Change across the lifespan

(Coordination: R.K. Silbereisen)

Many highly industrialised countries, including Germany, have experienced a remarkable change in the age composition of their population. A decline in the share of younger people was paralleled by an increase in the share of the elderly and in particular of those 80 years and above. Whereas the decline can be traced back to shrinking birth rates that are rooted in the changing value of children and a lack of support for families and especially working mothers, the increase in the aged is due to a significant rise in life expectancy, mainly triggered by improvements in nutrition, hygiene, and medical progress against prime causes of mortality.

Fundamental Research Question
Both phenomena take place within and in part are related to more comprehensive phenomena of social and economic change. The change in the value of children, for instance, has to be understood in the context of a highly developed system of public supports and social insurance for the older generation, thereby shifting the role of children from providing security for ageing parents to being a source of self appreciation and emotional fulfilment, which of course can be achieved by smaller families.

Reactions from the political realm are manifold, such as the most recent attempts of all Western welfare states gradually to delay pension age, reduce pension payments and to some extent privatise public old-age insurance schemes, thereby alleviating the fiscal burden of the state and bringing the growing life expectancy to a closer match with the years of participation
in the labour force. Some countries have begun to counteract demographic shifts by the promotion of systematic replacement migration, thereby introducing new challenges due to the problems of integration.

These reactions of politics represent only the surface of looming societal changes that arguably go much deeper. At closer scrutiny the entire regime of the standardised life course – first education, then occupational training and full-time gainful employment, finally retirement filled with leisure activities, and support by the welfare state throughout when eligible and necessary – is at stake. What began decades ago is currently undergoing a rapid change (national differences notwithstanding) towards pluralisation and individualisation of previously ordered biographical transitions, the traditional division of economic roles within families being replaced by various alternative constellations, and the established transfer of funds and knowledge between generations being at risk due to reduced assets and lack of

Beyond such shifts in the institutional framing of old age and intergenerational relations, even more fundamental changes are on the horizon affecting the cultural model of age and aging. Rather than viewing the years following active participation in the labour force as a time of recreation and self-fulfilment according to individual goals, a growing societal concern is how the years gained by increased life-expectancy can and should be used productively for the society as a whole.

Obviously, the establishment of such a new societal vision of age and ageing – the scope and content of which may vary widely across countries and among ethnic and migrant groups within countries – does not evolve without tensions and contradictions, and also may be in conflict with the individuals’ own constructions of what roles one should play and what support one is entitled to in later life. Furthermore the new expectations and arrangements may overtax the plasticity and flexibility of the individuals – after all, some of the changes mentioned will occur during their lifetime, rather than in the succession of cohorts, and this will challenge life planning and necessary competences of many.