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ASSA Studies in Retirment

alex.clegg26 July 2022

Author: Daniel Miller

In June we held a very successful workshop with invited guest academics to discuss our contribution to comparative studies of ageing. Based on the very helpful comments we received we plan to submit a set of papers to the journal Anthropology and Aging. The next set of ASSA presentations will take place in Belfast on July 26th as part of the European Association of Social Anthropologists (EASA) conference.

Our main panel is called The Transformation of Hope in Retirement (P107a and P107b) taking place on Tuesday 26th July and will take a comparative perspective on the increasing significance of hope to older people when retired life may stretch to three decades. Retirement may create new possibilities for engagement and expanding experience, or represent a struggle based on diminishing resources and isolation.

The presentations include Shireen Walton talking about how older adults in a neighbourhood in Milan, Italy, variously envision and experience their lives in retirement; looking at digital forms of social participation, and how older age and retirement are seen as life stages to design together. Charlotte Hawkins is drawing upon her ethnography with older people working in a diverse neighbourhood in Kampala, Uganda, to question the assumption of old age as a time of rest and retirement. This presents an important counter perspective within this comparative panel on the possibilities of retirement. Pauline Garvey will present a paper that suggest that instead of seeing domestic transformation or downsizing as a road to decline, her participants who have transformed or replaced their home in their retirement do so as part of a hopeful investment in the future. My own paper takes a fairly extreme view of retirement as an historically unprecedented possibility of freedom, not just shorn of work and family responsibility but the freedoms that come with the capacities of affluence and smartphones. This is compared to the discussion of freedom by philosophers and comes from my forthcoming manuscript The Irish and the Philosophers.

The second half of the panel will be based on projects outside of ASSA coming from fieldwork in China, Brazil, England, New Zealand and a comparative paper across Europe by Katja Seidel, David Prendergast, Jamie Saris, Claudia Huang, Andrew Dawson and Matin Fossa.

The other presentation that derived from the ASSA project will be from Xinyuan Wang (p110a and p110b) on Wednesday 27th July convened by Xinyuan and Jolynna Sinanan. Wang’s paper drawing on her ethnography in Shanghai, unpacks the concept of ‘filial piety’ and argues that what matters most in kinship practice within China is not so much an issue of kin classification but a practical distinction between sentiment and obligation.

Bringing Ageing to Life

alex.clegg12 May 2022

Author: Charlotte Hawkins

On 8th June, the ASSA team will host a workshop to bring together different anthropologists of ageing. This will include discussion of comparative papers from each of the team members.

My paper, written alongside ASSA researcher Laura Haapio-Kirk, offers a comparative perspective of ageing and how it is defined around the world. Whilst we bring insights from our colleague’s research, the bulk of the ethnographic comparison is based around my work in Kampala, Uganda, and Laura’s in Osaka, Japan; despite contrasting socio-demographic circumstances, with Uganda one of the world’s youngest populations, and Japan one of the world’s oldest, this comparative framework offers an opportunity to explore how people redefine age and older personhood in ever-changing circumstances, particularly in light of shifting intergenerational relationships.

Like the rest of the ASSA team, both Laura and I quickly realised that the ‘mid-life’ or ‘middle age’ (45-70 years old) category we had set out with, was not particularly applicable in our research contexts. For example, amongst my participants in Uganda, including older people, health workers, researchers of ageing[i] and age-based advocacy organizations in Kampala such as The Aged Family Uganda (TAFU), Uganda Reach the Aged Association (URAA), HelpAge Uganda, Health Nest Uganda (HENU), age is more likely to be determined by the experience and health of the individual, as well as their income and environment. People with sufficient experience and social status could be considered an elder at as young as 40 years old. Or, in Japan, older age categories are shifting within the ‘super ageing society’. While such age-based categories may be required for developing policy regarding health care and work, Laura found that such categories are of diminished importance for most people in their daily lives. For example, while people may recognise that they are suffering from age-based illnesses or use the category of ‘elderly’ when struggling with their smartphone (“I can’t do it, I’m elderly!”), in their day-to-day lives they also enjoy many continuities with their younger selves and feel rather that their interests and personality have actually become even more pronounced with age. Or, in Ireland, Brazil, Chile and China, people aged 45-70 rebuke the stereotypes associated with middle age which is something the ASSA project explored in more depth as this short video shows.

This is not to say that age categories are not also socially significant, but that they do not necessarily acquire meaning in line with the chronological concept of age we had set out with. Instead, our comparative discussion shows that age categories are socially negotiable, which means that they are dynamic, experiential and continually evolving, but also often articulated in line with established intergenerational norms and family roles. In this articulation, what values are brought to life, re-established, and experienced as part of ageing? How does this relate to contemporary contexts informed by global marketisation, migration, urbanisation and digitisation?

The ASSA project has documented various ethnographic examples which demonstrate how age is redefined by our research participants in diverse settings and within a shared global context of population ageing, longer life expectancies, declining public health investment and increasingly individualised self-responsibility. These redefinitions tend to disrupt chronologies, for example in resistance to meanings attributed to ‘middle age’ or ‘elderly’, and in the more relational and experiential definitions of age, ‘bringing ageing to life’. Often, we found that people seek to re-define established categories of age based on their experience as it deviates from that of their parents’ generation or public discourses around ageing. In some cases, this may reflect ‘active ageing’ discourses or even ageist attitudes, which tend to discriminate against inactivity, poor health and appearances of age.

[i] Thanks to Dr. Annet Nankwanga, Dr. Betty Kwagala and Dr. Abel Nzabona at Makerere University for introducing categories of age in the Ugandan context.