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Old age isn’t what it used to be

Should you be allowed to go on working after the age of 70? The Danish law in this area is subject to public debate at the moment, and this kind of discussion looks likely to continue in future because the way we perceive old age is changing. Basic assumptions and social systems are also being challenged, explains Karen P. Munk, an associate professor at Aarhus University, who has just set up the Ageing Society Research Group.

2014.02.14 | Marianne Ester Back

More than ever before, ageing is now a social issue. For instance, the growing proportion of elderly people could become a democratic challenge owing to their increasing power at the ballot box, explains associate professor Karen P. Munk, who has just set up the Ageing Society Research Group. (Photo: Colourbox)

In 2013 more than 1,000 people in Denmark celebrated their 100th birthday. That’s about twice as many as just ten years ago. Estimates predict that if current trends continue, roughly half of all the Danish girls born today will reach the age of 100. Not only are we living longer – we are also enjoying more years of good health. This is great news for humanity, but it also constitutes a major challenge to ageing societies. Ageing is no longer a simple biological phenomenon – it has become one of the biggest challenges facing European societies. And a new research group at Aarhus University has been set up to study these challenges.  

What is old age, actually?

One of the consequences of this demographic development is that basic social assumptions about ageing are changing, explains Karen P. Munk, who is an associate professor of humanistic health science as well as being a gerontopsychologist. She is the leader of the interdisciplinary Ageing Society Research Group.

“There is a tendency in society to regard ageing as a concept that can be categorised easily, with life being divided into neat boxes containing different age groups. In Denmark you start childcare when you’re three, you start school when you’re six, and when you’re 70 it’s time to retire. Our whole society is organised into categories of age. This is a modern way of looking at things that has been useful in the past. But it is no longer applicable in the demographic situation of today – also because it suggests that by the time you’re 60-70 years old you’re not as useful as you once were.”

Munk points out that this way of dividing society into numbers has already been challenged in several areas:

“These days we regard any division of adults into age groups as discrimination, unless it is based on factors other than age alone. The Danish act on public servants says that you have to stop work at the age of 70, but the politicians are currently discussing whether this act should be repealed. In the past there was considerable focus on ensuring equal opportunities on the labour market to stop employers firing disabled or pregnant employees – or employees on maternity leave. These days the focus is switching to the problem of ageism and how to prevent it,” she explains.

The golden oldies

The debate in Denmark has referred to the elderly generation as “a burden” and highlighted the increasing number of elderly people in relation to the number of care staff available to care for them. However, the research group is also studying what a healthy elderly generation has to offer. In many cases it makes more sense to refer to the elderly as a useful resource rather than a burden, says Munk, adding that elderly people have a lot to offer and that they now influence society in entirely new ways.

“These days the elderly are playing a more prominent role at all levels of society. For instance, an increasing number of retired experts can be seen in the media giving their views on a variety of issues. Every time Danish television has a report on terrorism or the Danish Security and Intelligence Service, a retired expert who was once the head of this service called Hans Jørgen Bonnichsen is the man they call on. He knows what’s going on and can put things into perspective for us. This works really well because elderly experts have plenty of experience and expertise – and they’re not afraid to say what they think because their careers aren’t at risk, which might be the case for younger people.”

According to Munk, the elderly also play a significant role in local communities. A great number of active OAPs help to make village communities run smoothly thanks to their voluntary work and contributions to a variety of organisations and institutions. The third level of society at which the elderly have an active role to play is in their own families, where grandparents help their busy children (especially if they are single parents) not only financially, but also in performing everyday tasks such as looking after the grandchildren and doing cleaning tasks. 

A democratic challenge

Despite the many strengths of the elderly generation, the growth in this group results in many social challenges, explains Karen Munk. In particular, the increasing power of the elderly at the ballot box constitutes a democratic challenge.

“The elderly are turning into a significant group, and many people fear that their interests will be given disproportionate importance at the expense of the younger generation. Politicians in several European countries are currently focusing on this. For instance, in Austria they have already reduced the voting age to 16 to create a better balance.”

However, Munk believes that there is no cause for alarm in this respect because studies also reveal that growing older does not necessarily mean that you change your political views.

“On the other hand, it’s also obvious that virtually all the political parties in Denmark now have a policy for the elderly,” she says.

At first, the Ageing Society Research Group will concentrate on the relationship between the elderly and younger generations from various academic perspectives based on the issues outlined here.

The group consists of the following members and research areas:

Contact information:

The Ageing Society Research Group
Centre for Health, Humanity and Culture
Department of Culture and Society, Aarhus University
Research group manager: Karen Munk: (+45) 87162247, mobile: (+45) 20127996, filkpm@cas.au.dk

  • Cultural generation differences: 
    Contact: Marie Konge Nielsen, associate professor of anthropology: (+45) 87165774, mobile: (+45) 22569060 etnomkn@hum.au.dk (in collaboration with Karen Munk)
  • Justice and prioritising welfare services:
    Contact: Keld Thorgård, associate professor of philosophy: (+45) 87162246, filkt@cas.au.dk

    Biotechnology and ageing: a modern challenge to the ageing body?

  • Contact: Karin Christiansen, associate professor of medical philosophy: (+45) 87162276, filkc@cas.au.dk
  • Ageing, state, citizen and society

Contact: Morten Raffnsøe-Møller, associate professor of philosophy (+45) 87162262,

filraf@cas.au.dk (currently on leave from the group) 

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