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Research on ageing reveals current and future ills of society

Gerontology is much more than just the science of those interested in the elderly. By combining the perspectives of the various disciplines involved, it can provide an overview of the contemporary world and an outline of the challenges that affect the young people of today and the not-so-young of tomorrow. The National Centre of Competence in Research LIVES is taking part in this process. The work of its researchers has produced several excellent doctoral theses, as well as a recent contribution to a major publication.

Recognition for the National Centre of Competence in Research LIVES: its director, Dario Spini, and three colleagues – Daniela Jopp, Stéphanie Pin, Silvia Stringhini – put their names to a chapter in the 4th edition of the Handbook of Theories of Aging, which includes more than 700 pages, published in the United States by Vern L. Bengtson and Richard A. Settersten, Jr., bringing together "the most highly respected luminaries in the field.”

Biologists, psychologists, sociologists and experts in social policy and practice are all called upon to set out the current state of knowledge about ageing, identify the theories that are no longer relevant and determine which theories should now replace them in the light of the latest findings. According to the editors, describing new models must serve to predict the challenges that lie ahead and guide future actions intended to improve the human condition.

Processes and dynamics

This 4th edition - some 30 years after the first in 1988 and less than 10 years since the previous edition in 2009 - takes a particular interest in the processes that are at work in ageing. It reflects the evolution of sociology and psychology, which are paying more and more attention to the dynamics studied from the life course perspectives, such as well-being or emotional relationships and the social network. The editors note that the underlying idea is to focus on the quality of life, on “aging well, not just aging long".

The chapter commissioned for the NCCR LIVES team therefore builds upon the rise of longitudinal studies, which are continuing to develop in Switzerland and in several other countries. The authors present four major lessons learned from recent and ongoing surveys in relation to older people. Firstly, the difficulty of placing such research within a single, fixed timeframe: which life phases to include for an overall understanding of the effects of age, how far back to go in the past, then how often to repeat the measures and how to delineate the different time periods in the pathways in an empirical sense?

Heterogeneity of life courses

Another problem: taking into account the heterogeneity of life courses and the multidirectional aspect of certain variables. For example, the well-known "paradox of well-being" - a theory considered as very robust up until recently, indicating that life satisfaction tends to increase with age - is only really true in rich countries and for people in good health. Models of ageing cannot therefore overlook differences in cohort, gender, and social and economic status.

One must also consider the multidimensional aspect of life courses, the fact that each existence is lived out in several domains, and is subject to factors which are both objective and subjective. Faced with difficulties, individuals may implement "selection, optimisation and compensation" mechanisms in the arrangement of their various types of resources (economic, social, physical, etc.) which make the identification of vulnerabilities and the understanding of resilience more complex for researchers.

Biological age and social age

Ultimately the ageing process occurs at several different levels. Biological age and social age do not always coincide; environmental, institutional and normative contexts also evolve and must be taken into account in the different generations studied.

It is difficult, therefore, to combine all of the many dynamics related to ageing in one definitive theory, Dario Spini and his colleagues conclude. Addressing both the welcome increase in longitudinal surveys and the difficulties for scholars in achieving interdisciplinary careers, they welcome the increased funding for life course studies, but remain cautious about the final contribution of these research activities to a comprehensive and universal understanding of the mechanisms of ageing.

A burst of doctoral theses

Cautious, or too modest? The doctoral theses completed in the framework of the National Centre of Competence in Research LIVES, some of which were presented very recently, certainly show definite progress in the analysis of certain aspects concerning the advance of old age. Laure Kaeser, Rainer Gabriel, Marie Baeriswyl, Julia Henke, and Barbara Masotti, who were awarded doctorates in 2015 and 2016 by the University of Geneva, all carried out their research at the Interfaculty Centre of Gerontology and Vulnerability Studies (CIGEV) under the (joint) leadership of Prof. Michel Oris and based on data collected by the Vivre-Leben-Vivere (VLV) survey, funded by LIVES. Other work is continuing and in the months and years ahead will provide new results.

These young researchers demonstrate that the change in the perception of older people, from supported elderly to active seniors, does not take into account the reality of the most vulnerable, those who have not really benefited from the democratisation of education, institutional and health progress, and the general rise in living standards. Their detailed analyses of the VLV sample, consisting of 3,600 people over the age of 65, and following two other major surveys carried out in 1979 and 1994, provide a very nuanced picture of ageing in Switzerland.

Perception of economic difficulties

Julia Henke, for example, who presented her thesis on 17 June, compares subjective and objective indicators of precariousness to show the limitations of using the sole criterion of the poverty line when assessing economic vulnerability. Income from the Old-Age and Survivor's Insurance (OASI) does not guarantee that those who have no savings, are isolated or are in poor health will be free of financial difficulties. According to the researcher, “it takes both, economic and psychological paradigms to understand quality of life”. She emphasises that “the creation of social indicators requires a number of normative decisions”, which contribute to shaping our vision of the world, especially in a data-driven society.

Social participation and well-being

The thesis of Marie Baeriswyl, presented on 16 June, also offers reflections along these lines. In her observation of the evolution of social participation in retirement, she notes that "the emergence of retirees who are multi-participatory, involved, consumers, and also integrated into different communities, whether private or public, is not happening without an increasingly large gap between these retirees and those who do not have the same opportunities and resources." Interestingly, a comparison with the surveys from 1979 and 1994 shows that before 2011, the question of life satisfaction was not addressed to the elderly, which again raises the question of what is being measured and what it reveals about current paradigms.

Marie Baeriswyl’s research confirms the link between social participation and well-being in retirement. It undermines certain theories such as the disintegration of social capital in contemporary societies and the loss of family solidarity, "fears that have long marked the consideration of issues affecting old age," notes the researcher. Conversely, she notes a polarisation between those well endowed with social, economic and cultural capital, who retain good emotional ties and have lives rich in activities, and those who are left behind, whose level of education is often low and who experience deteriorating health.

Gender inequalities also persist after retirement age, with men generally more involved in the public domain and women more focussed on the private sphere. An imbalance that will be interesting to revisit in a few years' time, to see if the growing participation of women in the labour market will change behaviours at the point of retirement.

Structures versus individuals

This exciting thesis concludes with a call not to forget the importance of providing institutionalised structures for social participation and not to give in to the "ideology of de-institutionalisation", which would leave older people solely responsible for their own active involvement and which would disavow the injustices that are at the root of the differences in social participation between more fortunate and less fortunate older people.

It is therefore in agreement with the conclusions of the chapter by Spini et al. in the Handbook of Theories of Aging, which states that “it is well established that life expectancy and well-being are related to socioeconomic environments, yet many theories of aging focus on personal characteristics and individually based explanations rather than considering them in the context of or in relation to environmental factors.” At a time when the demographic weight of older people is posing a challenge not only to the welfare state but also to the equilibrium between the generations in democratic debates, addressing current and future conditions of ageing is a topic of paramount importance that will continue to grow in relevance.

>> Vern L. Bengtson & Richard A. Settersten, Jr. (2016). Handbook of Theories of Aging. New York: Springer, 752 p.

>> Dario Spini, Daniela S. Jopp, Stéphanie Pin, and Silvia Stringhini (2016). The Multiplicity of Aging: Lessons for Theory and Conceptual Development From Longitudinal Studies. In Vern L. Bengtson & Richard A. Settersten, Jr. (2016). Handbook of Theories of Aging (p. 669-690). New York: Springer.

>> Julia Henke (2016). Revisiting Economic Vulnerability among Swiss Pensioners: Low Income, Difficulty in Making Ends Meet and Financial Worry. Under the supervision of Michel Oris. University of Geneva.

>> Marie Baeriswyl (2016). Participations et rôles sociaux à l’âge de la retraite. Une analyse des évolutions et enjeux autour de la participation sociale et des rapports sociaux de sexe. Under the supervision of Jean-François Bickel and Michel Oris. University of Geneva.

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The NCCR LIVES commits 700,000 CHF in three new projects on health and ageing

The call for project proposals on life course and vulnerability launched last January generated 42 applications and resulted in the selection of three innovative and promising research designs. The issues of health and ageing are at the core of these projects. Swiss Household Panel data will be used in two of them. One team from the German part of Switzerland is new to LIVES, while familiar LIVES members lead the other two projects.

This year the Swiss National Centre of Competence in Research LIVES invited researchers working in Swiss Universities or research institutes to apply for funding 3-year projects ranging from 200,000 to 300,000 Swiss francs. Interdisciplinary projects, as well as those using longitudinal data, were especially welcome.

Forty-two projects were proposed and three received approval. The selection process was led by the Advisory Board of LIVES, an independent group of international researchers who ranked the project proposals on criteria of quality, innovation and feasibility.

The three selected projects will start next September and represent a total of 700,000 CHF. They will focus on promising research questions on the issues of ageing and health in a longitudinal perspective, and hire junior researchers to assist the project leaders. Each project is related to one of the LIVES cross-cutting issues, examining dynamics of stress and resources across life domains, over time and across analysis levels (social interactions and normative climate).

Resilience after the onset of a chronic health condition

Dr. Claudio Peter, a senior scientist at the Swiss Paraplegic Research (SPF) in Nottwil and the Department of Health Sciences and Health Policy of the University of Lucerne, will lead a project on resilience and vulnerability after the onset of a chronic health condition. Together with Dr. Gisela Michel, associate professor in the same department and deputy director of the Swiss Childhood Cancer Registry, and Dr. Nicole Bachmann, a scientific collaborator at the University of Applied Sciences and Arts - North-Western Switzerland, they will hire a PhD student and a part-time post-doc researcher.

Using Swiss Household Panel (SHP) data, they plan to observe well-being and mental health over five years after the onset of a chronic disease (stroke, multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injury, rheumatoid arthritis, etc.) and compare these measures with pre-event levels. The aim is to determine what factors, such as physical, social and psychological resources, influence these processes. “Understanding the adjustment process to a physical chronic health condition is a key requirement for the development of purposeful interventions aiming to foster the person’s resilience,” the team posits.

Impact of life course events on health at older age

Also on the basis of SHP data and including SHARE (Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe) data, a second project aims at investigating the influence of life course events on health trajectories at older age. The team is composed of Dr. Stéphane Cullati, Prof. Claudine Burton-Jeangros, Dr. Delphine Courvoisier, Prof. Matthias Kliegel, Dr. Rainer Gabriel, from the University of Geneva and NCCR LIVES IP208 and IP213, as well as Prof. David Blane, from the International Centre for Life Course Studies in Society and Health at the University College London, and Dr. Idris Guessous, from the Unit of Population Epidemiology of the Geneva University Hospitals. A post-doctoral researcher will complete this interdisciplinary team of epidemiologists and gerontologists, including a medical researcher and a statistician.

Their research questions examine how childhood socioeconomic conditions and non-normative events like parental separation and job loss are associated with downward health trajectories at older age. They also want to focus on the long-term impact of family and occupational trajectories during active life on health trajectory after retirement. The hypothesis of cumulative advantages and disadvantages and the protecting effect of social mobility will be tested.

Very old persons and their old children

The third project addresses the relationships between very old persons and their aging children. Comparing two groups of parent-child dyads - one composed of parents aged over 95 and children aged over 65, the other one with parents aged 70-85 and children aged 40-60 -, the researchers posit that “older dyads face unique challenges due to the prolonged relationship and caregiving demands, and the elevated vulnerability related to both dyad members’ age and reduced resources, which place them at greater risk for poor outcomes”. Quantitative and qualitative data will be collected. The Leenaards Foundation has already funded the pilot study.

Prof. Daniela Jopp, a psychologist and member of NCCR LIVES IP212 at the University of Lausanne, leads this project in collaboration with Prof. Kathrin Boerner from the University of Massachusetts Boston and Prof. Heining Cham from Fordham University. Dr. Claudia Meystre, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Lausanne, will assist them, and three students will conduct the interviews. This mixed-methods survey will notably explore contextual factors and cultural values like “familism”, i.e. strong normative feelings of allegiance with family. The expected outcome is to identify needs of new health care policies for a fast growing population.

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“Understanding key challenges for European societies in the 21st century”: The health issue

The 3rd International Conference of the European Social Survey (ESS), on 13-15th July 2016 at the University of Lausanne, is locally co-organised by FORS Swiss Centre of Expertise in the Social Sciences and sponsored by the NCCR LIVES. It notably features a presentation by Claudine Burton-Jeangros, Adrien Remund and Stéphane Cullati from the University of Geneva about health inequalities in Switzerland.

The 3rd International ESS Conference showcases research that uses data from the European Social Survey (ESS) to address issues such as migration, work and family life, wellbeing, health, welfare, political engagement and social norms and values. Practical and policy implications of the research will be drawn out wherever possible. The conference is being organised by the European Social Survey European Research Infrastructure Consortium (ESS ERIC) and the Swiss Centre of Expertise in the Social Sciences (FORS), with the support of the Swiss National Centre of Competence in Research LIVES – Overcoming Vulnerability: Life Course Perspectives.

The European Social Survey (ESS) is an academically driven cross-national survey that has been conducted across Europe since 2001. Every two years, face-to-face interviews are conducted with newly selected, cross-sectional samples. The survey measures the attitudes, beliefs and behaviour patterns of diverse populations in more than thirty nations.

During the 3rd International ESS Conference, Prof. Claudine Burton-Jeangros, Dr. Adrien Remund, and Dr. Stéphane Cullati, researchers at the University of Geneva and NCCR LIVES, presented “Do social inequalities in health and wellbeing decrease, increase or remain stable in Switzerland? A cross-sectional trend analysis (2002-2014)”

Increase of health inequalities

In a context of difficult socioeconomic conditions over the last years in Europe, social inequalities in health and wellbeing have increased in many high-income countries. The three researchers ask whether in Switzerland, where health inequalities tend to remain limited, health and wellbeing inequalities are changing or not. Their objective was to examine change in social inequalities in health and well-being between the years 2002 and 2014, using waves 1 (2002) to 7 (2014) of the Swiss sample of the European Social Survey.

They observed that over the 2002-2014 period, educational inequalities on self-reported health and being hampered in daily activities slightly increased: respondents with high educational levels tended to report better health status over time compared to respondents with low educational levels, and the former tended to report being hampered less frequently over time. Moreover, the association between household income and happiness (higher income, higher happiness) slightly increased over time.

Some correlations between health and wellbeing with a range of social factors remained stable over time: perception of neighbourhood insecurity (feeling unsafe when walking alone after dark) was lastingly and strongly associated with low self-rated health and with being hampered in daily activities; poor satisfaction with household income was associated with poor satisfaction with life, poor happiness, and (to the exception of wave 2006) with poor self-rated health; household income was associated with being hampered in daily activities (to the exception of wave 2008).

Other inequalities declined during the 2002-2014 period: women tended to report higher self-rated health compared to men until 2006, then the difference between them slightly diminished wave by wave until 2014.

They conclude that in Switzerland, health and well-being inequalities changed during the 2002-2014 period. Figures of temporal change included both increasing and decreasing social inequalities, with the first pattern (increasing inequalities) being more frequent. Long-standing, stable, social inequalities were also observed.

>> Sources: and (p.51)

7th Alpine Population Conference (Alp-Pop 2017) in La Thuile, Aosta Valley, Italy

7th Alpine Population Conference (Alp-Pop 2017) in La Thuile, Aosta Valley, Italy

Alp-Pop brings together scholars interested in population issues across several disciplines. For its 7th edition, which will take place from January 15 to 18, 2017, the organisers from the Dondena Centre for Research on Social Dynamics of University Bocconi (I) and the NCCR LIVES are launching a call for papers on issues like health, migration, families, the welfare state, economic development, institutions, well-being.

The confirmed Ski-note speakers for the 2017 Alp-Pop Conference are Prof. Hans-Peter Kohler (University of Pennsylvania) and Prof. Alberto Palloni (University of Wisconsin).

Alp-Pop scholars confer both formally and informally. A traditional conference program (paper and poster presentations) mixes with group activities in a world-class winter resort. The conference location, the Hotel Planibel in La Thuile (Aosta Valley), is next to the ski-slopes, and is in close proximity to the airports of Geneva and Torino/Milano.


The organisers -  the Dondena Centre for Research on Social Dynamics of University Bocconi (Italy) and the NCCR LIVES - welcome submissions on all population issues (e.g. health, migration, families, the welfare state, economic development, institutions, well-being, etc.). They particularly encourage submissions that take a life course perspective and/or address social inequalities.


Submissions of original papers or extended abstracts are invited by September 10, 2016, and submitters will be notified of acceptance within a couple of weeks.

Submissions and inquiries should be addressed via email to:

Organising committee

  • Prof. Arnstein Aassve, Bocconi University
  • Dr. Massimo Anelli, Bocconi University
  • Prof. Laura Bernardi, University of Lausanne
  • Dr. Gina Potarca, University of Lausanne