Interview with Simon Biggs“With population change and with threats to traditional forms of work, those assumptions about how one becomes a valuable citizen are going to have to change.”
Could you tell about your background; where do you work, and what kind of topics have you been mainly working with?
I am a professor of gerontology and social policy at the Melbourne University, and work with a social justice charity where I run a small research team on ageing. Originally, I was a social psychologist, and I did my PhD in psychology about body image, and people with eating disorders. After that, I got a job as a community psychologist in London, where I worked with adolescence; doing counselling, group work, work with residential institutions and mental health. From there I went to the central council for social work in the UK, which was a national body that produced training in interpreted policy. It was there where I picked up the ageing brief, because I found that there is a lot of ideas about mental health and working with youth that could be used in what was then an undeveloped area. After that, I went to Keele University, and from there to Kings College London, and finally to Melbourne. In addition, I worked with world economic forum, which was very fascinating. Interestingly, it is not just dominated by banks and businesses, but there are a lot of NGO’s. Here we were trying to find out that what the implications of population ageing are to our world. Before that, I was on the European Masters programme for gerontology, where we tried to set up a master degree across Europe. I was coordinating the social gerontology module, which was based in Keele. This was very ambitious, and I believe it only exists in the Nordic masters of gerontology.
My main interests have always been the relationship between personal identity and social narratives or social structures, and how they interact and influence each other. Nowadays my interest is in the priorities that arise in the life course, which for me comes from the psychological understanding of how people grow and change, and the priorities of public and social policy and how far those compliment or contradict each other. We identified quite early that there was a problem around generations. It is important to look into this notion of how generations understand each other, and how they are able put themselves in each other’s shoes. This came to be a public policy issue, as often inequalities in society are interpreted in being something to do with wealthy generations and generations that are precarious. It is rather because of factors like work-life balance, structure and inequalities in societies. Often politicians use generations as a smoke screen to avoid looking into more difficult problems such as huge inequalities in wealth, which is an issue rising in all societies. This has to do with getting cultural adaptation right, and for that there needs to be space where generations can negotiate freely together on their priorities. This can be then applied to public spaces, policy and social engagement.
There has always been tension between social issues and social policy responses and the life-course, and understanding of changing and priorities in life. We have to rethink of time and space, and how generations could connect.
What kind of projects are you currently working with?
I have always been interested in the dynamics of ageing, and the psychological and psychodynamic tensions. How one grows older and moves from one phase to another, which is a continuing interest for me personally. Mostly it is coming back to me with fundamental, existential questions about growing older, which are based on life-course series of change and priorities. That is something a policy very rarely addresses; it does not address the individual, it addresses problems concerning the economy.
How is the field of ageing in Australia? Is it different compared to Denmark?
I think the areas that are covered are similar, since gerontology is a small community, and often you know a lot of people in the field. It is rather easy to go to a conference and cover everything from biology, work, psychology, life-course etc. Therefore, I would not think there are huge national differences in research; however, the difference comes from how it is interpreted. Australia is sort of hallway between USA and the old UK with their welfare state. The main difference between Australia and other developed economies is the idea that in Australia people should always work. It is not a similar welfare system like western or northern Europe; instead if people are employed they get tax relief based on the circumstances assuming that they are employed. Consequently, there is a big NGO sector, where many services run through NGO’s rather than state.
What is your personal point of view of population ageing?
On a broader level, one of the main challenges is that we have a set of narrative around ageing, where we can talk about ageing as work, spirituality, body, family etc. We have to decide whether they fit what we need in the 21st century, and will they answer the question of ageing and intergenerational relationships in the future. For some of those questions, we need to re-establish these life-course existential priorities and honor them in a way that they are not being honored now. Today you are seen as useful if you are productive, and if you are a working person. So carers and people who are out of work are not valued in the society in a similar way as working people. With population change and with threats to traditional forms of work, those assumptions about how one becomes a valuable citizen are going to have to change. In addition, there are issues with engaging with dementia. The number of people having dementia is rather small, but attitudes towards dementia are a bit like ageism on steroids. People have very fixed and fearful views on dementia, but what we see is that people with dementia want to be seen as normal citizens and as part of the society. That is a powerful challenge that we need to engage with. There are a lot of questions about funding of care, care and workforce, and how they might affect things like migration, future of work, value of volunteering and paid labor… When you look at ageing it touches on almost everything; what are the factors in all this complexity going on in the society now?
Is there still something you would like to research? A topic that would need more attention?
I am still very interested in the personal experience of ageing and how it changes. Is it possible to do that without putting it into a wider intergenerational perspective? The real answer is to find a new way of ageing, so that we understand that we have a long life, which we have not been very good at earlier. The problem is that when you are doing research, the topics are already determined (for example care-workers on ageing), because that is where the money is. Meaning, that if I would have a completely free choice, it is hard to say what I would want to research. The problems that we are facing right now are real problems, and there is a lot more to be done. There are pieces of puzzles and contradictions that we still need to take on and fix, and actually confront them. It is more about engaging in a political activity.
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