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New Roles for Older People

In 2005, the world was amazed by the news of a 67-year old writer and part-time university lecturer in Romanian literature, Adriana Iliescu, becoming the world’s oldest mother. For her, this role of a mother was a very new role - new role in her old age. The numbers of children born to older mothers (50plus) is rising, as of course is the number of older women in general.Footnote 1 It is not a massive trend, but it is a trend. Reference to the existence of older mothers can be traced back to the sacred texts of the Old Testament, for example, and the apparent happiness of attaining this new role despite the “impropriate age” seems to be constant.

People living longer, healthier lives in our societies of abundance have more lifetime and possibilities on their hands than any generation before them. This structural framework enables individuals to live more colourful lives, somewhat released from the constraints of age norms and institutional boundaries (Levin 2013). This results in wider and more populated role sets. Although the example of role of the mother of a new-born child may seem rather extreme and controversial for a discussion about the social roles of older people, it does serve to underpin the scale of change that later life has undergone and how much the social roles of people at this stage of the life course are affected.

The complexity of later life role sets is increased by its inherent time and context dynamics. In his classical essay “Flexibility and the Social Roles of the Retired” from 1954, Robert Havighurst claims that “great changes in social roles occur between the ages of 50 and 75”. He talks about roles that intensify (such a s homemaker), diminish (for example worker, parent, spouse, lover...), intensify with special effort (e.g. active citizen), or emerge for the first time (carer of a grandchild or parent). It is clear that this typology needs to be re-examined in the light of the increasing heterogeneity and individualisation of the life cycle and the reorganisation of life’s transition timetables, which change the numbers and intensities of the roles played by older adults, as well as ways in which they are played. Indeed, the very definition of “the retired” as those aged 50 and older would not mirror the social reality of old age today (Leeson 2017).

In the traditional paradigms of social policy and social gerontology, older people have been regarded mainly as receivers of help, as those in need. However, recent studies have looked more often at older people as a “resource”, as those who provide, contribute, and give. As a result of this “paradigm shift”, their contribution is being recognised on different levels: at a societal level as workers and GDP contributors; at a mezzo level as active members of the community; and at a micro level as a pivotal part of intergenerational solidarity, in particular as care providers within families (Vidovićová 2018). Being a working grandparent caring for a spouse or even one’s own parent and/or grandchild can be challenging, and not at all a marginal role in today’s ageing societies (Hagestad 2006). However, only very little attention has been paid to the intersection of these different levels, to how these different roles overlap and how convergence or conflict between them is perceived, understood, and experienced by ageing people themselves. Given the interlocking character and interacting timetables of social roles in higher age (Kivett 1989), there is the potential risk of role overload, i.e. “the stress generated within a person when he either cannot comply or has difficulty complying with the expectations of a role or a set of roles” (Burr 1973 in Lee 1988: 776). According to a recent study from the Czech Republic, people aged between 50 and 70 years have on average seven social roles, and within these role sets, the role of grandparent (and friend in the case of grand-childless) is the one which brings the highest levels of happiness. On the other hand, the role of worker is characterized as the most prevalent source of stress and perceived role overload (Vidovićová et al. 2015). As both of these roles are often combined in a single role set, the multiple roles of older people are usually a bitter-sweet experience (Hubatková 2017).

The grandparental role was the only role identified by Havighurst as “new”. However, there are other new roles becoming prevalent (and/or more visible) in this life period, both inside and outside the family realm, such as active-ager, “learner”, on-line dating person, volunteer, entrepreneur, parent-in-law, and others. With increasing average age at first marriage, re-marriage and childbearing, becoming a husband or wife as well as a parent in one’s fifties for the first time is no longer as unrealistic as it may have been in the middle of the twentieth century.Footnote 2

For this issue of the Journal of Population Ageing, authors have been invited to consider some of the changes in older people’s roles, both changes brought about by the social changes of recent decades and policies responding to these changes, and/or brought about by changes over the individual life course. Six social roles of older people are discussed in this issue: the active ager, the entrepreneur, the religious person, the volunteer, the carer and the worker, both as a sole topic, and in various interconnections. This selection represents mostly the “diminishing” category in Havighurst’s terms. However, the data presented here reflect a much more colourful picture, as they show from various angles how older people themselves experience social roles, either as a lived experience or as a norm presented to them, as a value, as a requirement and/or as an expectation.

The example of the individual change and stability in the role is presented in the paper on religiosity in the baby-boomer generation in USA by Merril Silverstein and V ern Bengtson. Their study of whether self-perceived levels of religiosity change from late middle age to young old age reveals a degree of stability in the majority of respondents on the one hand, and considerable change trackable to later life issues on the other hand. From the point of view of social role theory, it is intriguing that according to the authors little of the documented change can be related to “having more time available” in retirement.

Along with other papers in this issue, these results debunk the myth of “the role-less role” of older people with plenty of free time for whom active roles need to be found, defined and implemented. In many instances, existing roles are simply not recognised, as opposed to being actually absent. The paper by Toni Calasanti and Matrion Repetti illustrates this by considering the perception of the “active ageing” concept by retirees in Switzerland. Their results show how the call to actively participate in society in ways defined as a social contribution fail to embrace various activities already carried out by older people, especially within the family domain and especially by women. The authors even refer to an exploitation of older people, especially older women, by virtue of these normative role requirements.

A different approach but a similar outcome is found in the paper by Justyna Stypinska, which analyzes the concept of entrepreneurship, a new form of engagement for older people. Stypinska uses policy text analysis and a critical gerontology approach to investigate European Union and OECD policy documents on entrepreneurship. Senior entrepreneurship is being increasingly presented as a second career and one of a number of alternatives for those in later life unemployment or otherwise at-risk to combat poverty and social exclusion via prolonged work engagement. However, only limited attention is paid to how the role of senior entrepreneur is defined, what inherent risks it carries, and how these play out vis a vis other later life transitions (MOPACT 2015).

In accordance with role theory, at least two kind of later life entrepreneurs can be identified: those who are ageing together with their role, and those for whom this can very much become a new role later in life. While this latter case is presented by Stypinska, the former is picked up by Celdrán and her co-authors in the study of retired managers acting as volunteers in an entrepreneurial mentoring organisation. The generativity concept presented by the authors here is one of the best examples of new roles in later life. One cannot pursue generative endeavour until s/he has accumulated enough experience and wisdom to pass on, but Celdrán and her co-authors do not idealize the wisdom of older people, providing instead examples of how this type of volunteering activity can have both positive and negative aspects in terms of role performance.

With regard to later life workers, two extreme subgroups should be recognised: one is the group of extremely wealthy older persons, and the second comprises those who are increasingly recognised as the future poor, social system dependents. This second group of workers and entrepreneurs have little or no social and health system coverage and few if any alternative strategies for old age other than prolonged work (Průša et al. 2009). The duality of advantaged and disadvantaged life chances is discussed in detail in the paper by Olena Oleksiyenko and Danuta Życzyńska-Ciołek. Education is often the best predictor of outcomes such as income, health and even life expectancy, but in societies where high educational attainments were not necessarily associated with wealth and high esteem, other components of socioeconomic status rise to play an important role in defining and providing later life roles. In their particular example of Poland, both the occupational prestige of the last job before retirement and educational attainment proved to be significant predictors of the probability of employment despite drawing a pension benefits. Moreover, the impact of occupational prestige varied across the different retirement benefit groups. As such, it shows how previous life-course events, similarly to the case of religiosity, can help to determine or shape later life roles, their continuation, appearance, and cessation.

Prolonged labour force participation is a key policy initiative in ageing societies, since more tax revenues are needed in order to keep up with the growing demands of pension provision as well as social and health care provision. Encouraging and enabling people to continue working beyond normal retirement age not only increases gross domestic product but also decreases the demand for public support in later life. However, at the same time, state pension replacement rates tend to be low, and extra income to ensure the continuation of one’s lifestyle or simply to make ends meet becomes a necessity for many pensioners as well as for individuals of pre-retirement age (Active Ageing 2012). Despite the fact that economic activity has been the back bone of active ageing policies (Ney 2005), a broader understanding of productivity is gaining support (Komp and Béland 2012). Current discussions take on board various unpaid activities which are carried out in parallel with, or instead of, labour market activities (Walker and Maltby 2012). Care-giving, grandparenting and voluntary work undertaken by older people are the most often quoted examples. But, of course, the variety of alternative activities and second or even third careers is much broader, ranging from continuous education to gardening. Regardless of the inherent heterogeneity of older people with respect to gender, socio-economic class, and education level etc., the notion of activity as part of good ageing and as an escape route from a “role-less role” (Burgess 1960) has developed as a new norm.

Policy frameworks, such as The European Year of Active Ageing and Intergenerational Solidarity in 2012, underline the importance attributed to the economic activity and economic contribution of older people in European societies. From a more individual point of view, engagement in activity was among the first identified correlates of successful ageing (Havighurst and Albrecht 1953) and persists as a major wellbeing predictor (Rowe and Kahn 1997). However, the quality of social ties matters more than activity participation per se as a predictor of a good old age (for example, Litwin and Shiovitz-Ezra 2006).

As Waumsley et al. (2010) argue, little is known about the conflict between work and non-work roles experienced by people who live within a family structure that does not include small children and (intensive) child care responsibilities. These individuals may still experience a conflict between work and other aspects of their lives, and the authors conclude that existing measures of work-family and family-work conflict may not be able to reveal such conflict. This may also be the case for older people. In respect of the work-family life balance in later life, various aspects and dimensions of both work and family life must be considered. In the realm of family life, responsibilities related to the care of grandchildren (but also support for children or their families if they have special needs or if they are in a difficult social and/or financial situation) could be considered. Furthermore, family obligations incorporate not only care for a partner but also care for a parent or parent-in-law as a result of the increasing longevity of the oldest old. In respect of work, not only paid and unpaid work or “encore careers” (Freedman 2007) need to be considered. There is also the question of a broader definition of contributory activities, including leisure activities and other pursuits of the third age (Laslett 1991).

In the above mentioned Czech study of 50- to 70-year olds, “parent and friend were the prime roles (with about 90% of respondents occupying them), followed by spouse (69%), active ager (66%), grandparent (61%), and worker (55%). In the youngest age groups (50-54 years), the parental, friend, and worker roles were the most frequently occupied (by about 88% of respondents), while in the oldest group (65-70 years), parent, friend, and grandparent were the most frequent. At least one of the “active ageing” roles was reported by 76% of 50 to 54 year olds and 58% of the 65+ year-olds. …(and) almost all respondents had a role in their role set that they deemed particularly time-consuming, and 80% of them occupied a role that was a source of concern” (Hubatková 2017: 4).

In conclusion, older people coming from and living in family structures are more likely to be exposed to several high-need roles with fluctuating resources for their successful fulfilment. The demographically and fiscally driven economic situation requires them to stay in the labour market longer than previous generations, while new social norms push them to express their youthful “third age” self, pursue their own pleasures, and be socially productive. Yet, at the same time the pressure of family obligations increases rather than decreases with increasing age. This situation challenges the classical notion of a bell-shaped curve of role overload (Lee 1988), which suggests that as the individual moves through his life course, potentially conflicting roles increase in mid-life, while the complexity and size of the role sets tend to decrease in later life. This opinion is somehow in line with disengagement theory (Cumming and Henry 1961), but does not take into account more recent challenges creating new role expectations and pressures for ageing people in post-modern, age non-integrated societies (Katz 2000; Loscocco 2000), where old age itself can be a challenging role.

As Adriana Iliescu said when discussing her wish for a second child at the age of 72: “I try not to look in the mirror, because I don’t enjoy it “(Wheathers 2010). New, newly defined and in a new way fulfilled social roles of older people have the potential to change that.


  1. For example, in the Czech Republic almost 20 children were born to mothers aged 50 and over in 2015. The total number of live born children was almost 111,000, and the average age of the mother was 30 years. Source:

  2. Although, as we suggested above, both older mothers and most probably “late” marriages have always been present in human history, the present change is in the scope, prevalence, and media coverage of these phenomena.


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Correspondence to Lucie Vidovićová.

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The call for papers for this issue was based on a conference session held at the International Sociological Association conference (RC 11 Sociology of Ageing) in Vienna, 10–14 July 2016 on the theme “The Futures We Want: Global Sociology and the Struggles for a Better World”, and supported by the Czech Scientific Agency grant No. 13-34958S.

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Vidovićová, L. New Roles for Older People. Population Ageing 11, 1–6 (2018).

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