X Close

ASSA

Home

Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing

Menu

Downsizing, Rightsizing, Upsizing — by Daniel Miller

XinyuanWang24 June 2019

A while back, Pauline Garvey and myself decided to write a chapter for our book about downsizing. This means that we rather assumed that downsizing would be an evident phenomenon for the age group we are studying, mainly people in their sixties and seventies. Certainly, in Ireland there is pressure on older people; hints from the media and the state that moving to a smaller home would help free up large family homes for families with children and perhaps release equity for their own children who are finding it hard to buy their own homes.

I found that most of my informants resent such pressure, feeling that they have worked hard for and deserve their homes. Their children may be living abroad and when visiting, my informants want to host them in their own homes.  Anyway, there are no hotels in Cuan. These people often want to move from the older estates they currently live in, where houses are typically expensive to maintain. But the evidence, confirmed from interviews with estate agents, is that they are not downsizing. Rather they aspire to move to new build houses, but with at least three bedrooms. When visiting such houses I found that they use this opportunity to express their desire to be modern and youthful. Far from squeezing possessions accumulated over decades into small retirement flats, they give these away and embrace modern furnishings and styles for their bright new houses.

Similarly, while they may be getting rid of their many accumulated possessions in the process. They may use this realign themselves with modern sensibility, viewing these actions as evidence that they have embraced the modern ‘green’ environmentalist perspective. So both in moving home and in divesting themselves of possessions, it seems that, far from preparing for ageing, they are seeking ways to become more youthful and more attached to contemporary mores.

Other evidence suggests that there is only limited transfers of equity down the generations to enable younger people to buy their own homes.  It seems more common for them to suggest that their children’s families can come back and stay in these reasonably spacious homes, while they are saving money to purchase their own. Most commonly, these children really want to be able to buy a home within Cuan itself, and this is expensive.

Actual downsizing is important in relation to frailty at whatever age this arrives. Alongside the need for specialist aids, downstairs bedrooms and toilets and, when required, a move to specialist sheltered accommodation or a nursing home. But, consistent with our earlier findings, this is about physical need. Otherwise, it seems to matter little whether people are in their eighties or fifties, they no longer consider themselves as old people who have to shrink their worlds, rather they remain concerned to find strategies for updating their world and remaining contemporary.

I thought this was quite an original, even radical finding; but perhaps we have not gone far enough. A 2016 report by the UK’s NHBC Foundation called Moving insights from the over-55s based on a survey of 1,500 households who have moved home, suggests that nearly a third have actually upsized, that the most popular homes are four bedrooms and that 46% have put more money into their new homes, rather than released equity. Unfortunately, the survey is not broken down by age. It is not then surprising that terms such as rightsizing are coming to displace downsizing. What that report doesn’t do, which we hope our project will do, is delve into the deeper context that may explain why this is happening.

 

We are all going to die before we get old

DanielMiller2 December 2018

When The Who sang ‘I hope I die before I get old’, the underlying assumption was that unless they died first they would become elderly. For The Beatles we were already sitting by the fireside knitting a sweater or with grandchildren on the knee by the age of 64. As a result it is possible to give a precise date to the ‘death’ of the elderly, which is 28th May 2007, when a band called The Zimmers consisting of people who had to use zimmer frames, sang ‘I hope I die before I get Old’ on the BBC. They later also covered You Gotta Fight for your Right to Party.

When we started this project I was aiming to concentrate on what I called Mid-Life, roughly between 45-70. It didn’t take long to realise I had been hopelessly simplistic. Mid-Life would need to be between two other categories. But this doesn’t really work if people no longer regard themselves as getting old or elderly. What our fieldwork demonstrates is how variable this issue of age and elderly has become. To have a fixed age bracket makes no sense when people rarely live into that bracket in our Kampala site, routinely retire at 50 in Shanghai and are still planting rice at 95 in Japan. But the other major issue is that in each site one senses that becoming elderly is turning into a choice. Visiting our Palestinian site it was clear that many women in their sixties are comfortable taking on the clothing, mannerism and activities designated for that separate senior group that could be called elderly. In my own Irish fieldsite there remain some people where this is still the case. Most conspicuously at the rather misnamed Active Retirement Group that is dedicated to playing bingo and a few mild activities such as tea dances, but clearly rejected the suggestion that they might replace bingo on one occasion with computer classes.

As fieldwork has progressed, it has been increasingly clear that they represent a declining proportion of people, in that most I meet of the same age as those in this relatively (in)Active Retirement Group, feel no affinity with that shift into a category of elderly. Nor do they relate to the idea of mid-life. Instead they state firmly, if slightly apologetically, that they feel in almost every respect youthful. The Rolling Stones were prescient in that apparently, they will Not Fade Away.

The Rolling Stones at Marcus Amphitheater in Milwaukee, USA, performing at Summerfest festival on June 23, 2015 – Photo by Jim Pietryga (wikemedia commons)

The people I meet really do feel that youth was wasted on the young and they spend their time power walking, and bicycling if they are fit enough, or otherwise playing intensely competitive bridge and learning new skills such as painting or singing. They still listen to rock music and at least consider dating, if appropriate. When, as here, a 13 year old is desperate to see 72 year old Cher at Las Vegas the relationship between music and age is pretty unclear.

The other side to this change is that previously to be senior was to gain ‘wisdom’ and respect. This made sense in an agricultural society where older people were skilled as a result of longer experience. But the skills that matter more today consist of things like using smartphones. Many of these older people welcome this loss of wisdom because it is replaced by continued equality with youth, rather than being placed in another category. On a committee they are listened to simply to the extent that others find their argument convincing, the same as everyone else.

The category elderly is likely to remain but now seems to designate physical disability and the dependence upon others, within which the clearest example is dementia. People recognise that there will eventually be a physical deterioration leading to death, so the category is more about dying and incapacity, rather than entering a different cultural category. Until then they will not regard themselves as having become old, however white their hair or resplendent their liver spots. Different societies are moving in this direction at different speeds but my prediction is eventually we will all die before we get old.

 

Keeping up appearances: the importance of ageing smartly

Charlotte EHawkins24 November 2018

Gloria works for KCCA (Kampala City Council Authority) cleaning the roads, starting every morning at 6am. This often means she arrives late at the bi-weekly meeting of a support group for women in Godown where we first met. She hopes to set up her own business, investing in a machine for grinding g-nuts and sesame, but it would cost 2 million Ush ($535), capital she doesn’t yet have. Meanwhile, she said she makes ends meet by “joining hands together” with her sons, all in their 20s. She earns 180,000 Ush ($50) each month, putting 80,000 Ush ($22) on food and 20,000 Ush ($5.50) on beauty products, including make-up and hair oil. “Even without money I have to be smart. I don’t need to be shabby”. The rest goes on rent and her sons ‘top up’. I asked what they do when there’s a health emergency to pay for, and she said, “we rarely fall sick” thanks to her prayers: “when you light a candle for Mother Mary you cannot fall sick”.

Gloria’s hair and make-up collection. Photo by Charlotte Hawkins

Gloria’s candles for prayer. Photo by Charlotte Hawkins

Almost 10% of her monthly salary is invested in being ‘smart’, a word often used here to compliment the visible effort someone has put into their appearance, “you’re smart today!”. Gloria is not alone in stressing the importance of ‘keeping up appearances’, despite financial constraint; as one older man explained, dressing well and looking good are “a way of gaining public trust”. Or as at the weekly parties for a women’s savings group in Godown, the ways the beneficiary and her two ‘honourable members’ dress up is an important part of the celebratory proceedings. They often design and tailor their matching outfits, taking photos of each other and themselves on smartphones. Even the bar will be ‘dressed’ according to the beneficiaries’ preference, with different colour fabrics and lights draped on the ceiling and walls.

Women dancing and looking smart at a weekly party for their savings group. Photo by Charlotte Hawkins

Taking photos of a beneficiary, dressed up for her party. Photo by Charlotte Hawkins

It seems that another way to look smart, especially for older women, is to look young. According to my research assistant, who grew up in the area, many of our female interviewees lie when we ask their age, wanting to seem younger than they really are. Whilst being called ‘Jajja’ (grandmother) signifies respect, so do remarks on a deceptively youthful appearance. Ageing gains admiration, but particularly if you’re smart.