Ageing is a topic of the future

The Volkswagen Foundation provides almost 1.3 m euros in funding for a joint research project between FAU and the University of Jena

How do people deal with ageing and their future life? Which impact do factors such as the social framework (age restrictions, availability of care services) and expected changes have in an ageing society? Researchers from Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg (FAU) and the Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena (FSU) pursue these questions in their joint research project ‘The future of age(ing)’. The Volkswagen Foundation provides almost 1.3 million in funding which has created six jobs. The project involves three research groups from the US and Hong Kong. The kick-off workshop will take place in Jena on 14 August.

Will there still be room for professional development in my job when I’m older? Who will take care of me when I’m old? How would I like to live when I’m old? Only a few years ago, these questions were mainly relevant to people over 50. With increasing life expectancy, societies in industrial countries are ageing. This means that the individual and social challenges of a long life are more evident and young people are starting to show an interest as they need to prepare for a longer working life and the possibility of not being able to rely on social welfare for care in later life. Three research teams from the Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena and Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg aim to study how people of different ages think about ageing and old age and how this impacts on their readiness to make provisions for either themselves or future generations.

However, thinking about old age and making provisions for the future is not exclusively a questions of age: our perception of age and age-related changes starts in early childhood. Not only does our understanding of age influence our perception and our way of dealing with older people but it also affects our expectations and attitudes towards our own ageing. It also steers our activities and plans we make to prepare ourselves for life in old age. Despite the existence of common, all but universally shared stereotypes, individual conceptions of old age differ very much. If we want to understand and explain differences in behaviour, for instance with regard to making provisions, it is important to identify and understand individual concepts of old age. Making provisions, the researchers assume, is in important topic at any age. This does not only include financial provisions but also provisions for care in old age, accommodation and living arrangements.

However, our understanding of age differs not only from one person to another: an individual can simultaneously entertain different conceptions of age, depending on which aspect of life – leisure, career, family, accommodation, looks, mental and physical health – they are focusing on. ‘A sole idea of old age does not exist,’ says psychologist Prof. Dr. Klaus Rothermund from the University of Jena. ‘Many individuals feel that they have different ages in different aspects of life,’ adds Jena sociologist Prof. Dr. Stephan Lessenich. For this reason, the new project examines closely how people perceive age, what prompts them to make provisions for the future and how they spend their time in old age.

Many people start thinking about the fact that they will age and die much sooner than commonly assumed: ‘There’s no trace of an obsession with youth: today, young people start to think about getting older at an earlier stage and make deliberate choices for life in old age,’ says Prof. Dr. Frieder Lang, Head of the Institute for Psychogerontology at Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen Nürnberg. ‘People who make provisions for their own future often also behave in a more responsible way towards themselves and others. Ageing is a topic that will definitely have great significance in the future because it is relevant to people of all ages and much beneficial work can be done in this field.’ Further questions of great interest are whether and how people profit from more flexibility in organising their own time and how knowing their time is narrowing affects the actions and life quality of older people.

It is still not clear what prompts some younger people to open up to these topics while others do not spend a lot of thought on their own future for a long time. However, this kind of knowledge is essential for both politics and society when it comes to adapting our living environment to life in old age. This is where the two studies ‘Zonen des Übergangs [Zones of Transitions] ‘ and ‘(Zeit er)Leben in Deutschland [(Living (time) in Germany]’ come in. During the new research project ‘The future of ageing’, researchers will conduct a second larger-scale survey with a pool of several thousand participants aged between 30 and 80. Over a period of several years, the studies aim to examine how people see their future in light of demographic change and what they expect for life in old age.

The project links sociological and psychological perspectives in a multi-method design which includes quantitative and qualitative approaches as well as experiments and online surveys. In so doing, researchers hope to gain an internationally unique set of data on the experience of old age and future-related actions. The three central topics regarding conceptions of old age, making provisions and organising one’s time, which are closely related, will not be addressed separately but be analysed comprehensively with the use of different methods.

A national comparison between Germany, the US and Hong Kong will put the results into an international context since ageing is organised differently even in industrialised societies as the example retirement age shows: while there are fixed age limits in Germany (even though they have now been raised) that regulate when an employee retires these are handled much more flexibly in the US. On the other hand, the image of the helpless, forgetful elderly is much more prominent in Germany and the US than in Hong Kong, where old age is mainly associated with greater respect.
‘Age stereotypes often function as images guiding our own development,’ Rothermund has found in previous studies. ‘However, in our society the elderly are confronted with the request for ‘active ageing’ which includes social commitment, sports activities, preventive health care, lifelong learning and additional sources of income to support low pensions. As a result, the pressure rises on those who are no longer able to muster the required levels of activity,’ comments sociologist Lessenich on a current tendency in the changing conception of age.

‘How people think about the future is ultimately decisive in how they make provisions for themselves and others,’ says Lang. ‘Those who think less about the future will do less about it,’ Lang continues. ‘The project can make a substantial contribution to a better understanding of how the future of ageing and provisions for old age might be orchestrated in our society.’
The researchers will also publish guidelines for both professionals in senior care and decision makers in politics, economy and the media which will give advice on counselling, planning of future services and adequate policy.

‘We want to overcome the notion that everything will either get better or worse in old age,’ explains Lessenich. ‘We aim to outline a detailed concept of ageing for different types of people at different ages’.
For the second round of the study ‘Living (time) in Germany’, further respondents are welcome to participate. You can take part in the survey via the following link:

Further information for the press:

Prof. Dr. Frieder R. Lang
Phone: +49 (0) 9131/85 26526

uni | media service | research No. 34/2012 on 10.8.2012

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