiple problems of an ageing society:

The beauty of this strategy is that it is good for everyone: from citizens of all ages as ageing individuals in terms of maximizing their potential and quality of life, through to society as a whole, by getting the best from human capital, avoiding intergenerational conflicts and creating a fairer, more inclusive society (Walker, 2002:137).

5 The political adaptation and application of the concept in openly utilitarian and productivist terms (for a genealogy: Moulaert/Biggs, 2012) has increasingly been criticised by its academic advocates (Walker, 2008; Naegele, 2013). However, it is quite easy to imagine politicians confronted with the “demographic challenge” succumbing to the charms of the productivist version of “active ageing”; in the political field, it opened up the possibility of combining the material benefits of using the resources of the elderly for collective purposes with the symbolic promise to older people that their contribution to the common good would improve their social status. From a sociological point of view, however, it is quite obvious that “win-win solutions” for real-world social problems are pretty rare – given modern societies’ undeniable heterogeneity of interests and their in-built structural power differentials.

  • 1  Of course, as always is the case with political programmes, the paradigm itself fluctuates: recent (...)

6 In a sociological account, the politics of “active ageing” presents a number of serious pitfalls and problems. First of all, it improperly homogenises the extremely heterogeneous group of “the elderly”, suggesting every single one of them has “high potential” and is just waiting to be discovered so as to perform more actively in society. Beyond that, it effectively produces a new norm of ageing; a single standard that many will inevitably fail to live up to – all those who are less resourceful than the prototypical “best ager” who serves as a role model within the “active ageing” imagery1. Finally, responsibility for the success or – more importantly – failure of the elderly to keep up with the programmatic expectations is ascribed to the elderly themselves, thus turning not only personal well-being but also the “public good” into a matter of individual behaviour (van Dyk et al., 2010; Holstein/Minkler, 2003; Rudman, 2006).

  • 2  The project was funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG) in the context of a Collaborative R (...)

7 Critical theoretical accounts of the active ageing paradigm are often linked – like our own research on the changing imagery of ageing – to Foucauldian-style governmentality studies, which aim to explore the complex power/knowledge arrangements that “govern” the social processes of construction and self-formation of late-modern (“neoliberal”) subjects and subjectivities (Dean, 2010). However, most of this rapidly growing literature – not least in the field of ageing studies (Biggs/Powell, 2001; Powell/Wahidin, 2006) – lacks a thorough empirical foundation. Instructive as they are, governmentality studies more often than not restrict themselves to the reconstruction of political programmes on the basis of (supposedly) authoritative text sources such as textbooks, legal texts or counseling literature. At least implicitly, they take it for granted that these programmes are actually “at work” and that they are “guiding” people’s self-conceptions and everyday practices. In striving for an “empirical theory” of governmentality, we try to avoid this short-cut from programme to praxis, moving from simple, ad-hoc illustrations of theoretical claims to a systematic empirical reconstruction of what may be called the dispositif of “active ageing”. The findings we will be presenting stem from an empirical research project2 that collects specific images of “old age” and “retirement” which have become prominent in the context of the push for “activation” in German politics over the last decade. We combine the reconstruction of so-called “story lines” emerging in public discourse with the analysis of qualitative interviews with (“young”) elderly people, conceptualizing older people’s narratives as being an integral part of the discourse itself.

  • 3  Articles from digitized media were selected by keyword research; non-digitized media were checked (...)

8 In the first (“macro”) dimension, we analysed more than 2 200 text sources published between 1983 and 2011 on the topics of retirement, old age and ageing in four daily newspapers, several general and special interest magazines3, administrative and expert reports, political party programmes, and selected advertising campaigns. For the second (“micro”) dimension, we conducted 55 qualitative, problem-centred interviews with people aged between 60 and 72 who had been retired for at least one year and who were not dependent on care at that time. Since the young and healthy elderly used to be – and still are – the major target group of “active ageing” policies, and since our research seeks to achieve an “empirical theory” of governmentality, we decided to focus on the narratives and practices of this group. The interviews were sampled according to the Grounded Theory methodology and interviewees selected by gender, economic/educational status and regional origin (East/West Germany).

9 For the analysis of public discourse and personal narratives, we used a modified coding paradigm adapted from Grounded Theory, which was constantly reworked in the course of the research process: categories built throughout the discourse analysis helped us to read the interview material, and findings from the interview analyses were fed back into the discourse analysis again, thus enabling “gaps” or blank spaces in public discourse to be identified. In line with the methodological premises underlying the Narrative Gerontology approach (Kenyon et al., 2011), the narrative constructions of our interviewees were treated as cultural productions framed and structured by discursive knowledge and, at the same time, constituting creative-subversive appropriations of this same knowledge. People are not “programmed” by programmatic discourses, but they are themselves active instances of discourse production. In what follows, we will first briefly present the main empirical findings of our discourse analysis, i.e. the three “story lines” displaying the public imagery (and imagining) of “old age” and “retirement” in Germany since the mid-1980s. Secondly, and in light of these macro-narratives, we will reconstruct the micro-narratives of our interviewees in more detail, examining elderly people’s patterns of adoption and rejection, modification and reinterpretation of stories and images, and recapitulating what they themselves mean when they – explicitly or, more often, implicitly – talk about “ageing well”.

  • 4  These elements were coded as categories and, using the software MAXQDA, could be tested for interc (...)

10 Following Maarten Hajer (1995), we define a “story line” as a condensed form of narrative, i.e. a synthetic narrative reducing discursive complexity by making use of figures, symbols, and metaphors that serve in everyday communication as simplifications and abbreviations of a complex phenomenon. “Story lines” often work as a form of “shorthand” to cut a long and multi-faceted story short, because « by uttering a specific element, one effectively reinvokes the story-line as a whole » (Hajer, 1995:62). We thus analysed the public discourse searching for these “reinvoking” elements and for major links between core elements of a specific “story line”4. To cut (maybe inappropriately) short our own account of the theoretical context, we conceive of “story lines” as being the narrative guise (or Gestalt) of what Michel Foucault (1978, 1990) has defined as a social dispositif or “dispositive order” (Denninger et al., 2010b). Dispositifs are to be understood as a combination or, more accurately, a composition of heterogeneous elements – in the context of our research: knowledge, institutions, objects/artefacts, practices, and bodies – which together, as a complex ensemble, make up the powerful order of “ageing” and “old age”. And it is the story lines – as powerful social narratives – which make dispositive orders readable, “legible” (and intelligible) for social actors in the first place, thus giving “voice” to the historically specific ordering of the social sphere.

II. Retirement, Restlessness, Productivity: Competing Stories about Life after Working Life

11 In our analysis of public discourses, we reconstructed three story lines that “give voice” to three historically distinct age dispositives: the “retired age”, the “restless age”, and the “productive age” narratives. In analytically differentiating them from one other and (very briefly) re-telling them here, we have to stress that, empirically, there is no simple stage-model to be identified, no neat sequence of these three story lines occurring one after the other. Rather, they should be regarded as mutually overlapping and interfering stories. Actually, there are two distinct narratives – “restless” and “productive” age – co-substantiating the “active ageing” paradigm in dialectic interplay, with the productivity story developing from, and in a sense radicalizing, the restlessness story.

  • 5  In German, “Ruhestand” (for “retirement”) has the double connotation of an empirical, factual stat (...)
  • 6  There is a sub-discourse in some (more popular) media focusing only on the retreat-provision nexus (...)

12 Since the very beginning of the period under research, we have been able to identify the “classical” story line of “retirement”, serving as a background to the two historically younger old-age narratives. The guiding idea of the “retirement” story line is indeed that of the older person retiring, i.e. disengaging not only from employment, but also – in a broader sense – from any sort of occupation or “business”. This story has two different aspects, discursively linked to each other: on the one hand, it suggests that the old person, on looking back over a long and fulfilling working life, is legitimately liberated from work or any other public responsibility and thus is enjoying life’s last chapter as a time of “deserved rest” financed by public pension schemes5; on the other hand, it depicts elderly people as being detached and decoupled from society and societal exchange processes, thus pairing and complementing this picture with the whole range of negative stereotypes commonly associated with “old age”. The logical short form of this story line therefore reads, retreat - provision - inactivity - decay - emptiness, depicting a very short, but nevertheless “rich” story of “the” typical old person as a relatively well-off pensionner who leads a relatively inanimate life in the shadows of the “real” social world and loses his or her physical and mental capacities relatively rapidly (but constantly)6. The emblematic objects, practices, and institutions connected to and illustrating this story are – in the cultural context of German society, and among many others – public pensions and the nursing home, the sofa and the TV set, gardening and housework, dentures and the wheelchair. By addressing one or a combination of these items in public discourse, the whole social world of “retirement” is, in a nutshell, effectively evoked for the greater public.

  • 7  In German, the term which is frequently used to denote the essential content of this story is “Unr (...)

13 Against this background, the “rest-less age”7 story line emerges – as the “active ageing” paradigm avant la lettre – in German public discourse in the late 1980s and becomes dominant by the mid-1990s at the latest. In line with the EU “active ageing” formula – « Adding life to years » (European Commission, 1999:21) – to be propagated some years later, in the “restlessness” dispositive “the” prototypical older person is depicted as a surprisingly juvenile, active, competent, and self-reliant senior citizen integrated into the social fabric of an active society. Far removed from the imagery of “retirement”, and actually taking it as its negative counterpart, a new notion of old age – and of the elderly as “best agers” – in a state of permanent, endless motion emerges in the public sphere. Without questionning (yet) the legitimacy of material security in later life, what is effectively delegitimized is physical and mental immobility; with the bodies and brains of the elderly explicitly conceived of as being “plastic” and amenable to continuous training and exercise, keeping busy means actively avoiding degradation, frailty and the need for long-term care. Thus, in the context of the logical conjunction, plasticity - self-initiative - healthy lifestyle - competencies, underlying the “restless age” narrative, “active ageing” stands for an auto-productive agency of the elderly motivated by the will to “stay alive” as long as possible, preventing or at least postponing personal dependency. At the same time, this narrative also includes the image of the well-off, open-minded and cosmopolitan pensioner engaging in expensive and time-consuming leisure activities for the sake of individual fulfilment and self-realization. Consequently, the list of emblematic icons within this story line is extremely extensive, and includes fitness studios and exercise bikes, Nordic walking, computers and the datebook of senior students, residential communities, round-the-world trips and the Road to Santiago.

  • 8  This refers to one of the most recent pension reforms in Germany, by which the regular retirement (...)
  • 9  As we will see below, this circumstance matches with our finding that the “productive ageing” disc (...)

14 However, the “restless age” story line has itself become overwhelmed, beginning in the late 1990s, by the emerging “productive ageing” narrative, which may well be said to have dominated the public discourse on old age and ageing in Germany since the middle of the 2000s. Here, the guiding idea is that elderly people obviously could – and actually should – make use of the multiplicity of resources attributed to them in the context of the “restless age” story, not only for themselves, but also in hetero-productive ways. The “productive ageing” story is no longer about “any” activity whatsoever in old age being desirable and approvable. What really “counts” now is the usefulness of elderly people’s activities to others, i.e. to third parties beyond the “ageing selves” – from grandparenting and civic engagement, to community work and intragenerational care. The social (even more than the purely economic) productivity of elderly people’s activities moves centre stage here: it is the “ageing society” itself which – social construction though it may be – is said to have a legitimate claim on elderly people and their “potential”. Resources - potential - responsibility - engagement - (public) benefit: this is how the “productive ageing” story goes. So far however, and in manifest contrast to the other two story lines, there are considerably fewer practices, institutions, or objects emblematic of this story line to be identified in public discourse – the “67 pension”8, civic engagement, and preventive medical checkups being the most prominent examples9.

15 It is these three story lines that build a complex constellation of coexisting – and partly conflicting – dispositive orders of old age and ageing at the turn of the 20th century. In this sense, it is important to note that disruptions and contradictions are to be found not only between the different narratives, but also within them. One instance of such a discursive self-opposition is the fact that both the “restlessness” and the “productivity” stories operate strongly with counter-images of a passive, immobile, de-socialized old age which, through the very fact of being branded as characteristic of a long-past “retirement” model, paradoxically serve to reinforce the very negative stereotypes of elderly people’s lives that they are supposed to overcome. As we will see in what follows, this negative imagery is part of the story (or stories) that elderly people themselves tell about their life as retirees – but, literally speaking, only part of it.

III. The Perspectives of the Young-Old on Life in Retirement

16 As « expectations around active ageing are typically defined by policy makers, service planners and allied researchers » (Stenner et al., 2011:469), there is little information so far on what older people think themselves – at least beyond standardized answers to questionnaires (as exceptions: Rudman, 2006; Clarke/Warren, 2007). The following sections are dedicated to giving a voice to the young-old themselves, highlighting some common stances and major differences from the public discourse.

A. “Late Freedom” and the Passive Retirement Narrative

  • 10  At the same time, this strong focus on freedom and time sovereignty does not tell the whole story: (...)

17 Despite the growing influence of the productivity story line, our interviews reveal the ongoing “gravity” of the world of retirement, which serves as a positive and/or negative reference for most of our interviewees. In particular, the highly legitimized, well-deserved and institutionalized liberation from employment duties proves to be widely unchallenged; contrary to the Anglo-Saxon context (Walker, 2002), mandatory retirement is not up for discussion except for a very small and highly privileged minority, mostly of the self-employed. The interviewees regard retirement as an instance of “late freedom” (Rosenmayr, 1983), and appreciate being liberated from stress and pressure. Although they do not speak explicitly about alienation and heteronomous working conditions, these experiences serve as the background against which “late freedom” and the chance of self-determination are valued. And this is true not just for lower-educated people and blue-collar workers, who have suffered the effects of monotonous work, but for most of the academics as well10.

18 Alternatively, people consider their new freedom as being potentially hazardous, involving the risk of losing track, letting oneself go, or sinking into idleness: « Freedom without order leads to chaos. You have to structure and plan your freedom » (Mr Kanter). Many narratives reveal how challenging it is to find a new rhythm of everyday life after decades of a heteronomous time schedule: « The great freedom is actually what is most difficult » (Ms Altenberger). Being free is cherished, but it is not regarded as being free to do nothing. The general appreciation of institutionalized freedom goes hand in hand with a very negative perspective on what is thought to be a standard – passive, empty, “dead” – retirement life, from which the interviewees distance themselves emphatically.

  • 11  This is an example of a typical shorthand, since the link between television and passivity is far (...)

19 This image of a supposedly “normal” retirement life is often expressed through minor, marginal comments which, without being (or having to be) elaborated on, invoke a whole narrative on passive retirement. One interviewee mentions that she has started playing golf, in spite of her hatred for the game, merely to pass time and prevent boredom. Another interviewee began training for a job at the age of 55, as her only alternative would have been wasting time in daily coffee circles. Here we find obvious connections to the retirement story line as developed in public discourse. Two objects in particular – the sofa and the television – serve as icons for the much more complex story of retirement as a state of physical and mental passivity11. They both address the domestic dimension of retirement, symbolizing elderly people’s disengagement from social life and their shrinking living space. The interviewees think of “normal” pensioners as permanently « standing at the window and watching the neighbours » (Mr Brand), thus passively consuming the lives of other people. While reclaiming the (positive) freedom of retirement for themselves, other (elderly) people’s lives are imagined to be dull and empty.

  • 12  The “rejuvenation” of old age – i.e. the description of people aged 60 or 70 today as being physic (...)
  • 13  External signs of ageing are mostly reported by women, and images of “real” elderly people are mos (...)

20 It is the life in retirement of parents and parents-in-law – or rather the images held of their lives – that serves as a major input for the passive retirement narrative: our interviewees sketch a radically restricted retirement life (« You know, people sat at the stove once they were past 65 », Mr Kanter) of former generations. They stress that their parents « had no needs beyond the material basics – no cinema, no theatre, nothing » (Ms Ruthe), and that their « range of interests was incredibly small » (Mr Riesen). The strong influence of the former generation’s life in retirement on images held in the present is not effectively challenged by the parallel perspective on “rejuvenation” which, as gerontological knowledge (Mayer/Baltes, 1996), became popular with the rise of the “restless age” story12. Looking at our interviews, the scientific findings correspond perfectly with people’s own experiences – or vice versa: « Isn’t it true, people aged 60 or 65 are in a way not as old as they used to be 30 or 40 years ago, are they? » (Ms Weimann). When asked about their parents’ retirement, most of the interviewees respond in a very similar way: « You can’t compare it with today » (Mr Schiffer), « It was totally different; post-war times and all that » (Mr Heilbronn). Physical health, fitness, mental activity and physical rejuvenation are all assets only of the “new” generations of old people13.

21 But how does this fit together with the continuing survival of the passive retirement narrative? At first sight not at all – and in some interviews these two perspectives indeed perfectly co-exist with each other. The passive retirement narrative seems to be so deeply anchored (via objects, body practices, and institutional settings) that it persists as a more or less implicit model, despite the emerging popular knowledge on rejuvenation. As long as the sofa or the TV set work as symbolic icons for a whole – supposedly foregone – world of retirement, the “old” story line remains influential, even if it is not reproduced explicitly. In other interviews, however, the relationship between past and present (generations) is much more clearly drawn: rejuvenation, activity orientation and non-domestic interests are held to be true for friends and acquaintances in particular and more educated people in general, whereas distant relatives and neighbours of the same age play the role of the “normal” passive pensioner. Since most parents used to be less educated than their children, this differentiation is not just a generational question, but also an issue of social milieus. Many higher educated people in our study claim the “restless age” imagery to be true for themselves and their milieu, whereas “the others” are depicted as protagonists of passive retirement.

  • 14  If this moderating effect is not accounted for, the analysis of elderly people’s everyday lives ru (...)

22 It is not “deserved rest” and retirement as such, then, which is delegitimized or challenged by the young old – but domestic passivity in more specific and concrete ways. At the same time, the notion of domestic passivity is actually open to interpretation, safeguarding the stability and deep anchoring of the passive-retirement narrative: some interviewees have in mind people watching TV all day long, others have an image of pensioners who sleep until noon or who only simulate being busy by “stretching out” housework, or retirees who are perfectly satisfied with gardening, grandparenting and coffee circles. These demarcations of (and from) “passivity” serve as a flexible standard of comparison according to which their own retirement life is assessed – and actually upgraded: those who think of “normality” in terms of an empty and meaningless space of elapsing time tend to perceive their own life as more active, complete, and fulfilling. With regard to our sample, it may be said that the lower a person’s level of activity and the narrower his or her spatial radius of action, the more passive the “compensatory” model of comparison turns out to be, with the most radical notions moving “retirement” close to virtually doing nothing and to a state of social death (compared to which every other form of living may be considered as an “active” life)14.

23 Seen against this backdrop, it becomes obvious why being busy and suffering from time scarcity are major topics in elderly people’s narratives. Over and over again, interviewees report their pre-retirement fears of having (too) much free time, a fear that happily never came true: « ‘Pensioners never have time’ – I would have never thought that it’s really true, every day is just packed … I am never bored » (Mr Wulf). One striking consequence of this moderation effect (of previous expectations about retirement experiences) is that people whose actual activity level is rather low do not report concrete activities or duties, but talk about being busy in highly abstract ways, asserting that they (in contrast to “other” pensioners) are constantly doing “something”:

I am always busy, from morning till night. The day starts at eight with doing something. I go to the cellar, work on something, repair something or do something else. Or I go to the attic and do something there, tidying up. Or something like that (Mr Fichte).

  • 15  « An individual can take a disparate, even limited, set of activities and spin them together into (...)

24 This kind of “Busy Talk” has to be distinguished from the well-known “Busy Ethic” concept (Ekerdt 1986) referring to the extension of work ethic into retirement. According to Ekerdt, pensioners tend to simulate being busy and to imitate occupational schedules in retirement in order to be recognized as active citizens15. But whereas the “Busy Ethic” operates as a function of the “middle-age” model of employment to be imitated, what we identify as “Busy Talk” is an effect of the passive retirement paradigm, which serves not as a model of imitation, but of dissociation. However, we assume that “Busy Ethic” and “Busy Talk” are not mutually exclusive, but rather may complement each other: the Busy Talker’s dissociation from passive retirement might make it easier for him or her to truly imagine (not least for him or herself) the everyday simulation of occupational time schedules, i.e. it may help to make Busy Ethic “work”.

B. Vita Activa

  • 16  Since activities in retirement are often automatically analysed as age-related activities, it is v (...)

25 In accordance with other research in this field, our interviews demonstrate that « being active [is] universally regarded as desirable and even essential » (Venn/Arber, 2011:203). Active and busy: this is how life – and retired life – should be, it is unanimously agreed. However, we are not proposing that this attitude is proof that the political “active ageing” agenda actually influences people’s concept of (active) retirement16. Although there are more or less explicit references to public activation and productivity claims, most of our interviewees’ narratives about their activities are of a much more basic kind. What we can learn about “active ageing” from our material is basically related to a – rather anthropological than political – concept of vita activa, in the sense of elderly people’s active appropriation of the social world. Many interviewees consider their orientation towards activity as being an inherent part of their personality – and not as the reaction to a political programme: « it is simply my character to always be active » (Ms Teich), « activity is my disposition » (Mr Hitt). There are only two people – out of 55 – who present themselves as passive and idle characters, just enjoying living up to their personality in retirement (by “doing nothing”).

26 Along with this focus on (individual) personality, we find a more general recourse to activity as a modus vivendi, as a simple matter of being (and keeping) alive, nourished by the counter-image of dependent advanced old age as rejected life – or, in post-structuralist terms: as “abject” (Kristeva, 1982). The interviewees talk about their (extremely negative) vision of advanced old age very vividly, often using a vocabulary of contempt and disrespect (“vegetating”), actually equating life close to death with a state of post-humanity. This abysmal imagery helps to clarify people’s activity claims not so much in terms of “active ageing” but rather in a much more basic, vitalist sense – as a tribute to « life as the highest good » (Arendt, 1998:399). To put it as Ms Gerhard does – « Homo Faber: humans have to do something » – amounts to a fundamental claim that being active is part of conditio humana. After talking about his friends who travel a lot, one interviewee emphasizes: « This is not restless age, but normal consumption of positive things and active participation in life » (Mr Pfarr) – basically a matter of « keeping up with the world » (Stenner et al., 2011:473).

  • 17  Clarke and Warren show that the idea of “comfortable healthy ageing” is preferred to the idea of “ (...)

27 At the same time, however, the different elements of this “vitalist” narration are re-arranged in ways that reduce its complexity and suggest uniformity. As such, it is easily connectable – by social science or politics, but also by the interviewees themselves – to the “active ageing” dispositive, be it in its “restlessness” or its “productivity” guise. “Active ageing” effectively works as an « empty signifier » (Laclau, 1996:36), incorporating different notions of activity and reframing them according to its hegemonic closure. As a consequence, living human beings (which is what our interviewees are) are discursively turned into “young” and “active” elderly people who seem to behave in accordance with the public call for active ageing. As a matter of fact, it is people’s basic understanding of life as vita activa which ensures that the signifier “active ageing” is widely and easily comprehensible, without depending at all on people’s ideological acceptance of “activation” policies. Actually, there is one basic element of the “restless age” story line which is explicitly connected to the interviewees’ vitalist perspective and which makes the hegemonic closure even easier: the self-responsibility of individuals for their physical and mental health (Bowling, 2008; Stenner et al., 2010). For almost all of the people in our sample, self-regulative health practices are driven by their hope to prevent the nightmare of “post-human” advanced old age17. The moving body of the restless age story, present in most of the interviews, is often explicitly connected to biomedical scientific discourses, proving their anchorage in everyday knowledge. In this – but only this – respect, the interviewees’ attitudes perfectly correspond with neoliberal ideas of self-responsible behaviour, with several of them arguing in terms of an individual’s moral duty to stay healthy:

  • 18  However, even though the claim of self-responsibility with regard to health matters is insistently (...)

I think the elderly are responsible to society, they should behave in a way which makes sure they don’t produce too many costs (Mr. Kupfer)18.

C. From Retirement to Restless Age and Productive Ageing: Stressing the Differences

28 If we switch the perspective to more concrete practices and orientations, some typical differentiations within our sample stand out against this “common ground” with respect to “active ageing”. Only some of our central findings in this respect will be briefly pointed out here. First of all, we found a group of – mainly male – “satisfied retirees” with a rather low level of activity. Although distancing themselves explicitly from passivity, they emphatically advocate (and actually live) the idea of deserved rest after a stressful working life, focusing their activities on family life, diverse domestic tasks, and a small range of low-level outdoor activities (walking, attending a lecture, going to the cinema). Compared with the classical “retirement” model, this perspective is slightly modernized, since even here a certain kind of self-responsibility for health and prevention is being advocated, and leisure activities tend to be more exotic than those of previous generations of older people.

  • 19  There is a “little restless ager” in most of our interviewees, since the focus on self-responsibil (...)

29 A second distinct group to be identified is that of – female – “restless agers”. They distance themselves from the typical retiree’s focus on house(work) and garden(ing), restricting the time devoted to these activities to a minimum in order to spend their day on meaningful, auto-productive activities. The restless ager attaches importance to social relations beyond the narrow family and enjoys the new freedom gained after a working life burdened with both employment and family duties. Unlike the male retiree described above, she pursues a wide range of structured, more or less institutionalized activities: from doing (somewhat unusual) sports (such as running marathons), learning foreign languages and attending educational courses on a regular basis, to pursuing artistic hobbies such as drawing and writing, or playing an instrument, meditating, or attending literature circles. Not surprisingly, the typical restless ager is not only female, but also highly educated. Her motivation for doing voluntary work is not a feeling of moral duty, but mainly the personal pleasure felt by helping others, thus being ranked not as a productive contribution to societal needs, but just as an activity like any other19.

30 When talking of “productive ageing”, our interviews reveal that this story line is much less entrenched in people’s stories than the “retirement” or “restless age” narratives. Only one-third of the interviewees have ever heard the claims that elderly people should be productive. Core elements of the “productive age” dispositive, like the government-inspired interest in elderly people’s resources and experiences, are dismissed as of marginal relevance in the interviews or are explicitly rejected: 27 out of 55 interviewees believe (without having been asked directly) that the life-experience of the elderly is not valued nowadays at all. Those who report that they have heard of productivist images of old age are rather critical about the public’s expectations:

These permanent calls for voluntary work, based on the claim that there is nobody else there to do it, since the state is stepping back – if you ask me, that’s no good, I feel like I’m having to replace the state (Mr Liebig).

Another interviewee is just as clear about civic engagement:

I am categorically against appeals based on the notion of duty. If somebody has retired, he has the right to be retired and to do what he wants to. Nobody can force him to do anything (Mr Schiffer).

31 On the other hand, we find several interviewees who actually live up to the productivity claims which are becoming ever more dominant in public discourse, as they are deeply engaged in voluntary work or have taken over inter- and intragenerational care duties. However, the most “productive” interviewees tend to be particularly critical of activation policies, often considering their own commitment as being self-evident and/or as a matter of personal preference, without expecting others to do the same. There is a pronounced sensitivity among the elderly regarding social inequality, many of the rather privileged “productive agers” emphasizing that a special commitment to the public good should not be expected from those with restricted financial and educational resources. And we find some interviewees who explicitly welcome assertions regarding the duty of the elderly in these times of supposedly shrinking public resources – but who are not active themselves. Taking all these different orientations into consideration, the prototypical “productive ager” who shares the ideological stance of productive ageing and is living up to the political paradigm’s claims, while not totally absent, is extremely rare in our sample.

IV. Ageing Well in Times of “Active Ageing”

32 Confronting the public discourse with older people’s stories reveals major discrepancies that obviously challenge any popular “win-win” narrative of “active ageing”. Contrary to what politicians and experts suggest, “ageing well” has a broad set of meanings to elderly people – be it enjoying one’s deserved rest, having time for leisure activities, acting as the perfect grandparent, engaging in community work, or travelling to exotic countries for as long as possible. Only a small minority unconditionally agree with and live up to the “productive ageing” image. Instead, the “late freedom” associated with life after employment is highly valued by most of our interviewees, who at the same time do not believe in popular promises to bring new value to old age by means of its activation: this promise – which is central to the public legitimation of the “active ageing” paradigm – obviously contrasts with people’s everyday experiences and is, at least for the time being, not considered to be a part of their social reality.

33 At the same time, however, we find widespread praise for activity by the elderly (for similar results: Quéniart/Charpentier, 2011; Stenner et al., 2010): the idea and practice of “late freedom” concurs with a distinct dissociation from the imagery of a passive retirement life. This dissociation is not rooted – as it may seem to be at first glance – in the “active ageing” dispositive, but rather in a very basic and general, “ageless” appreciation of activity as being inherent to the human condition. This “vitalist” perspective is stabilized by widely shared and highly negative, “post-human” images of advanced old age. Against this backdrop, and despite all the differences with regard to concrete practices, to most of the interviewees “ageing well” means nothing more – and nothing less – than continued participation in social life and the effective prevention of dependency, the latter being connected to an acceptance of self-responsibility with regard to health prevention. This finding may be related to our sample of “young old” elderly, who are (still) in a position to distance themselves from future advanced old age. However, since old people tend to subjectively postpone “old age” into the future even in their 70s and 80s (Graefe et al., 2011), things might be not too different for people in advanced old age who are able to maintain a certain degree of independence.

34 Though basically vitalist and age-independent, there certainly are bridges and short-cuts from the activity-as-human-condition image of old age to the (neo-)liberal “active ageing” dispositive, as demonstrated by the broadly shared acceptance of health-related activation claims. Moreover, the vitalist activity stance of elderly people works as a potential stabilizer of this dispositive: “active ageing” is an empty signifier that promises distance from post-human advanced old age, on the one hand, and that is open to be (re-)framed in liberal terms, on the other. Social research plays an important role in this game, since it tends to mask or even rule out the possibility that older people actually appreciate being active (on their own terms), but at the same time reject political claims that they should be active (on terms set externally). Unfortunately, even many critical approaches to “active ageing” in the vein of governmentality studies strengthen the hegemonic closure of the “active ageing” discourse, asserting (and thus promoting) the success of activation programmes without ever having analysed empirically the perspectives and practices of the subjects addressed. In this way, the extremely heterogeneous category of “the” elderly is all too often and too easily turned into a (self-governed mass of “active-ageing” agents.

35 With respect to broader theoretical and methodological issues in ageing research, our findings point to the obvious: to the limits real-world social dynamics inevitably impose on a mere correspondence between public discourse and personal stories. Macro-normative definitions and micro-images of “ageing well” are structurally de-coupled in social praxis. This is why there is an urgent need for a truly empirical theory of the social “governance” of old age in times of demographic change.

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Annexe

Long summary

In recent years and throughout the European Union, “active ageing” has become a prominent conception of how to “age well”. In analyzing the governmentality of old age inherent to the “active ageing” paradigm, this paper tries to avoid the short-cut from program to praxis commonly being taken in governmentality studies. It reports on the findings of an empirical research project that asks for the specific images of “old age” and “retirement” becoming prominent in the context of last decade’s push for “activation” in German politics. The analysis combines the reconstruction of so-called “story lines” emerging in public discourse with the evaluation of qualitative interviews with “young” elderly people, conceptualizing older people’s narrations as being an integral part of the discourse itself. Moving from simple, ad-hoc illustrations of theoretical claims concerning a “neoliberal” government of old age to a systematic empirical reconstruction of what may be called the dispositif of “active ageing”, the paper claims to make an innovative contribution to an “empirical theory” of governmentality.

The findings reported in the paper effectively challenge the “win-win” narratives of “active ageing” dominating the political discourse. Contrary to what politicians as well as policy advisers suggest, “ageing well” has a broad set of meanings to elderly people – be it enjoying one’s deserved rest, having time for leisure activities, acting as the perfect grandparent, engaging in community work, or traveling to exotic countries as long as possible. Only a small minority of the elderly interviewed in the context of our research project unconditionally agrees with and lives up to the claims for “productive ageing”. Instead, the “late freedom” associated with life after employment is highly valued by most of them, while at the same time they do not believe in popular promises to revalorize old age by means of its activation: this promise – which is central for the public legitimation of the “active ageing” paradigm – obviously contrasts with people’s everyday experiences and is, at least for the time being, not felt as being part of their social reality.

At the same time, however, there is a wide-spread elderly’s praise of activity as such: the idea and practice of “late freedom” goes along with a distinct disassociation from the imagery of a passive retirement life. This disassociation is not rooted – as it may seem at first glance – in the “active ageing” dispositive, but rather in a very basic and general, “ageless” appreciation of activity as being inherent to human condition. This “vitalist” perspective is stabilized by widely shared and highly negative, “post-human” images of frail old age. Against this backdrop, and despite all the differences with regard to concrete practices, to most of the interviewees “ageing well” means nothing more – and nothing less – than the continued participation in social life and the effective prevention of dependency.

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Notes

1  Of course, as always is the case with political programmes, the paradigm itself fluctuates: recently, attempts have been made to re-define “active ageing” in post-productivist terms, suggesting a multidimensional concept of activity that is not out of reach for very old and frail people (Boudiny K., 2012; DEUTSCHER BUNDESTAG, 2010; Moulaert T., Biggs S., 2012).

2  The project was funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG) in the context of a Collaborative Research Centre (“Sonderforschungsbereich”) at the Universities of Jena and Halle-Wittenberg (SFB 580/C9, 2008-2012).

3  Articles from digitized media were selected by keyword research; non-digitized media were checked with regard to key events (e.g. the release of government reports on age and ageing, relevant pension reforms or popular public debates on demographic issues) and for randomly selected years and months.

4  These elements were coded as categories and, using the software MAXQDA, could be tested for interconnections and overlaps.

5  In German, “Ruhestand” (for “retirement”) has the double connotation of an empirical, factual state as well as a legitimate social status of rest after employment. The 1957 pension reform is to be seen as the institutional foundation for the emergence of a “retirement culture” in (Western) Germany.

6  There is a sub-discourse in some (more popular) media focusing only on the retreat-provision nexus within the retirement story; however, this positive narrative about “deserved rest” in old age has become marginalized over the course of time.

7  In German, the term which is frequently used to denote the essential content of this story is “Unruhestand”, a neologism untranslatable into English (literally meaning “un-retirement”).

8  This refers to one of the most recent pension reforms in Germany, by which the regular retirement age will be gradually raised to 67 up to the year 2031. Beyond the “67 pension”, and in contrast to much of the international discourse, even the “productive ageing” story line is mainly focused on non-waged productive activities.

9  As we will see below, this circumstance matches with our finding that the “productive ageing” discourse is – if at all – only reluctantly accepted by elderly people themselves.

10  At the same time, this strong focus on freedom and time sovereignty does not tell the whole story: some of our (early retired) interviewees would have preferred to continue working, with shorter hours and/or more flexibility – mostly, however, only up to the regular retirement age. Others appreciate the new freedom, but report profound difficulties in adapting to retirement. And there is a significant minority who do not enjoy “late freedom” at all, but rather suffer from it.

11  This is an example of a typical shorthand, since the link between television and passivity is far from necessary or self-evident: there are programmes that « offer informative and mentally stimulating content » (Boudiny K., 2012, p. 7), and watching TV might well be a way of recovering after an active out-of-home day.

12  The “rejuvenation” of old age – i.e. the description of people aged 60 or 70 today as being physically and mentally as “young” as people aged 50 or 60 in their parents’ generation – is one of the main topics of the public ageing discourse throughout the last three decades.

13  External signs of ageing are mostly reported by women, and images of “real” elderly people are mostly female (Calasanti T., 2005): « The young old nowadays are much more open than the old grandmothers in former times, with their headscarves and buns and all that » (Ms Ullrich).

14  If this moderating effect is not accounted for, the analysis of elderly people’s everyday lives runs the risk of systematically overestimating activity claims and tight schedules reported by old people themselves.

15  « An individual can take a disparate, even limited, set of activities and spin them together into a representation of a very busy life » (Ekerdt D. J., 1986, p. 243)

16  Since activities in retirement are often automatically analysed as age-related activities, it is virtually impossible for elderly interviewees to present themselves as being active without being conceptualized as “active agers” by social researchers (Bowling A., 2008).

17  Clarke and Warren show that the idea of “comfortable healthy ageing” is preferred to the idea of “active ageing” when people have to choose between the two (Clarke A., Warren L., 2007, p. 467).

18  However, even though the claim of self-responsibility with regard to health matters is insistently repeated, the notions of what should be done individually are rather indeterminate, corresponding much more to the vague activity concept of the early activity theory in gerontology (Havighurst R. J. et al., 1964) than with distinct expectations of “productive ageing”.

19  There is a “little restless ager” in most of our interviewees, since the focus on self-responsibility in health issues, the knowledge pattern of rejuvenation and the spatial expansion of activities have successfully spread into the everyday life of most elderly people. At the same time, there is a group of women who share the priorities of restless age, but who, due to financial restrictions, care duties or their (rather passive) husbands, are prevented from living up to their orientation, making them less active than they would like to be.

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Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Silke van Dyk, Stephan Lessenich, Tina Denninger et Anna Richter, « The Many Meanings of “Active Ageing”. Confronting Public Discourse with Older People’s Stories », Recherches sociologiques et anthropologiques, 44-1 | 2013, 97-115.

Référence électronique

Silke van Dyk, Stephan Lessenich, Tina Denninger et Anna Richter, « The Many Meanings of “Active Ageing”. Confronting Public Discourse with Older People’s Stories », Recherches sociologiques et anthropologiques [En ligne], 44-1 | 2013, mis en ligne le 20 septembre 2013, consulté le 19 juillet 2017. URL : http://rsa.revues.org/932 ; DOI : 10.4000/rsa.932

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Auteurs

Silke van Dyk

Department of Sociology, University of Jena, Germany

Stephan Lessenich

Department of Sociology, University of Jena, Germany

Tina Denninger

Department of Sociology, University of Jena, Germany

Anna Richter

Department of Sociology, University of Jena, Germany

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