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Migrants live longer. This epidemiological paradox is also true in Switzerland

There are several reasons why foreigners and nationals are not equal in the face of death, according to Jonathan Zufferey's thesis, which he successfully defended at the University of Geneva on 15 December 2014. He will be able to continue this research over the next four years at the National Centre of Competence in Research On the Move.

In most industrialised countries, immigrant populations enjoy greater longevity than natives. And yet, people of foreign origin are often part of the most disadvantaged socio-economic classes, which are usually more exposed to mortality risks.

This epidemiological paradox is the focus of Jonathan Zufferey's doctoral thesis, which he has applied to Switzerland, using data from the Swiss National Cohort, based on the 1990 and 2000 censuses and on all deaths in Switzerland between 1990 and 2008. Conducted as part of the IP14 of the National Centre of Competence in Research LIVES with professors Michel Oris and Gilbert Ritschard of the University of Geneva as supervisors, this research was doubly relevant, as it dealt jointly with migration and inequality, two essential problems of the social sciences in general, and of LIVES in particular.

Jonathan Zufferey began by taking a closer look at the concept of foreigner in Switzerland, which covers a range of very different realities, depending on whether we are talking about first-generation migrants or subsequent generation migrants, and according to country of origin and status. However, it shows that all categories combined (with the exception of asylum seekers and illegal immigrants, who are not included in the data), people of foreign origin generally die later than the Swiss. Among men, only foreigners from Eastern Europe die earlier than Swiss citizens. As far as women are concerned, immigrants from Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe die earlier on average than Swiss women. However, the vast majority of immigrants come from southern or western Europe, and the tendency to die later is very marked in all these nationalities.

The same applies for causes of death: Jonathan Zufferey has discovered that foreigners seem to have a better resistance to risks than the Swiss. There is no overwhelming reason which explains this paradox. Among these causes, suicide appears to be rare across the board, as all foreign-born populations are at a lower risk of suicide.

Importance of bias

The results are particularly robust, as they are based on census data covering the whole resident population. By contrast, the existence of explanatory factors linked to bias cannot be ruled out.

In the United States and in European countries, research has already come up with several hypotheses in this regard to explain the phenomenon. Selection biases may occur when migrants enter and leave the country: so only the most resistant would attempt migration and remain long-term; the weakest would be less likely to attempt to migrate and are more likely to leave the country in the event of difficulties. Another bias could be linked to the data itself, if foreigners leave the country without notifying the authorities of their departure, which to some extent would make them statistically "immortal".

However, Jonathan Zufferey notes that the mortality differential also remains among the second generation, making the selection bias insufficient to fully explain the phenomenon.

Context and culture

The researcher thus also examines other lines of inquiry, such as the spatio-social context, providing a detailed analysis of mortality according to living environment. He observes that in the working-class areas, the longevity of foreigners remains greater than that of the Swiss. When these areas have associational, voluntary or community activities, the impact on health seems to be positive for nationals but remains neutral for immigrants.

Jonathan Zufferey's research shows that analysis should focus on intersections of the social structure by identifying the interactions which express accumulations or compensations of risk factors. By using data mining methods, he observes that it is in the most vulnerable social positions that the mortality gap between migrants and natives is the most marked.

In his conclusions, Jonathan Zufferey favours "an accumulation of explanatory factors" and partially credits the selection bias idea, although he states this is difficult to calculate. He develops the idea of a certain "migration culture", expressed via positive character traits, with "more open-mindedness" and "more drive" among those who attempt the adventure of migration and in their descendants. These people would seem to have a certain advantage when faced with risks, compared to the Swiss-born population.

Jury's comments

The thesis jury commended Jonathan Zufferey's "impressive work", the "scientific rigour", the "richness of the empirical approach" and the "ability to express his ideas clearly".

In response to professors Patrick Deboosere, of Vrije Universiteit Brussel, and Philippe Wanner, of the University of Geneva, who sought social policy recommendations, the doctoral researcher stated that Switzerland, due to its absence of ethnic ghettoes, could be a model for other countries. However, he underlined that mortality was just one public health indicator among others, and not necessarily the most nuanced, mainly because his study had not been able to take into account particularly vulnerable populations such as asylum seekers or illegal immigrants.

For his thesis directors, Jonathan Zufferey is an ideal example of these social science students "without an initial background in econometrics or statistics who go on to produce magisterial results", stated Prof. Gilbert Ritschard. The researcher thus gave "a wonderful illustration of an interdisciplinary demography", praised Prof. Michel Oris, adding that "the purpose of science is to advance, not give end points".

The research will continue straight away, as Jonathan Zufferey has already been taken on as a post-doctorate researcher for four years by the new National centre of competence in research On the Move. His future research will focus on the internal mobility of migrants, but he will also have access to unseen data which will enable the "salmon bias" to be controlled, i.e. how many foreigners go back to their home country to die. "Switzerland will be the first country to be able to conduct such research", enthused the young new doctor.

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Discussing job insecurity and occupational change, PhD student got confidence and a position

Emily Murphy is about to leave the NCCR LIVES after four years in IP4 – “Economic inequalities: Towards pathways out of vulnerability”. The prestigious European Sociological Review has already published one of the four papers that compose her thesis and a well-known life course specialist from the University of Zurich just hired her.

In the course of the last twenty years, over 20 per cent of people who had been working in declining occupations in Great Britain, Germany and Switzerland became re-employed in a growing kind of occupation. What types of workers are most likely to leave occupations that have declined, and what are the most likely destinations of these exits?

These are some of the questions LIVES PhD Candidate Emily Murphy answered in a paper-based thesis, which she presented in October 2014 at her dissertation colloquium prior to the public defense set for March 2015. Worth mentioning, one article out of her four-part research has been published in the European Sociological Review, not an easy thing to attain for a junior researcher1.

Trying to make Emily Murphy speak about her successes is quite challenging. Fortunately others counterbalance: her supervisor Prof. Daniel Oesch admires the scientific qualities of his doctoral student. “She’s really good at analysing data, she reads a lot and her writing is crystal clear”, he says.

Decline of traditional production occupations

Drawing on panel and census data from UK, Germany, Switzerland and Ireland going back to the seventies, Emily Murphy observed that the last decades were marked by the decline of several traditional production occupations in the industrial and agriculture sectors, especially for men.

Technological change is not the sole agent of change, she argues. Internationalisation and the institutional conditions matter a lot. The entry of women on the job market, and in particular higher educated women, a rise in immigration and the development of occupations in service areas (care, retail and information technology) have been important contributors to structural change.

Gender and status inequalities

Growing occupations do not necessarily mean better jobs, Emily Murphy warns. Women are more likely than men from declining occupations to move towards growing occupations, such as health semi-professionals, but low-paid growing occupations is the most probable destination, which can be as housekeepers, or food or sales service workers. Male production workers in the industrial and agricultural sectors are at higher risk of unemployment than female clerks to become unemployed in Great Britain and Germany, less so in Switzerland where the most probable route is towards low-paid growing occupations.

Emily Murphy shows that gender and status inequalities remain highly salient. The observation that women in the lowest of service occupations seldom experience upward mobility is especially true for female immigrants, despite the fact that a larger share of migrant workers may have higher education compared to natives engaged in the same low-paid jobs. Another concern is the fact that occupations where the share of female labour is above 60% offer workers lower wages; where women make up the majority of workers in an occupation, individual wages will fall.

Need for life-long training

One important finding is that low and medium-wage clerks, however, are better able to adapt their skills to the requirements of growing occupations. “They seem to experience easier transitions in terms of what is required, for the job seems closer to those jobs that are growing”, Emily Murphy says.

This leads to the main policy implication of her thesis, which is the need for life-long training, especially for workers from the production sector, who would need to develop new skills in order to adapt to the evolving job market. “It’s an aspect worth researching further”, she thinks.

A promising career

Besides having published in a prestigious journal, Emily Murphy’s other exploit is to have been hired as a post-doc researcher even before becoming a doctor… Since September, she has been commuting between Lausanne and the University of Zurich, where the Sociology Department offered her two positions.

Famous researcher Marlis Buchmann took her into the team of the Swiss Survey on Children and Youth (COCON), whose next wave of data collection is about to start in 2015 with the youngest cohort now aged 15 (they were 6 years old in 2006 at the beginning of the project).

As of next year, Emily Murphy will also take part in the Swiss Stellenmarkt-Monitor (SMM) project, with the aim of looking at changes in job requirements and employer practices demanded in the recruitment process, drawing from a data set going back to the 1950s.

Her analytical skills will certainly do wonders there. On the personal side, staying in Switzerland will allow her to keep on skiing, which she discovered by moving from Ireland. Going down and up the slopes should not frighten her in any domain.

  • 1. Murphy, E. (2014). Workers' movement out of declining occupations in Great Britain, Germany and Switzerland. European Sociological Review, 2014 30: 685-701.
Image iStock courtesy of Promotion Santé Suisse

The National Conference on Health Promotion puts life course research under the microscope

Seven LIVES researchers, five of whom are project leaders, will speak at a coming annual meeting of health professionals on 29 January 2015 in Lucerne. Fully dedicated to the subject of life trajectories, this day organised by "Promotion Santé Suisse" will include a series of plenary and sub-plenary lectures, as well as workshops and exhibition stands, including one run by the National Centre of Competence in Research LIVES, which promises to be interactive.

"Life course studies may not be a new concept, but their application in the field of health is a much more recent development. The aim of this approach is to shed light on the close interactions between individuals' health and the physical and socio-economic environments in which they are born, grow up and live", states the programme of the 16th National Conference on Health Promotion, which will take place on 29 January 2015 at the "Messe" venue in Lucerne.

The organisation "Promotion Santé Suisse" has dedicated this year's conference to the topic of "Life-Long Health Promotion", and has invited several members of the Swiss National Centre of Competence in Research LIVES - Overcoming vulnerability: Life course perspectives (NCCR LIVES) to speak about research they have conducted and share these social sciences findings with the world of medicine.

The Director of the NCCR LIVES, Professor Dario Spini, will be speaking in the first plenary session, with a presentation entitled Health dynamics throughout life: an avenue for prevention? He will be followed by Dr. Stéphane Cullati, who will be discussing Life and health trajectories in Switzerland: what are the consequences for health promotion?

During the sub-plenary session on elderly persons, Professor Pasqualina Perrig-Chiello, head of IP12, will speak about Separation in later life: repercussions and adaptation models in the event of divorce or widowhood, and Professor Claudio Bolzman, head of IP2, will discuss the health of elderly migrants.

The other sub-plenary discussions include a focus on Family configurations and socio-affective functioning in childhood and adolescence with Professor Eric Widmer, a sociologist and head of IP8. In the part focusing on adult life, the head of IP7, Professor Jérôme Rossier, and a member of his team, Professor Alexandra M. Freund, will explore the psychological dimension in order to draw a link between work and well-being on the one hand, and between motivation and health on the other.

"Only a multidisciplinary and multi-sectoral approach will enable us to find solutions. (...) The aim of this kind of integrated and multidisciplinary approach is to make the health system more effective," say Barbara Weil, of the Swiss Medical Association, and Catherine Favre Kruit, of Promotion Santé Suisse, in their overview of the conference in the most recent edition of the Swiss Medical Journal.

Those participating in this day-long event are invited to pay a visit to the NCCR LIVES stand, which will be providing a fun introduction to a tool used in life course research: the life calendar. This tool, which serves to map individual biographical trajectories, makes it possible to analyse the links between health and other life domains such as family and work.