As gerontologists we know the nature of aging and later life differ widely, and many inequalities exist. The focus of this article is on how the good life in retirement is envisioned across settings. Recently, differences in cultural views on retirement age between two European countries caught my eye. When France’s President Emmanuel Macron raised the retirement age from 62 to 64, the French protested. At the same time, in Sweden we learned that 70 can be seen as the new 50, and the retirement age is 69. The article discusses hopes and wishes we hold as older persons about what retirement should mean.
retirement, meaning, participation, good life, protests, France, Sweden
“Travailler pour vivre et non vivre pour travailler [Work to live not live to work],” proclaimed the banners of protesters massing in the streets of Paris against President Emmanuel Macron raising the retirement age from 62 to 64. Their words are understandable but unfamiliar. Perhaps especially so to this Swedish-born researcher who recently mandatorily retired at age 67 in accord with national policy.
We have long known that aging and later life do not occur equally; diversities and inequalities exist between countries, social classes, genders, ethnicities, and communities, within families, and across eras of individual lifetimes. The nature and salience of these differences is coming into sharper focus as the field of gerontology continues to develop. Reflecting on this topic as a senior scholar, I see echoes of those dimensions surfacing across my career, which spans much of the field's development and my own life’s journey.
I was reminded of the differences by those French demonstrations against President Macron's proposal to raise the pension age. His plan was to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64 in response to burdens from declining economic conditions and increasing numbers of older adults. Two years is not a very long time, so what were the French strikes and demonstrations all about? I had to learn more. I was puzzled, and it was ironic considering my retirement was mandated as a national policy long defined as being for the larger social good, despite the fact that I was actively engaged in research and in developing programs to promote later life as a socially and personally meaningful and valued time.
Diverse Social Contracts for the Good Life
The French anger concerned more than the measure of two chronological years. The question at stake in France was, should the collective social contract for French citizens define them as workers serving the interests of industry and economy, or as persons entitled to a good life in exchange for the reasonable service they had provided to the country? Or, as voiced on another protest banner, “La retraite avant l’aethrite [Retirement before arthritis]” (https://youtu.be/Q0QmUXCMGbk).
In France this historic discourse in relation to aging and the period of later life suggests that la bonne vie (the good life) is expected to happen when one leaves work to become a pensioner and is supported by a guaranteed pension. It embodies the ideal that after retirement from work at age 62 the French look forward to living the good life. The good life is envisioned as a time when physical and cognitive health is still relatively sound and children no longer are dependent upon their parents, so retirees can enjoy family, friends, and activities. Retirement to the French seems to mean feeling free from work demands and finding time to enjoy life, while not occupied by work and family responsibilities. The discourse on work and a post-work life of leisure in retirement is obviously not the same everywhere, not even within Europe.
Swedish Slogans Claim the Right to Work After 67
Contrasts in the focus of debates about retirement age highlight a striking difference between France and Sweden. In Sweden there is an ongoing discussion on aging that argues “70 now can be considered to be the new 50.” Older Swedish people today wish to keep working after retirement at age 67, but the right to do so is not taken for granted.
Under certain conditions, such as a labor shortage, one may be given the opportunity to continue working after age 67. Still, this is not an option for all Swedes who would like to continue working. Longitudinal studies in gerontology (Skoog & Sterner, 2022; Wetterberg et al., 2022) across 30 years show that it is common in Sweden for today’s 70-year-olds to have the same physical and intellectual capacity as 50-year-olds had 30 years ago. The older population in Sweden is described as healthier than ever before.
It is interesting to think about and try to understand the cultural differences in Europe, exemplified here between France and Sweden. In France, the focus is on maintaining the retirement age (62) to live the good life far from work, while in Sweden the focus is on older people who want to have the right to continue working after age 67. The differences between cultures challenge the discourse on aging and gerontology research.
The Good Life Is About Participation and Meaning
The two perspectives on retirement that emerge when we compare France and Sweden seem at first glance to be completely different. But when we try to understand, similarities emerge: there are shared aspects about what is of importance in aging and what retirement should mean to the older person. Discussions in the two countries are both related to being involved, participating, and experiencing meaning in daily life. This could be in leisure activities or work, but the shared focus is on taking an active part, being engaged in a life that is still vibrant. It is about participation and meaning and having the right to a choice—to take part in play or in work. (For some researchers work always include play.)
Older people are not all that different from younger people in terms of needs and hopes for a good life.
When we compare the two countries, we find similarities between the French people wanting their good life “before arthritis,” and the Swedish people who want to continue working after age 67 because work is the good life for them. The overarching idea is the importance of choice, whether to participate in either work or in leisure, and thus find meaning in everyday life.
Our Ageist View of the Good Life
Surprisingly widespread in popular culture and in international gerontological research are ideas that you, as an older person, are inclined to spend the remainder of your life reflecting on your past life and not actively participating in activities that appeal to younger people.
As an older person you are expected to look back on the life that has passed, as opposed to living life in its full sense in the here and now. This approach does not fit in France today, nor in Sweden. Comparing the conditions for retirement in France and in Sweden shows that a new view, based in research of what it is to be an older person today, needs to be launched. Participation for older people means to find meaning in everyday living, and the right to have a choice to work or not to work.
Today, at age 70, in looking back, it seems to me that it takes extensive life experience to understand that older people are not all that different from younger people in terms of needs and hopes for a good life, and the needs for inclusion, participation, and meaning run through life as strong themes. We need to question and interrogate the assumed truths about what the good life is as an older person and talk more about how we imagine the good life for future generations.
Participation and Meaning in Research
The concepts of participation and meaning are two themes that run through my professional life as a researcher, mentor, and teacher. Participation often becomes a methodological approach to learning, building upon collaboration between, for example, carers and researchers. One of my goals has been to conduct research and change practice in nursing homes for people who have dementia.
To change practice, care staff participation is of pivotal importance. The care staff needs to point to and define the challenges and identify the best solutions to make improvements in care. These research approaches and ideas for creating new knowledge can make a real impact. This approach was implemented in a nursing home in Stockholm for 200 people who had dementia, called The Reality Lab.
The Reality Lab was set up with the goal to better connect research and care in practice, and to create a site for learning, education, and innovation for staff and students. By inviting staff to take part in research, we also could more easily address meaning (the lived experience) in our research, beyond taken-for-granted behavior, routines, and care processes (Mondaca, 2020). For the researchers involved, this approach to conducting research is intended for publication and at the same time is meant to have a positive impact on developments in practice.
For researchers the meaning is there in the open, every day. And it takes us back to the idea that older people are not different from younger people in terms of needs and hopes for a good life in old age.
Lena Borell, OTR, PhD, is a professor emeritus of Occupational Therapy in the department of Neurobiology, Care Sciences and Society at the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden.
Photo caption: People demonstrate against the retirement age increase in France, March 28, 2023.
Photo credit: Shutterstock/Kamila Koziol
Daman Official. (2023, March 3). Daman—La retraite avant l'arthrite [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q0QmUXCMGbk
Mondaca, M., Johansson, K., Josephsson, S., & Rosenberg, L. (2020). In search for the “humane”: Staffs’ perspectives on everyday activities in a nursing home. Aging & Mental Health, 24(4), 679–88. https://doi.org/10.1080/13607863.2019.1574709
Skoog, I., & Sterner T. R. (2022). The new aging: How different aspects of aging have changed over half a century. The H70 studies. Innovation in Aging 6, 243. DOI https://doi.org/10.1093/geroni/igac059.966
Wetterberg, H., Rydén, L., Ahlner, F., Erhag, H. F., Gudmundsson, P., Guo, X. Joas, E, Johansson, L., Kern, S., Fassberg, M. M., Najar, J., Ribbe, M., Sterner, T. R., Samuelsson, J., Scuiu, S., Sigstrom, R., Skoog, J., Waern, M., Zettergren, A., & Skoog, I. (2022). Representativeness in population-based studies of older adults: Five waves of cross-sectional examinations in the Gothenburg H70 Birth Cohort Study. BMJ Open 2022, 12:e068165. http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmjopen-2022-068165