Scientific article

Long lives and old age poverty: social stratification and life-course institutionalization in Switzerland

Published inResearch in human development, vol. 14, no. 1, p. 68-87
Publication date2017

This article combines an inter- and an intra-cohort perspective to study economic vulnerability in old age. The theoretical background is given through the combination of a social stratification framework and an institutional perspective emphasizing life course policies. At the macro level, the increase in overall education levels and the implementation of a pension system were the driving forces of the strong decrease in old age poverty over the last three decades. At an individual level, the pathway from low education early in life to economic hardship after retirement is most prominent, corresponding to a social stratification and cumulative disadvantage view. This article addresses a social issue and a research question: economic hardship among older adults. The Swiss Constitution explicitly fixes the finality of the national pension system: each inhabitant must be able to end his/her life “in dignity.” This was also the ambition pursued by the welfare systems that grew in the Western countries in the second half of the 20th century. All of these countries promoted life-course policies to reduce initial inequalities in family background, to alleviate the consequences of life accidents, and to create economic security in old age through various forms of life-capital accumulation (Leisering, 2003 Leisering, L. (2003). Government and the life course. In J. T. Mortimer & M. J. Shanahan (Eds.), Handbook of the life course (pp. 205–225). New York, NY: Springer Verlag.[CrossRef]). That this institutionalization shaped the life courses of the generations studied here is obvious; whether it succeeded is the question that this article addresses. To do so, we interrogate the articulation of social stratification, trajectories in adult age and social institutions, and the resulting potential for discrimination against certain subpopulations Poverty among Swiss residents older than age 64 is not negligible, despite Switzerland ranking among the wealthiest in the world and having one of the highest life expectancies. Approximately one in five retired Swiss citizens has a monthly household income below the poverty line. This financial situation also has institutional implications because it is a formal precondition for accessing several social benefits, and many people live just above the line thanks solely to such assistance. It is a common paradox in welfare regimes that a situation of vulnerability, when socially recognized, confers rights to receive support from public institutions. This is why we focus on two populations that do not completely overlap: the poor and those for whom welfare benefits represent an important source of income. In both cases, using retrospective longitudinal data, we test the long-term impact of childhood conditions and then examine how labor, family, and health trajectories or events contribute to the accumulation of disadvantages. We relate our findings to the development of state institutions that have had different functions and impacts. We identify the roots of old age poverty throughout past individual life courses, which are historically located in periods characterized by important social, economic and political evolutions. Combining inter- and intracohort approaches (Dannefer & Kelley-Moore, 2009 Dannefer, D., & Kelley-Moore, J. A. (2009). Theorizing the life course: New twists in the path. In V. Bengtson, D. Gans, M. Putney, & M. Silverstein (Eds.), Handbook of theories of aging (pp. 389–411). New York, NY: Springer Verlag.), we search for the pathways leading to poverty and/or social help late in life. Starting from the simple observation that more than six decades of the welfare state in Switzerland, as well as economic growth and social changes, did not eradicate old age poverty, we first analyze the parallel evolution of theories and social realities. We then present our data, variables and analytical strategy. Following this, we discuss core results and propose a concluding discussion.

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Citation (ISO format)
ORIS, Michel et al. Long lives and old age poverty: social stratification and life-course institutionalization in Switzerland. In: Research in human development, 2017, vol. 14, n° 1, p. 68–87. doi: 10.1080/15427609.2016.1268890
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Article (Published version)
ISSN of the journal1542-7609

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