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"Why the brain struggles to get off the sofa"

Researchers at UNIGE have observed that the brain has a natural tendency to make as little effort as possible, and that it has to summon numerous resources to counter this affinity for the sedentary lifestyle.

About 30% of adults and 80% of teenagers today do not meet the minimum levels of daily physical activity for staying healthy, as recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Previous studies have already demonstrated that there is a gap between the intentionto play sport and actually playing it among individuals with a leaning towards a sedentary lifestyle. But what happens in the brain to prevent intention being followed by action?

Researchers at the University of Geneva (UNIGE) and the University Hospitals of Geneva (HUG), Switzerland, have studied the neuronal activity of people faced withmaking the choice between physical activity and doing nothing.They noted that the brain requires far greater resources to escape ageneral attraction to minimising effort. A struggle then breaks out between the desire to do nothing and the physical activity. The results, published in the journal Neuropsychologia, are consistent with the idea that our ancestors had to avoid unnecessary physical effort to increase their chances of survival – which, of course, is no longer necessary in our modern societies.

Many people take out membership of a fitness club or gym but never set foot inside. This type of behaviour, which the researchers termed the “physical activity paradox”, has been demonstrated by earlier studies that contrasted the controlled system based on reason – I have to play sport to be healthy – with the automatic system based on affect – the discomfort and fatigue experienced during physical activity. When there is conflict between reason and affect, the physical activity behaviour is not implemented, and the individual tends to remain sedentary. But what happens at the neuronal level? The research team headed by Boris Cheval, (a researcher at NCCR LIVES at the Faculty of Medicine at UNIGE and HUG), and Matthieu Boisgontier (a researcher at Leuven University, Belgium, and University of British Columbia, Canada), studied the neuronal activity of 29 people, all of whom wanted to be active in their daily lives without necessarily being so. The participants had to choose between physical activity and inactivity while the researchers probed their brain activity using an electroencephalograph equipped with 64 electrodes.

Less time but more resources

“We made participants play the “manikin task” which involved steering a dummy towards images representing a physical activity, and subsequently moving it away from images portraying sedentary behaviour. They were then asked to perform the reverse action,” explains Boris Cheval. The researchers compared the differences in the time. We found that participants took 32 milliseconds less to move away from the sedentary image, which is considerable for a task like this,” continues Boris Cheval. It was an outcome that went against the theory and the physical activity paradox. So, how can it be explained? The answer lies in the power of reasoning. The participants shunned the sedentary image faster than they approached it for two reasons: first, because this action was consistent with the instructions given by the researchers; and, more importantly, because it was in keeping with their intention to be physically active. Accordingly, they called on the resources needed to break free from their natural inclination, which drives them to minimise their efforts and react quickly to counter this “instinct”.

“On the other hand,” points out Boris Cheval, “we observed that the electrical activity associated with two brain zones in particular, the fronto-medial cortex and the fronto-central cortex, was much higher when the participant had to choose the sedentary option.” These two areas represent the struggle that takes place between reason and the affects, and the capacity to inhibit natural tendencies, respectively.“ This means the brain has to use much more resources to move away from sedentary behaviour, rather than follow its natural penchant for minimising effort.”

Fighting the legacy of evolution

Where does this inclination for sedentary behaviour come from? “Making as little effort as possible was crucial for the human species during evolution”, says the researcher. “This orientation towards saving and conserving resources increased the chances of survival and reproduction.” Today, however, our modern society renders this energy optimisation obsolete. “On the contrary, physical activity should be encouraged instead of putting temptations in the way to do less, such as escalators or elevators. For instance, we could modify the waypublic spaces are designed to reduce the opportunities for individuals to engage spontaneously in behaviour associated with minimising effort.”

>> Contact: 22 379 89 42

Source: press release UNIGE (18/09/18)

New video : "Misleading norms - The Everyday Story of Louise"

The Swiss National Centre of Competence in Research LIVES produced a short 6-minute animated movie about the life course of a woman in Switzerland. It shows the different steps which may lead from a worry-free childhood to vulnerability at old age. The story is inspired by different research results that LIVES members published about gender inequalities.

Making : y-en-a·com sàrl

All LIVES videos are on Viméo

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The working poor makes up 8% of Swiss population. Without social benefits, this would be doubled

In an article for the Social Change in Switzerland series, Eric Crettaz describes the four mechanisms which lead to such a high number of working poor in Switzerland. Both income poverty and material deprivation are analysed with new data to demonstrate which social categories suffer the most. Distribution of benefits by the social welfare system halves the number of working poor.

Working poverty is a reality in Switzerland. Approximately 8% of households where at least one person works earn less than 60% of the average income. Without the range of existing social benefits, the rate of working poor in Switzerland would be 15%.

Eric Crettaz used the data from the 2015 SILC (Survey on Income and Living Conditions) to measure both income poverty and material deprivation. The rate of material deprivation is defined by households forgoing at least three commodities, such as taking holidays, being able to cover an unexpected expense, adequately heating the home, or owning a range of appliances.

The rate of material deprivation indicates an enduring difficult financial situation. In Switzerland, this is the case for 3% of households with members in gainful activity. This includes mainly people under 40, people with few qualifications, immigrants from outside Europe, and single-parent households. Couples with more than three children and independent workers represent a significant part of the population of working poor, but suffer less from material deprivation.

According to Eric Crettaz, this difference is explained by the four mechanisms which lead to working poverty: less work than the average household, low pay, a higher than average number of children per adult, and insufficient or no social benefits, particularly for ineligible households. As a result, single-parent families and migrants are more likely to suffer both income poverty and material deprivation because their vulnerability is due to an accumulation of factors.

>> Crettaz, E. (2018). La pauvreté laborieuse en Suisse : étendue et mécanismes / Working Poor in der Schweiz: Ausmass und Mechanismen. Social Change in Switzerland No 15. Retrieved from

Contact:  Eric Crettaz, +41 22 388 95 32,

The series Social Change in Switzerland documents the evolution of Switzerland’s social structure. It is edited by the Swiss Centre of Expertise in the Social Sciences FORS, the Life Course and Inequalities Research Centre of the University of Lausanne LINES , and the Swiss National Centre of Competence in Research LIVES – Overcoming Vulnerability: Life Course Perspectives (NCCR LIVES). The aim is to monitor change in employment, family, income, mobility, voting, or gender in Switzerland. Based on cutting edge empirical research, the series targets a wider audience than just academic experts.

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"Online psychology to help people cope with loss is gaining ground in the French-speaking world"

A team of psychology researchers at the University of Lausanne are about to repeat a highly successful Swiss-German experiment, involving online support for people suffering from bereavement or divorce. The first French version of this online therapy will be followed by a second one, aimed at reaching a greater number of users throughout the world. The project especially wants to find out if the method works just as well without guidance.

The death of a spouse or a life partner, together with divorce and separation, are among the most stressful life course events, and some people struggle to recover from them. There are many similarities between the two situations, such as experiencing an unbearable tension between objective reality and how things should be in the eyes of the person left behind.

While most people manage to regain a feeling of purpose in their lives after a few months, 10 to 15% of those affected by the two different types of loss experience complex symptoms of grief, which particularly manifest themselves through intense, persistent suffering for more than six months, permanent preoccupation, an undisputed difficulty in accepting the departure, feelings of identity loss, an inability to imagine the future without the other person, among many others.

A recognised disorder

The American Psychiatric Association entered persistent complex bereavement disorder into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in 2013, and in 2018 the World Health Organisation (WHO) plans to include the diagnosis of prolonged grief disorder in the eleventh International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD-11).

In this regard, computer-supported therapy may be an effective method to help people overcome pathological grief, as was demonstrated by a successful study conducted by a team from the University of Bern from 2016 to 2017, in association with the National Centre of Competence in Research LIVES, also linked to a series of online self-healing programmes popularised by Prof. Thomas Berger.

Thanks to the involvement of two members of NCCR LIVES IP212, Prof. Valentino Pomini and Dr. Anik Debrot, a lecturer at the University of Lausanne's Institute of Psychology, the online grief support project, known as LIVIA, has been extended to French-speaking Switzerland and France. A PhD candidate and several Masters' students are also involved in this research.

Results 'exceed expectations'

The Lausanne team emphasises that the results of the experiment conducted in Bern by Prof. Hansjörg Znoj and Dr Jeannette Brodbeck, in collaboration with Professor Berger, 'exceeded expectations'. Conducted on 110 people suffering from complicated grief, the LIVIA study compared the progress of participants who had undergone the treatment with a control group of people on the waiting list.

After ten weeks, the patients' levels of psychological distress, depression, embitterment and loneliness had diminished when compared to those of the control group, which still remained extremely high, and their degree of life satisfaction improved significantly.

Advice and exercises

The treatment starts with a range of information about the grieving process. This is followed by advice and exercises aimed at accepting reality of the loss, processing the pain of grief, adjusting to a world without the person who is no longer there, and relocating the connection with the lost person. In the Bern experiment, participants also received encouraging messages, reminders and questions in order to keep patients highly motivated or help them overcome possible difficulties in completing programme tasks.

The researchers emphasise that there are many advantages to online therapy: the process is anonymous, easy to access, inexpensive and does not depend on the quality or availability of a clinician. Patients can go at their own pace, a feature that will be augmented in the future French version where it will also be possible to decide on the order of the sequences.

Without email guidance

There will be two phases to the Lausanne project: the first pilot phase will offer the LIVIA programme in French along the same lines as the German version, but without the supportive messaging. The argument is that results could be equally as good without email guidance.

The second phase will test the new French version of LIVIA, which has shorter, more standardised modules, and includes videos and a discussion forum for participants. The information and tasks provided will be strongly influenced by the latest advances in positive psychology to ensure they meet the four basic psychological needs, namely orientation and control, attachment, pleasure and self-worth.

300 million French speakers

According to Anik Debrot, "there is a boom in online therapies, but very few have been scientifically tested in French, and no validated study in this language yet exists on the issue of grief."

Yet the potential pool of patients is enormous, with 300 million French speakers throughout the world. If a more standardised online therapy without guidance and offering greater flexibility works as well as the guided process, it could reach a far greater number of people.

Little space for grief

In an age when death is no longer accompanied by as many religious and social rites as in the past, and now that divorce is generally widespread, anybody may be affected by complicated grief without necessarily finding a suitable space in which they can try to overcome it.

The LIVIA project, approved by the Ethics Committee on research involving humans of the Canton of Vaud, could therefore provide a welcome helping hand to those suffering the loss of a loved one in silence, and who haven't yet found a path to recovery. People who are interested in taking part in the pilot study can get in touch with the team.

>> Contact: Anik Debrot,, 021 692 32 88

>> Register online (in French)

iStock © chaz

Sexual behaviour of young people in Switzerland: A lot has changed in 20 years

Overall, youth in Switzerland report a healthy sexuality. This is the main conclusion of a national survey on health and sexual behavior of adolescents and young adults carried out by the Lausanne University Institute of Social and Preventive Medicine (IUMSP / CHUV), the University Hospital of Zurich and the NCCR LIVES. Other findings show that online sex is increasing, and women continue to be overrepresented in the cases of unwanted sexual experiences and sexual abuse.

A team of researchers from the IUMSP/CHUV, Zurich University Hospital and the Swiss National Centre of Competence in Research LIVES at the University of Lausanne conducted a survey on sexual and reproductive health of young adults during the second semester of 2017. 7142 people aged between 24 and 26 years and living in Switzerland participated in the study. The last survey centered on the sexual and reproductive health young adults in Switzerland was carried out in 1995. A fair amount of new developments have appeared in these last twenty years.

Results show that overall 94% of females and 89% of males had ever been in a steady relationship. Around three out of every four participants were currently in one such relationship. The great majority (95%) of respondents had ever had sexual partners, most of them between 2 and 7. About 5% had never had a sexual partner. Most (94%) had also had had sexual partners in the past 12 months, but in this case it was mainly only one. Over 70% of males and females had ever had casual sexual partners, but the percentage decreased to around only one quarter in the last 30 days.

Sexual practices

The majority of respondents (86%) had only had heterosexual contacts, however 15% of females and 13% of males had either homosexual or bisexual experiences. The mean age at first sexual contact was just under 17 years. Almost all respondents (96%) had ever had oral sex, most of them with an opposite-sex partner. The vast majority (95%) had had vaginal sex and half of respondents had it at least weekly. The same percentage of females and males (49%) reported ever having had anal intercourse. Participants reporting having had sex with multiple partners at the same time, using medication to enhance sexual performance, or being blackmailed were a small minority. Those having ever had intercourse with someone met on the Internet accounted for 22% of females and 35% of males.

Around 90% of both males and females reported being only or strongly attracted to people of the opposite sex, and males (4.6%) outnumbered females (1.8%) in reporting same sex attraction. It is worth noting that 0.6% of females and 0.4% of males declared not feeling attracted to anyone. The vast majority of participants (92%) described themselves as heterosexuals, around 6% homosexuals or bisexuals, slightly under 2% did not know and 0.6% indicated the option other.

More than half of males (56%) and 46% of females had ever had intercourse while intoxicated. An important percentage (45%) of youths had ever had HIV testing, with females slightly outnumbering males. Almost all reported a negative result. Close to one youth in 10 reported ever having had a diagnosed sexually transmitted infection. Chlamydia was the most commonly reported among females and males.


The vast majority (93%) of respondents had used some kind of contraception / protection at their first intercourse, mainly male condoms. However, at last intercourse contraception / protection methods were more equally distributed between male condom and contraceptive pill. All other contraception methods represented less than 5%, with the exception of intrauterine device (IUD) and vaginal ring. Almost half of females had ever used emergency contraception and close to two-fifths of males reported their partner having ever used it. Respondents indicating that they (or their partner) used emergency contraception as their main contraception method were very few.

Online sex

Males outnumbered females in online sexual activity. Almost 3 out of 4 reported having already sent a sexy text-only message without photo, a sexy photo and / or a video of themselves. On the other end, almost 80% of participants had already received such messages. There were no gender differences for these two actions. However, 22% reported having already forwarded such messages to other persons without consent. In this case, males were overrepresented.

Males were slightly more likely than females to have received something or obtained an advantage in exchange of sexual intercourse, but it remained a small minority. On the contrary, males clearly outnumbered females in ever giving something or offering an advantage in exchange of sexual intercourse. There was an important difference in lifetime unwanted sexual experiences and in having ever been victim of sexual assault or abuse between females and males, with females largely outnumbering males.

Contacts :

  • Prof Joan-Carles Suris, CHUV, Institut universitaire de médecine sociale et préventive, 021 314 73 75 / 079 556 84 29
  • Prof Brigitte Leeners, Universitätsspital Zürich, Klinik für Reproduktions-Endokrinologie, 044 255 50 09
>> Barrense-Dias, Y., Akre, C., Berchtold, A., Leeners, B., Morselli, D., Suris, J-C. (2018). Sexual health and behavior of young people in Switzerland. Lausanne, Institut universitaire de médecine sociale et préventive.
Social work and the life course in times of acceleration

Social work and the life course in times of acceleration

The 4th International Congress of the Swiss Social Work Society (SSTS) focuses on the transformations of social work in a society characterised by the acceleration of social and technological changes due to the unfettered competition typical of contemporary capitalism. It will take place at the School of Social Work and Health Sciences | EESP Lausanne (Switzerland) on September 12-13, 2018.

Uncertainties affecting social and political institutions, family relationships and employment status increase vulnerabilities in the life course, whereas the rise in inequality increase not only the pace of daily life for people in employment but also the apparent lack of activity of those who are excluded from the labour market. Against this background, the multiplication of transitions, choices and critical life events and situations that appear to be lived in ever tighter time spans clearly have an impact on both institutions and individuals. How does social work evolve in the face of such changes? How do social problems change? How do the techniques (or technologies) implemented to respond to social issues develop and with what impact on social work clients?

The SSTS Congress will approach these questions on the theme of acceleration along three axes. The first axis questions the connections between acceleration and social policies; the second seeks to look at the life courses of populations reached through social work, while the third examines the transformations of social work that lead to a marked increase in the number of actors involved in social interventions.

Acceleration and social policies

Social acceleration has consequences on the political functioning of liberal Western democracies as well as on their modes and modalities for decision making and policy implementation which tend to replace legislation with less rigid procedural directives (Scheuerman, 2004). Such processes also impact on social policies. Papers that pertain to this first axis will focus on questioning and conceptualising the transformations of social policies within the context of contemporary capitalism. They will deal with the following issues: how should these transformations be analysed with regard to social and technological acceleration? To what extent do they result in changes in the social representations and practices of social work? How should we think of the timeframe in which social intervention takes place? Which interventions or social innovations support social and technological acceleration? In what ways does acceleration impact on the modes of management, governance, bureaucracy and the demands placed on social policies in terms of efficacy and efficiency? How, and in what spheres does the financial onus of social policies shift between the public and the private sector as well as between the state, the philanthropic sector and the family?

Conceptualising social work in terms of the life course

The second axis is focused on the life courses of the target populations of social work. These life courses are the result of a complex set of more or less formal norms, procedures and rules and are framed by administrative and institutional processes. Within this context, age is prominent as a naturalised classification criterion (among others, such as gender) (Perriard & Tabin, 2017). Papers that will be included in this second axis will concentrate on the following questions: how do the life courses of social work clients unfold since these are now asked to assume personal responsibility, become active and invent or reinvent themselves in a shorter and shorter timeframe? (Ravon & Laval, 2015). How do social workers intervene using routinized processes, when life courses have become more uncertain and de-standardised and when statuses have become increasingly fragile and are subject to change? How do social workers adjust – or fail to adjust – to critical events, biographical transitions or bifurcations? How does the concept of the life course translate into the practice of social work and its professional development? Does it take into account social relations in terms of age, gender, ethnic origin and social class? Finally, what are the challenges for social work education and research when drawing on the individual and social policy dimensions of the life course approach?

Multiplication of actors and reconfigurations of social interventions

The transformations of contemporary capitalism force populations to leave the regions in which they live; these processes call into question the borders of the nation-state. This process also increases the complexity of social work as social workers have to respond – generally at the local level – to challenging issues arising from the internationalisation of social problems, the consequences of (de-)colonisation and the impact of so- called natural disasters. They find themselves in a paradoxical situation as they are simultaneously meant to promote the quality of life of social work users at the individual level and to respond to demands aimed at rationalisation, efficiency and efficacy dictated by the neo-liberal focus on management and on the bureaucratisation of practices (Dominelli, 2010).

Some countries regulate the conditions of practice of social work more strictly than others and tend to reinforce and legitimate its existence as a profession, while others subscribe to an approach that tends to broadly question the legitimacy of all professions. The latter trend weakens the position of social workers (Vrancken, 2012), reinforces modes of de-professionalization and generates the multiplication of actors in the field of social intervention. In either case, reconfigurations of practices, adjustments to existing intervention methodologies and/or the elaboration of new methods are required.

>> Programme

Organizing Committee:

Isabelle Csupor, Valérie Hugentobler, Pascal-Eric Gaberel, Morgane Kuehni, Mauro Mercolli, Jean-Pierre Tabin (HES-SO // HETS&Sa | EESP | Lausanne)
Laurence Bachmann, Francis Loser (HES-SO // HETS-Genève)
Jean-François Bickel (HES-SO // HETS-Fribourg)
Barbara Waldis (HES-SO // Valais)
Spartaco Greppi (SUPSI)
Jean-Michel Bonvin, Pascal Maeder, Dario Spini (LIVES)

Contact: Khadija Hemma, Project Coordinator (HES-SO // HETS&Sa | EESP | Lausanne)

Call for papers regarding the 9th Alpine Population Conference

Call for papers regarding the 9th Alpine Population Conference

The next Alp-Pop conference will take place on January 27-30, 2019 in La Thuile, Aosta Valley, Italy. It brings together scholars interested in population issues across several disciplines, including demography, economics, epidemiology, political science, sociology and psychology. Submissions of original papers or extended abstracts are invited by September 23, 2018.

The Alp-Pop conference emphasizes empirical rigor and innovation over a given topic or geographical area, and meets the challenges of interdisciplinary and international audiences.

We welcome submissions on all population issues (e.g. population and health, migration, families and the welfare state; population and economic development/institutions, well-being, etc.). Submissions of original papers or extended abstracts are invited by September 23, 2018. Authors will be notified of acceptance by Mid-October 2018.

Please submit your paper here. You will be requested to create a free account. Please follow the instructions at the link above. Inquiries can be addressed via email to:

The confirmed key-note speakers for the 2019 Conference are:

  • Melissa KEARNEY (University of Maryland)
  • Wendy MANNING (Bowling Green State University)
  • Michael SHANAHAN (University of Zurich)

Alp-Pop scholars confer both formally and informally. A traditional conference program (paper and poster presentations) mixes with group activities in a world-class winter resort. The conference location, the Hotel Planibel in La Thuile (Aosta Valley), is next to the ski-slopes, and is in close proximity to the airports of Geneva and Torino/Milano.

Participants are expected to seek their own funding. Special-rate rooms have been reserved at the conference hotel with arrival on January 27 (conference starts in the afternoon) and departure on January 30 (the conference will end in the late morning). Participants will receive information on how to reach La Thuile and regular updates on the conference organization.

Organizing committee: 

  • Massimo Anelli (Dondena Center for Research on Social Dynamics and Public Policy, Bocconi University)
  • Arnstein Aassve (Dondena Center for Research on Social Dynamics and Public Policy, Bocconi University)
  • Nicoletta Balbo (Dondena Center for Research on Social Dynamics and Public Policy, Bocconi University)
  • Laura Bernardi (Swiss National Center for Competence in Research LIVES, University of Lausanne)
  • Francesco Billari (Dondena Center for Research on Social Dynamics and Public Policy, Bocconi University)
Image from a video of the UNIL's Equality Office

Questioning Excellence: Study and training days on women’s and men’s careers in academia

Why are there still so few women in professorial and senior managerial positions in our universities? On this question, the Equality Programme of the NCCR LIVES and the Equality Office of the University of Lausanne invite you to take part in the event “Questioning Excellence” during two half-days of reflection and training on September 11 and 12, 2018, inaugurating a series of lectures during the academic year 2018-2019.

During the first half-day, which will be held in English on September 11 from 9:30 am, researchers specialising in questions of academic careers will present research findings in a European context. We shall welcome:

  • Andreas Schneck (Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, Munich) who will talk about a study led by Katrin Auspurg (Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, Munich) and Prof. Thomas Hinz (University of Konstanz) on gender-specific chances of being appointed to professorships
  • Angela Wroblewski (Institute for Advanced studies, Vienna) will present an analysis of the effects of gender equality policy measures in science, academia and research applied in Austria during the last decades.
  • Mona Mannevuo (University of Turku) will show how the affective investments and attachments of people working in the academic world influence their vision of research and careers.

Another half-day on September 12 from 9:30 am to 12 am – in French –  will be an opportunity to explore the Swiss situation in greater depth, with papers by equality researchers and practitioners who will examine the particularities of the national context and that of the Lemanic Arc. They include people from the Equality Office of UNIL (Stefanie Brander, Carine Carvalho, Pierre Simon-Vermot), the Equal Opportunities Office of the EPFL (Helene Füger) and the research project GARCIA – Gendering the Academy and Research: Combating career Inequalities and Asymmetries (Sabine Kradolfer).

>> Registration until September 3rd, 2018

Registration is open until the 10th of September, but after the 3rd of September, the risk is that you will not be able to get a name badge.

>> Venue: University of Lausanne, Geopolis building, room 2121

This event is organised in partnership with:

>>> Programme

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LIVES Award to expat scholar showing how housing histories relate to later life wellbeing

The LIVES Best Paper Award for Early Scholars worth 2000 € has been granted to Dr. Bram Vanhoutte on July 9, 2018, at the opening of the annual conference of the Society for Longitudinal and Lifecourse Studies (SLLS). His article skilfully puts into evidence three major life course concepts through such empirical measures as duration, timing and order of housing sequences. Results notably highlight a positive association of long-term home ownership with later wellbeing and illustrate how the impact of frequent moving on later life wellbeing depends on the life course context: no association for moving in childhood, a positive link for frequent moving in early adulthood, and a negative association in midlife.

As a young Belgian, working in England and frequently moving house like many others during early adult life, Bram Vanhoutte has a good chance of being a happy person when he gets older. The probability will even increase if he eventually ends up buying his own dwelling. In the meantime, this research fellow at the University of Manchester has a very tangible reason for being content: his article on housing trajectories over the life course was granted the 2018 LIVES Best Paper Award for Early Scholars, which gives him the opportunity to present his work at the SLLS conference in Milano and to pocket 2000 euros.

Bram Vanhoutte’s article, published in the journal Longitudinal and Life Course Studies in 2017, illustrates how wellbeing in later life can be linked to housing configurations in earlier life, including time abroad. Based on data from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA), his research thus shows, for instance, that moving frequently in young adulthood is positively associated with life satisfaction in later years. By contrast, frequent moves in midlife may predict lower happiness in old age. In the author’s view, the first situation reflects the favourable outcome of successful important life course transitions, such as attending tertiary education, forming a partnership and having children. Whereas the second pattern, occurring later on in the life trajectory, may express hardships like divorce, loss of spouse, unemployment and disability.

From concepts to evidences

Drawing on the concepts of accumulation of advantages and disadvantages, critical period and social mobility, Bram Vanhoutte empirically translates these three well-known life course mechanisms through the measurable observation of duration, timing and order in terms of housing conditions. The variables, collected via life history calendars and concerning 7500 British residents, are built around different housing states, namely living in rented, owned, non-private accommodation, or abroad. Combining these four possible states according to the three above-mentioned dimensions of duration, timing and order, ten distinct types of housing trajectories can be identified.

Bram Vanhoutte then relates the level of wellbeing of the respondents, aged 50 or older, to the specific cluster they belong to. Wellbeing here is considered from three different points of view (affective, cognitive and eudemonic – which means linked to the pleasure respondents find in life), each of them being captured by validated rating scales in survey methodology.

Winners and losers

Concerning duration, Bram Vanhoutte’s results show that the more years a person spends in rented housing, the poorer her/his later life affective and eudemonic wellbeing. Being a property owner for a longer time is associated with fewer symptoms of depression (which means a good level of emotional wellbeing) as well as higher eudemonic wellbeing, but not with life satisfaction (or, in other words, cognitive wellbeing). Here home ownership is a clear indicator of economic security and family stability, which accumulate over the life course. In this sense, duration expresses well the important concept of cumulative (dis)advantages.

Timing relates to critical or sensitive periods, suggesting that certain housing patterns could be more at risk or beneficial depending on the life stage. Bram Vanhoutte clearly shows that the right moment for being mobile is early adulthood, whereas it is rather a bad signal later in life. However, and contrary to his hypothesis, he finds no negative association with wellbeing of moving more frequently in childhood, even for the most disadvantaged individuals. The loss of social resources, which could have resulted from these frequent displacements, may have been compensated by the expansion and improvement of public rented housing in the 1960s, allowing the examined cohorts to access better living conditions, as Bram Vanhoutte explains.

Finally, investigating order effectively highlights upward and downward social mobility, with housing appearing “as an alternative indicator of position on the social ladder”, as the author writes. “It is clear from our analysis that renting after growing up in an owned house, which is an unambiguously downward form of social mobility, is associated with the lowest levels of later life wellbeing in comparison to other housing careers,” he adds. Growing up abroad leads to an advantageous housing trajectory, with short spells of boarding school and renting, as well as early homeownership, and is associated with very high later life wellbeing. This should be understood in the context of the end of Empire, with privileged English families employed in the colonies returning to Britain.

Relevant yet contextual

The whole study must be seen in the context of the UK, where most people become home owners over the life course. As such it invites us to think about the relevance of duration, timing and order of housing trajectories in other contexts. In Switzerland, home ownership is not so prevalent as only one in three households is owned privately.

Notwithstanding, or maybe just because of this careful contextual embedding, the jury for the LIVES Best Paper Award for Early Scholars, composed of senior LIVES members, granted the award to Bram Vanhoutte in recognition for the scientific relevance of his article for life course studies, his longitudinal approach and his important contribution to the theme of vulnerability. A very articulate paper indeed!

>> Vanhoutte, B., Wahrendorf, M., Nazroo, J. (2017). Duration, timing and order: How housing histories relate to later life wellbeing. Longitudinal and Lifecourse Studies: International Journal. Volume 8, Issue 3, pp 227-243

Vulnerability in Health Trajectories: Life Course Perspectives. Last issue of the Swiss Journal of Sociology

Vulnerability in Health Trajectories: Life Course Perspectives. Last issue of the Swiss Journal of Sociology

At the crossroad of sociology of health and life course theory, this present Special Issue of the Swiss Journal of Sociology provides contributions to research on health trajectories and the study of development of health vulnerability over the life course. Editors: Stéphane Cullati, Claudine Burton-Jeangros, Thomas Abel.

This volume brings together six papers based on quantitative and qualitative researches conducted in European countries. These contributions offer empirical evidence relevant for life course theory (Cumulative Advantage Model and Critical / Sensitive Periods Model) and shed new lights on the mechanisms contributing to the development of health vulnerability.


>> Source and contacts: SEISMO

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Symposium on the Family supports natural caregivers, the poor relations in social policy

The third Symposium on the Family took place in Geneva on 5 June 2018 at the University of Geneva. Held by the organisation 'Avenir Familles' ('Future for Families') with the support of the Family Observatory and the National Centre of Competence in Research LIVES, the full day of lectures and workshops examined the problems and expectations of family caregivers. Without them the Swiss health service would find it impossible to function. Nevertheless, carers struggle to access institutional support and recognition.

Around one in ten Swiss adults spends time caring for a sick or elderly relative every week. Without this help, the community would be 3.5 billion francs worse off. Furthermore, with an ageing population, the need for carers will only increase. For example, we expect to see cases of Alzheimer's disease double over the next twenty years and health care professionals are already in short supply, meaning that institutions need to recruit abroad.

Faced with this ticking time bomb, the Symposium on the Family brought together some fifty participants on 5 June at Uni Mail, to examine the complex, and sometimes strained, family dynamics surrounding natural caregivers, in addition to considering the need to move their problems up the political agenda.

An increasingly important role

"Relatives providing care and nursing will be required to occupy an increasingly important role looking after the most vulnerable people. These days they are an essential part of our social cohesion," said State Council member Mauro Poggia in his opening speech. Nevertheless, the magistrate also recognised the difficulties of providing solid institutional support to family caregivers at federal and cantonal level.

For example, “the possibility of introducing paid or unpaid leave for extended absence for care work or other forms of support required in looking after a sick relative” as mentioned in a 2014 Swiss government action plan is still under consideration. In the Canton of Geneva, the 2017-2019 Support Programme for Carers also holds out the hope “of assessing the feasibility of a direct monetary benefit.”

In the meantime, the canton set up a telephone helpline Proch'Info (058 317 7000) and an informative website, and committed to examining how it could “expand the offer of respite services” (, website in French only).

Because it is a reality that natural caregivers bear an extremely significant social and familial burden without even expecting any sort of payment, and need to take a break every now and then. This became obvious from the different presentations and discussions that took place on 5 June.

Exhaustion and confinement

Séphanie Pin, currently a unit manager at the Institute for Social and Preventative Medicine of the Lausanne University Hospital, presented the results of the AGEneva Care study conducted in 2015 by IMAD (Institution Genevoise de Maintien à Domicile [Geneva Institution for Home Care]) in association with NCCR LIVES. Involving almost 300 natural caregivers, most of whom were caring for elderly people in their family, the research showed that two-thirds of those surveyed suffer from exhaustion and that half of them have nobody else they can rely on.

Representing 37% of the family caregivers in the study, spouses in particular suffer from a sense of confinement. Adult children, who made up over half of the interviewees and were overwhelmingly female, work 25 hours a week on average, providing a wide and sometimes burdensome range of services. Furthermore, 59% of them also hold down a job.

While all the family caregivers in the Geneva study said they had a good relationship with the person they care for, we can, however, observe a significant drop in life satisfaction as the number of hours spent caring for their relative increases. The problems most often mentioned by the great majority of caregivers were not having anyone to relieve them and not being able to take a break. In contrast, fewer than 15% of the carers interviewed said they experienced financial difficulties.

A complementary three-part investigation by the University of Geneva's Family Observatory also presented at the Symposium gave a more detailed picture.

Practical and interpersonal family help

On the quantitative side, Olga Ganjour and Eric Widmer analysed the VLV survey database, focussing in particular on 700 pensioners in Geneva. They compared family help provided by family caregivers to official assistance provided by institutional or private organisations.

They note that families are especially involved in interpersonal help, such as providing a presence or taking the elderly person out for a walk. But quite a large minority of natural caregivers also carry out other tasks, such as doing shopping, maintaining the house and garden, cooking or managing administrative tasks.

This practical help creates far more tension in the family than purely interpersonal help. Myriam Girardin confirmed this observation in the qualitative part of the investigation. According to the researcher, "spousal care is relatively straightforward, but when children are involved, it becomes more complicated, because they have other work, family and social commitments."

Tension within the family

Her interviews with caregivers from the next generation down from the person being cared for show that tension is often present between the relative providing nursing and other members of their family, such as their spouse, siblings, or even their own children, because of conflicting priorities.

"We don't do much together any more," said one carer talking about her 12-year old daughter. "By the evening I'm so exhausted (...) she feels I don't love her or listen to her enough and I don't have the patience to be with her as a mother should."

This exhaustion leads to a number of family caregivers isolating themselves socially or putting their own health at risk. Eventually, some carers break down and need emergency paid help from official services. This was the view of professional care workers interviewed prior to the Symposium by Marie-Eve Zufferey-Bersier, a scientific collaborator at the Observatory and mainstay of the Avenir Familles association, who presented their perspective.

A status for family caregivers

In the afternoon workshops it was possible to analyse in greater detail the distribution of roles between families and institutions, carers' need for support, their awareness of the existing network and their access to these services, and finally the issue of status for family caregivers, which many of them demand.

According to participants at the Symposium of the Family, this status would give them better access to rights such as training and information, as well as material and human resources for respite time.

In summarising the discussions in her workshop, Claudine Burton-Jeangros, professor in health sociology at the University of Geneva, emphasised that "Autonomy is such a strong societal norm that it often stops family caregivers, and those they care for, recognising their own needs. We are yet to have a public debate on what we can legitimately expect from each person," she added.

The inter-generational relationship challenge

The Family Observatory's research shows that Swiss society cannot expect natural caregivers to do everything. As Professor Eric Widmer observed, "The family is not a given or automatically present and doubtless will be less so in the future. It is a personal construct that develops throughout the life course. If family caregivers are the solution for the future, we need to get a move on and think properly about how to support families going through this process. It's an enormous challenge from the point of view of inter-generational relationships."

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In France, social mobility fades away at the gates of the top universities ("Grandes Écoles")

Whereas the influence of social origins on career paths progressively recedes up until the end of the fourth year of university study, it remains a prevailing factor for graduates of the most selective higher education institutions. Writing in the prestigious European Sociological Review, Julie Falcon and Pierre Bataille use new data analyses to empirically call into question the reputation for meritocracy enjoyed by the French “factories of the elite”.

Following the completion of their doctorates within the National Centre of Competence in Research LIVES at the University of Lausanne, two young researchers examined the social mobility of graduates from the various elite French university programmes. By isolating the types and levels of study undertaken, genders and cohorts, and comparing graduates' initial socio-economic status with that subsequently attained during their working lives, the researchers found that the ability sometimes attributed to the Grandes Écoles to eradicate class differences by “formatting” students in a uniform manner is actually largely over-estimated.

Today, young people from higher social classes are still five times more likely than their working-class counterparts to graduate from a Grande École. However, students from less well-off backgrounds – especially women – who have managed to enter this type of prestigious educational institution struggle to exploit the value of their qualifications on the labour market as well as their better-off peers. This finding contradicts previous assertions from scientists that as individuals rise up the hierarchy of graduate degrees, there is a corresponding linear decline in the influence of their social backgrounds.

The data were sourced from the Enquête Emploi (Employment Survey) conducted by INSEE (French National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies), which had never before been used in research of this type. Now a scientific collaborator at the Swiss Federal Office of Statistics, Julie Falcon worked with this set of data during post-doctoral research she carried out at Stanford University. She says she realised that this data had “enormous potential to allow us to analyse social mobility, because of its sample size, the historical aspect, and the level of detail in the information available, particularly for the Grandes Écoles category.”

For this study, Falcon worked alongside Pierre Bataille, currently a post-doctoral researcher at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, who wrote his thesis on the life courses of graduates from the École Normale Supérieure de Saint-Cloud. He says that “the debate on the Grandes Écoles in France only ever focuses on inequalities at entry and never on inequalities after graduation, as if access to this type of study were a guaranteed pass to those tiny pockets that have total dominance over the social space.”

He adds that conversely, “three-year university degrees get a bad press, because they are regarded as not professionally rigorous enough to guarantee their graduates a rewarding future career. We are showing that in reality, contrary to received wisdom, we have found greater social mobility among graduates of three-year degree courses compared to those who studied at a Grande École.”

Equalising force of university study

The data gathered by INSEE's Employment Survey encompass more than 750,000 people born between 1918 and 1984, and do confirm the strong equalising force of university study: Julie Falcon and Pierre Bataille noted that for every generation, social background on entry to university had the least impact on future working lives after three and four-year degree courses. This is especially true for women, who saw their access to higher education grow spectacularly during the 20th century. But among female graduates of a Grande École, those from working or middle-class backgrounds found the glass ceiling distinctly more difficult to break.

In the current context marked by the increased complexity of the conditions for access to the university and the debates about the “ParcourSup” scheme, the results show that the non-selective nature of most of France’s undergraduate studies has been to this day one of the most important factors of social mobility for a large part of the generations that benefitted from school democratization.

In France, the majority of research studies on social mobility had hitherto been based on data from INSEE's Formation et Qualification Professionnelle (Training and Occupational Skills) study, dating back to 2003. This new research demonstrates that since then, the social origins of male and female students who studied on elitist university courses have maintained their grip on graduate employment prospects, including for the most recent cohorts. This led the two researchers to conclude that “educational merit remains better rewarded on the labour market among the better off.”

>> Falcon, J. & Bataille, P. (2018). Equalization or reproduction? Long-term trends in the intergenerational transmission of advantages in higher education in France. European Sociological Review, Vol. 34, Issue 3

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Equality ends when couples become parents

In an article for the series Social Change in Switzerland, René Levy summarises three studies which enable us to understand why becoming a parent has a very different impact on men's and women's lives. Noting a stark difference between couples' values of equality and their practices, he demonstrates that this difference has structural reasons that could be changed.

In Switzerland, becoming a mother still has an impact on a woman's professional life. René Levy uses three empirical studies, carried out over the last 15 years, to explain this. They shed light on continuing large gender inequality.

First observation: women change their relationship with work when their first child is born. For most couples, parentality leads to part-time family and professional occupations on the mother’s side, whereas a large majority of men have a standard full-time professional life, regardless of their family situation.

Second observation: while most couples claim to have egalitarian values during the first pregnancy, only a minority stay coherent with this ideal when it comes to the distribution of domestic tasks a few months after the birth. Reality shows that becoming parents leads to a sharp return to traditional practices, independent of original intentions.

These two observations shed light on the third observation: When comparing Switzerland to other European countries, and comparing about one hundred Swiss "micro-regions", it becomes clear that the existence of parental leave and access to childcare is crucial. This determines the scope couples have for applying their ideal of an egalitarian balance between work and family.

René Levy concludes that the failure to adopt egalitarian measures has long term effects: not only does this have an impact on a woman's financial situation in retirement, it also influences children's gender identities, maintaining the reproductive cycle of gender inequality.

>> René Levy (2018). Devenir parents ré-active les inégalités de genre : une analyse des parcours de vie des hommes et des femmes en Suisse // Der Übergang in die Elternschaft reaktiviert die Ungleichheiten zwischen den Geschlechtern: eine Analyse der Lebensläufe von Männern und Frauen in der Schweiz. Social Change in Switzerland No 14. Retrieved from

Contact: René Levy, +41 21 903 11 32,

The series Social Change in Switzerland documents the evolution of Switzerland’s social structure. It is edited by the Swiss Centre of Expertise in the Social Sciences FORS, the Life Course and Inequalities Research Centre of the University of Lausanne LINES , and the Swiss National Centre of Competence in Research LIVES – Overcoming Vulnerability: Life Course Perspectives (NCCR LIVES). The aim is to monitor change in employment, family, income, mobility, voting, or gender in Switzerland. Based on cutting edge empirical research, the series targets a wider audience than just academic experts.

At the open days of the University of Lausanne, the NCCR LIVES will play with intersectionality

At the open days of the University of Lausanne, the NCCR LIVES will play with intersectionality

The 2018 edition of the "Mystères de l'UNIL" will take place from May 31 to June 3 on the Campus. The Swiss National Centre of Competence in Research LIVES will welcome visitors in a labyrinth, where they will play cards like Alice in Wonderland in a manga comic style to think about the cumulative aspects of gender, age, origin and social status.

Please read this news in French, as the event will not be in English.

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How does young people's social network influence their professional aspirations?

Under the leadership of Prof. Eric Widmer, a LIVES team has won the competition to conduct the Swiss Confederation's young adult survey (ch-x) in 2020-21. The first tests of the computerised questionnaire will take place from June 2018. The researchers aim to establish a national mapping of the social capital of young adults born at the beginning of the millennium, in relation to their physical health and their plans for the future.

Every two years, a new team of scientists is appointed to lead a survey of all Swiss young men who are called up for army conscription at the age of 19. The questionnaire is also submitted to 3,000 young women and foreign nationals of the same age, across the whole country, which helps to produce a comprehensive picture of this group. Each of these ch-x surveys deals with a different topic and is allocated following an open selection procedure.

The 2020-21 survey is a project proposed by Eric Widmer, Professor of Sociology at the University of Geneva and Co-Director of the Swiss National Centre of Competence in Research LIVES, in collaboration with Eva Nada, Marlène Sapin and Gil Viry, who won the competition. With the help of Eva Nada and Myriam Girardin, who are involved in setting up the project, the links between the social capital of those surveyed and their training and job choices will be scrutinised. The School of Social Work at the University of Applied Sciences and Arts in Geneva (HETS) will conduct the qualitative part of the project.

Where do young people see themselves in ten years? And how does their personal network influence these aspirations? Between June and September 2018, the questionnaire aiming to collect the data needed for the project will be tested on digital tablets by around a hundred conscripts. The entire survey must then be validated by the Scientific Committee and the members of the ch-x Commission.

When the real collection of data takes place on all survey subjects in 2020-21, the researchers will be able to use a unique set of materials to build up a mapping of the social networks of young people in Switzerland by incorporating gender, social origin and geographical location.

Bonding or bridging networks

The research is particularly interested in comparing the effect of "bonding" networks, which are made up of people with strong connections to each other, and "bridging" networks, where the individual is surrounded by people who rarely interact with each other, if at all. A network that combines "bonding" and "bridging" aspects generally corresponds to a higher social capital, by mixing the solidarity of the group that creates the "bonding" type with the diversity of contacts and the autonomy that the "bridging" type offers.

Thus, an initial question is to discover which social factors are associated with this social capital. "The size of the ch-x sample allows us to specifically assess how the original social environment, the family structure, but also the place of residence and geographical mobility, generate very specific interpersonal integrations for young adults, which in turn generate different resources," outlines Eric Widmer.

Participants will be asked about the people - a maximum of fifteen - who have played a significant part in their life over the previous twelve months, whether they are family members, friends, school or professional acquaintances, or those who take part in the clubs, groups or associations of which they are a member. It will be specified that this role may be positive, where they provide support, advice and encouragement, but it may also be negative, when these people discourage them, prevent them from taking action, or annoy them.

Ambivalence and conflict

The network can actually be a source of conflict, explains Eric Widmer: "We are working on the hypothesis that people showing a strong ambivalence towards those closest to them will have less ambitious professional aspirations due to the stress that this generates, which has a direct effect on mental health. But causality can also be the opposite, and weak aspirations could cause conflict."

A set of questions validated by previous research will deal with mental health, so that relationships between networks, mental states and professional aspirations can be analysed statistically. The team points out that the link between social capital, mental health, education and integration has not yet given rise to in-depth studies in Switzerland.

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Young adults in Switzerland: tertiary education makes a difference

What happened fifteen years later to the young people who left compulsory schooling in 2000? A study by Thomas Meyer published in the series Social Change in Switzerland shows that at the age of 30 the vast majority of them is working and earning nearly 6000 Swiss francs per month. This article highlights the protective effect of higher education diplomas. However, inequalities between men and women still persist.

On the basis of data from the TREE longitudinal study (Transitions from Education to Employment), Thomas Meyer shows that transitions between school and labour have become longer since the beginning of the 21st century. These transitions are marked, for many young people in Switzerland, by important discontinuities, reorientations and gap years.

Almost half the examined cohort left the education system with a vocational training (apprenticeship) certificate; 40% obtained a tertiary diploma (university, university of applied sciences or higher vocational education) – twice as much as in the preceding generation; and 10% have remained without any kind of post-compulsory education.

The situation on the labour market at age 30 is generally good: the rate of occupational activity is high, unemployment is low, and the median monthly income reaches close to 6000 Swiss francs. While young people without post-compulsory are more significantly affected by precarious employment conditions compared to those who gained vocational training, both groups differ little in terms of unemployment rate and average salary.

In contrast, the holders of a tertiary degree earn on average 1000 Swiss francs more than those without higher education. Thus, while young people regardless of their level of qualification are very well integrated into the Swiss job market, workforce demand is particularly high – and so the wages – for those who achieved higher education.

Thomas Meyer underlines the extent to which gender, in combination with the family situation, continues to influence employment among people in their thirties. Whereas almost all young fathers work full-time, one in five young mothers leaves the job market and three out of four mothers work part-time. Last but not least, in terms of income wages, differences between men and women amount to 800 Swiss francs per month.

>> Thomas Meyer (2018). Von der Schule ins Erwachsenenleben: Ausbildungs- und Erwerbsverläufe in der Schweiz / De l’école à l’âge adulte: parcours de formation et d’emploi en Suisse. Social Change in Switzerland No 13. Retrieved from

Contact : Thomas Meyer, +41 31 631 38 23,

The series Social Change in Switzerland documents the evolution of Switzerland’s social structure. It is edited by the Swiss Centre of Expertise in the Social Sciences FORS, the Life Course and Inequalities Research Centre of the University of Lausanne LINES , and the Swiss National Centre of Competence in Research LIVES – Overcoming Vulnerability: Life Course Perspectives (NCCR LIVES). The aim is to monitor change in employment, family, income, mobility, voting, or gender in Switzerland. Based on cutting edge empirical research, the series targets a wider audience than just academic experts.

"Refugee Routes":  an evening of discussion about Syria in partnership with the SRC

"Refugee Routes": an evening of discussion about Syria in partnership with the SRC

On April 26, 2018 the NCCR LIVES will stand alongside the Swiss Refugee Council (SRC) for an event offering several presentations about the situation of Syrian refugees and asylum seekers, in order to better understand the context in their country and the procedures that they face in Switzerland. This formula will be repeated later on to address other migration contexts from countries like Eritrea, Afghanistan, etc.

This event will take place in French. Please look at the French version of this news for more information.

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Improving mental health through building and strengthening social group membership

“Groups 4 Health” is an evidenced-based, short-term psychological intervention developed by an Australian team of clinical and social psychologists. Stressing social connectedness as a means to improve mental health and general well-being, a one-day workshop organised on July 12, 2018, by the National Centre of Competence in Research LIVES in partnership with the Institute of Social and Preventive Medicine, Lausanne, will make this intervention available to a Swiss public.

Social interventions come in many forms — they can involve support groups, activity or interest groups, sporting groups, and various community groups. Yet these are only successful in enhancing health to the extent that groups are meaningful to, and valued by, those taking part. This is what Groups 4 Health can do.

During a workshop ahead of the forthcoming International Conference on Social Identity and Health (ICSIH4) an Australian team, including Catherine and Alex Haslam, Tegan Cruwys and Sarah Bentley from the University of Queensland, will offer a one-day training session introducing participants in the theory and practice of the Groups 4 Health programme.

The programme is aimed at improving mental health by providing people with the knowledge, skills and confidence to increase their social connectedness, and in particular, their group-based social identifications. A wealth of evidence from medical, epidemiological, psychological and social literatures suggests that social connectedness is a strong predictor of mental health, physical health, cognitive health and general well-being outcomes.

At the end of this workshop you should have a good grounding in the theory and practice of Groups 4 Health. While addressing the theoretical underpinnings, the workshop will primarily focus on the content of the programme and its delivery. It will also explore ways it can be adapted to different populations and contexts.


Attendees who register for the workshop will receive the Groups 4 Health programme manual and workbook (included in the cost of the workshop) that we ask you read in advance in preparation for the workshop. We also ask that you bring your laptop with you so that you can trial an online tool — Social Identity Mapping — as part of the training.

09:30-10:00  Registration and coffee
10:00-10:30  Introduction to programme theory and background
10:30-12.00  Programme delivery (Schooling and Scoping modules)          
12.00-13:00  Lunch break
13:00-14:30  Programme delivery (Sourcing, Scaffolding and Sustaining modules)
14:30-15:00  Groups 4 Health programme evaluation and adaptations  


Institute of Social and Preventive Medicine (IUMSP), salle Delachaux, Le Biopôle, secteur Vennes-A (SV-A), Corniche 10, 1010 Lausanne


Workshop registration fee is 100 CHF (including meals, welcome coffee, and programme manual and workbook). Members of the NCCR LIVES and the IUMSP may attend free of charge.

Registration is open through this link.
LIVES members and IUMSP employees, please use code G4HW2K18 to register free of charge.

For general inquiries, please contact Dr. Pascal Maeder (, Head of knowledge transfer at the NCCR LIVES.

Further information on Groups 4 Health

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Extending the working lives of seniors: a challenge in terms of equality and occupational health

A European research project began in January 2018 to study the consequences of prolonging the working lives of men and women. Headed up by Nicky Le Feuvre from the University of Lausanne (UNIL) and using methods developed within the National Centre of Competence in Research LIVES, the DAISIE project compares the situation of older people in employment in various countries, including Switzerland, with a focus on three sectors of activity: transport, health and finance. Social and gender inequalities will be at the core of the analyses.

Announced in the summer of 2017, three projects involving Swiss researchers were selected following a call from the NORFACE network (New Opportunities for Research Funding Agency Cooperation in Europe) launched to support research programmes investigating the accumulation of inequalities over the life course. A total of 170 teams responded to the call and 13 projects were selected for funding. Two of the winning projects have links with the National Centre of Competence in Research LIVES - Overcoming Vulnerability: Life Course Perspectives (NCCR LIVES). One of them, Dynamics of Accumulated Inequalities for Seniors in Employment (DAISIE), will receive 1.5 million francs over three years.

The DAISIE project, headed up by Nicky Le Feuvre, Professor in the Sociology of Work at the UNIL and head of the Gender & Occupations (IP206) project at the NCCR LIVES, aims to study the social issues relating to ageing at work. In most European countries, the increase in life expectancy and the difficulties in funding pensions provide incentives, to a greater or lesser degree, for older workers to extend their working lives.

Knowing under what conditions it is possible or desirable to prolong the working life of individuals is therefore a burning issue, since the employment of older people has consequences which can cascade down into other areas of life, including health. Apart from the issues relating to employment, retirement funding and human resources management, this topic shows the importance of inter-generational interactions for senior citizens, whether with their own adult children and their grandchildren or with their own elderly parents.

One of the hypotheses of the DAISIE project is that the impetus to prolong the working life affects almost all the members of the “sandwich generation” aged 50 years and over in Europe today. However, the consequences of this incentive appear to differ among senior citizens, and in particular represent a potential source of vulnerability for those people whose career paths have been the least continuous and the least well paid, including a significant proportion of poorly qualified women also involved in care activities.

Five contrasting national contexts

To verify these hypotheses, Nicky Le Feuvre was assisted by colleagues working in five European countries: Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Sweden and the Czech Republic1. The first three have liberally-inspired social protection systems along with rather conservative gender roles. Here, the care of dependent people, beginning with young children, is mainly based on the market economy and/or on families. Sweden, by contrast, is known for the range of its public services in support of the work-life balance and for the high level of attention paid to gender equality. Finally, under Soviet influence the Czech Republic experienced a specific culture of women's work, which is now giving way to polarisation in the trajectories of mothers, linked to the partial dismantling of public services.

The first part of the DAISIE project will consist of an analysis of the career paths of senior citizens of both sexes in these five very contrasting societal contexts. In Switzerland, for example, the team expects to see a great deal of involvement by older people in the care of their grandchildren, “a structural prerequisite for allowing younger women to remain in employment,” notes Nicky Le Feuvre.

“If the idea is that grandparents must now devote more years to their professional activities, especially because that helps to maintain the financial viability of pension funds, it would then be necessary to examine the consequences of this change, particularly for the work-family relationship, over several successive generations,” comments the researcher.

Tensions caused by seniors continuing to work

Previous research conducted by Nicky Le Feuvre and her colleagues at UNIL have already highlighted the scale of the problem: “What we saw in the context of the PNR 60 (“Equality Between Men and Women”) was that some women worked part-time while their children were young - or until adolescence - and then, either because they divorced, or because they began to calculate the level of their future pensions, found themselves having to increase their level of work towards the end of their careers, particularly to complement the second pillar of their retirement incomes. Such practices run counter to the idea of a planned transition by older people towards a gradual reduction in their working hours in the final stages of their careers.”

She adds: “For individuals who have jobs that are more physical or stressful and demanding, the need to work more while getting older carries significant health risks, which are often concealed for fear of appearing to perform poorly in the eyes of the employer, in order to keep their jobs. Sometimes this is combined with the responsibility of looking after very elderly parents who have become dependent, or with the need to financially support adult children who are experiencing ’life course accidents’ (unemployment, divorce, illness), which also makes it more difficult to take things a little easier towards the end of their career.”

The contribution of the NCCR LIVES

In order to observe the trajectories of older people in the five countries, the project adopted a mixed methods study design, combining sequence analysis and retrospective biographical interviews using a “life calendar”, which are two specialities of the NCCR LIVES.

The quantitative part will use data from the longitudinal survey SHARE (Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe), in collaboration with Dr. Jacques-Antoine Gauthier of the UNIL and Prof. Boris Wernli from FORS.

For the qualitative part, the respondents will come from three professional sectors that are also very different: transport, a rather masculine environment which can be physically demanding and involves shift work or irregular hours; healthcare, a sector with characteristics similar to transport from the point of view of arduous working conditions, but instead mostly occupied by women; and finance, a more mixed and less physical domain of activity, but currently undergoing significant restructuring and technological change.

Examining equality and ageing in unison

“Previous research has shown that companies tend to externalise the effects of ageing at work; they encourage older workers who are tired or sick to reduce their working hours or retire earlier”, comments Nicky Le Feuvre. “However, such HR management practices are hardly compatible with the new incentives keeping older people in employment.”

Nicky Le Feuvre also mentions that “policies on ageing at work, where they exist, are rarely linked to policies on equality. The two can even be thought of as contradictory. On one hand, companies facilitate the transition to part-time work for mothers with young children, while on the other these ‘missing years’ of savings contributions will weigh heavily on the conditions which women will have to face towards the end of their working careers. Not many companies think about work equality and ageing at work in unison.”

Throughout the course of the research, the partners of the DAISIE project will maintain close links with socio-economic stakeholders involved with ageing at work, organising meetings with employers, unions, associations and policy makers in each of the countries studied. One of the objectives is to come up with useful recommendations for the development of age management policies which take into account the essential factors of gender, age and social status in an integrated way. In research, this is what is referred to as an inter-sectional approach to inequalities.


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Activate the most vulnerable? The case of the Disability Insurance reveals many paradoxes

The three most recent reforms of DI in Switzerland have sought to stem rising costs by requiring insured persons to make greater efforts to rejoin the labour market. Emilie Rosenstein has examined this development from both a quantitative and a qualitative perspective, and highlights the ambivalence of the changes made: her thesis identifies several asymmetries between the stated objectives and the results obtained, as well as between the standards promoted and the actual effects they have on people with disabilities.

“Only those who use their freedom remain free and (...) the strength of a people is measured by the well-being of its weakest members.” This excerpt from the preamble of the Swiss Constitution completes Emilie Rosenstein's doctoral thesis on the contradictions of an important part of social policy in Switzerland, which, despite advocating integration of beneficiaries, actually leads to forms of exclusion.

This thesis in sociology, which was defended at the University of Geneva on 12 February 2018 and prepared under the supervision of Prof. Jean-Michel Bonvin, analyses the recent developments in Disability Insurance (DI) on the basis of two theoretical frameworks: from Nobel laureate Amartya Sen’s perspective on capabilities, which examines social regimes from the point of view of individuals' ability to make choices that they have reason to value; and the life course approach developed within the National Centre of Competence in Research LIVES, which perceives vulnerability as a lack of resources affecting several life domains, on various levels and over time.

Emilie Rosenstein's research uses both quantitative and qualitative methods and combines a wealth of data to assess the consequences of the successive DI reforms which took place in 2004, 2008 and 2012. One of the main objectives of these changes was to reduce the number of annuitants, particularly among young people suffering from mental disabilities, a category that has seen a significant increase since the 1990s.

In an attempt to achieve their goal, these reforms have followed three specific guidelines: stricter assessment of the right to benefit, earlier intervention by DI (primarily as a result of disabilities being detected earlier) and additional measures for vocational rehabilitation and labour market inclusion.

Contrasting results

Emilie Rosenstein's observations lead to contrasting results: while the number of people in receipt of the benefit has fallen sharply at national level, the proportion of the youngest beneficiaries - aged from 18 to 34 - has not decreased; around one in every two beneficiaries are in receipt of disability annuities due to mental illness.

Sequence analyses, conducted by the researcher in partnership with Prof. Felix Bühlmann from the University of Lausanne using representative samples of people in receipt of DI in the canton of Vaud, provide an insight into the trajectories of insured persons over time and across the successive system reforms.

There has been a considerable increase in the number of claims being rejected by the DI and a clearly perceptible acceleration in the processing of cases. Conversely, the provision of vocational rehabilitation measures is on the increase, although it remains marginal.

Stricter criteria and requirements

According to Emilie Rosenstein, “the decline in numbers is due to the eligibility criteria being tightened, rather than more people exiting DI, including as a result of rehabilitative measures.”

Her thesis identifies several paradoxes brought about by the successive reforms. She questions the very concept of activation in relation to people affected by health problems, who are often asked to come up with a reintegration project when they are sometimes in a state of great vulnerability.

Not the least of the contradictions here is the fact that in order to reduce expenses, the DI urges insured persons to make their declarations as soon as possible, taking the view that early intervention will prevent annuities having to be paid over the medium and long term. However, this pressure has a dissuasive effect on beneficiaries, either because they are unaware of the range of benefits provided by DI, or because their health is too unstable for them to take decisions at that stage, or because they are still in denial about their disability.

These discrepancies in timing between the DI and its insured persons are an obstacle to professional retraining. “The activation paradigm therefore appears to be profoundly paradoxical, because it increases the risk of non take-up while at the same time trying to reduce it,” the researcher notes with concern.

Risk of inauthenticity

Emilie Rosenstein believes therefore that there is a risk of “inauthenticity” in the reintegration projects, and therefore of failure if the needs and expectations of the beneficiaries are not sufficiently taken into account. “The use of the project as an insertion tool is therefore indicative of a potentially selective approach, or even one that promotes exclusion,” comments the researcher.

She is also critical of the “significant asymmetry between the individual responsibility of insured persons regarding their reintegration projects and the limited professional opportunities available.” From a capabilities perspective, Emilie Rosenstein calls for greater attention to be paid by the labour market and wider society to the “conversion factors” necessary to reduce inequalities between able-bodied people and those with disabilities, and promote real access, not just a formal right, to professional reintegration.

Feelings of ineligibility

A series of interviews with beneficiaries supports the thesis, enabling the researcher to focus on the feelings of ineligibility or shame experienced by DI users. These accounts confirm the hypothesis that a section of the insured persons engage in a kind of auto-selection and risk missing out on the benefits of DI, either because they do not understand their rights or because they refuse to be seen as disabled, or they are afraid of being stigmatised as opportunists taking advantage of the system.

Before the public defence of her thesis, Emilie Rosenstein took several opportunities to present her research to professionals in the field. Her thesis panel was particularly appreciative of her efforts to communicate with the stakeholders involved and advised her to publish her empirical results in ambitious scientific journals.

At a time when the seventh review of DI is already under way, her new title of doctor now confers on her all the legitimacy necessary to speak out for those who are not generally heard and to whom we would do well to listen more, as is shown in her work.

>> Emilie Rosenstein (2018). Activer les publics vulnérables ? Le cas de l'Assurance-invalidité. Under the supervision of Jean-Michel Bonvin. University of Geneva