Are the needs of the ageing population different for men and women?

The ageing European population has large implications for policy. The MAGGIE (Major Ageing and Gender Issues in Europe) research project has analysed the quality of life among older people, focusing on gender to inform policy development and identify the most vulnerable groups. The project involved ten research teams across Europe to analyse various indicators of quality of life among the population aged over 60. Its main sources of data have been SHARE (Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe)1 and GGS (Gender and Generation Survey)2. This has been supplemented with data from the ECHP (European Community Household Panel)3 and from the EU’s 5th Framework project, FELICIE (Future Elderly Living Conditions in Europe)4.

The main influences on quality of life are health, financial situation and family relationships. However, the impact of these factors is different for men and women, depending on living arrangements (alone or in a couple) and on societal and political context. Good health, good finances and family integration positively influence the well-being of all older people. However, in general, life satisfaction of women is more dependent on home ownership and leisure pursuits, whilst men’s quality of life relies more on having children. The current pension reforms may have major consequences, particularly for older females living on their own who have not contributed to pensions throughout their life.

Living arrangements and marital status

In general, variation in life satisfaction depends more on financial issues for people living alone and more on family issues for couples. Women who live alone are less favoured than men in terms of their socio-economic situation, i.e. they have lower levels of education and income. However, they are more favoured in terms of family relationships and more likely to receive social support from the family. This appears in part to be governed by social norms about the vulnerability of elderly mothers.

Life satisfaction is higher in couples for both men (42% are very satisfied compared to 31% who live alone) and women (39% compared to 28% who live alone). Women in a couple have better economic living conditions and health than single women, whereas men have a better family situation, i.e. elderly men benefit from their wives’ continued presence and support since wives usually outlive their husbands.

Both women in couples and those living alone are less satisfied than men with their lives. The life satisfaction of women is positively linked with home ownership, leisure activities or quality of nearby transport and shopping facilities. For men, having a child is more influential on life satisfaction. Due to the traditional division of labour tasks, with women as homemakers and men as the main (or sole) earners, this trend could be seen as a desire to ‘make up for lost time’. The female focus on economic security could also be due to their lower personal pensions, especially for those living alone.

Societal and political context

The MAGGIE study identified three broad distinctions across nations:

  • German speaking countries (Austria and Germany) - older people are generally better off financially than in other countries, but the gender gap between men and women is wider than elsewhere.
  • Northern and Western Europe (France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden) - elderly people are more oriented towards friends and leisure activities than in other countries and less oriented towards the family.
  • Southern Europe (Greece, Italy, Spain) - elderly people declare better health in these countries and are more family-centred.

Irrespective of living arrangements, the life satisfaction of older women is more influenced by the social and political context. Looking at the patterns across different countries, there is greater variation in quality of life for women. The lesser heterogeneity in men may be due to the uniform male model of socialisation across societies, whereas for women the balance of career and family life produces more diversity. In Northern countries, leisure and quality of immediate environment are most important for the life satisfaction of women. They are more attached to independence, to the extent that daily contact with children tends to have a negative impact on satisfaction. In Central and Southern Europe, satisfaction is dependent on material security and contact with family and others. In Southern Europe, women tend to be less satisfied if they have less than daily contact with their children.

Vulnerable groups in the ageing population

MAGGIE has identified several subpopulations that are at a risk of low quality of life and who may require special attention from policy makers:

  • People in poor health.
  • Men and women without children in Central Europe, women in precarious financial situations in the North and women with less frequent family contact in Southern Europe.
  • Those who do not have access to or do not take part in leisure activities.
  • Those who may be hard hit by pension reforms, particularly those groups for whom material security is a priority in quality of life, such as women living on their own.

Possible future trends

The ageing population is not static and as subsequent generations grow older the issues may change. MAGGIE has analysed possible trends for future ageing generations. It suggests that male and female models will probably converge in the future since women have been increasingly active in the labour market. However, the current reforms of pension schemes could still discriminate against women as they are more likely to have been engaged in part-time employment or taken breaks from work for family commitments. As such, there is a large amount of uncertainty around pension impacts on the ageing population.

The elderly population could benefit from improvements in health, either from better infrastructure or behavioural changes through diet and hygiene. However, the future of the gender gap in relation to health is uncertain and this influences patterns amongst those in institutional care, which is currently a much greater percentage of women. The interaction of different policies such as pensions, health and social security will influence gender differences in quality of life.

 

1 See: http://http://www.share-project.org/

2 See: http://www.unece.org/pau/ggp/data.html

3 See: http://circa.europa.eu/irc/dsis/echpanel/info/data/information.html

4 See: http://www.felicie.org/

MAGGIE – Major Ageing and Gender Issues in Europe (duration: 1/9/2006 – 31/8/2009) was a Specific Targeted Research Project funded under the 6th Framework Programme for Research of the European Union, Thematic Priority 7 - Citizens and governance in a knowledge-based society.

See: http://maggie-project.org/

Contact: Joëlle GAYMU, gaymu@ined.fr; Patrick Festy, festy@ined.fr