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Older people's views on their past and their relatives are conditioned by social structure

Two recent doctoral theses carried out within the NCCR LIVES, and which are based on data from the Vivre/Leben/Vivere survey, explore the ageing process from very different angles while reaching similar conclusions. Nora Dasoki at the University of Lausanne focused on autobiographical memory, and Myriam Girardin at the University of Geneva explored family configurations. Both show that in retrospect, the context weighs heavily on the individuals. And in doing so, they somewhat challenge the sacred nature of the family.

What is left when life draws to a close? This question is implied in both of the theses presented within days of each other at the University of Lausanne and the University of Geneva. Both pieces of research drew on data from the Vivre-Leben-Vivere (VLV) survey, which is carried out by the Center for the Interdisciplinary Study of Gerontology and Vulnerability (CIGEV) and funded by the Swiss National Center of Competence in Research LIVES – Overcoming vulnerability: Life course perspectives (NCCR LIVES). On 3 February 2017 in Lausanne, Nora Dasoki defended her doctoral research entitled "Autobiographical memory and ageing: Representations of periods of happiness and vulnerability”; On 13 February in Geneva, Myriam Girardin presented her work on " Family configurations in the last stages of life".

The VLV study brings together a wealth of information on the retired population in Switzerland. Nora Dasoki's and Myriam Girardin's theses focused on the results of the first wave (2011-2012) of questionnaires. However, the two doctoral researchers used different approaches: Nora Dasoki adopted a psycho-social perspective, using as a tool "life calendars" on which respondents marked the various stages of happiness and vulnerability experienced throughout their life course; Myriam Girardin used a sociological perspective with a focus on network analysis in order to describe the different types and modes of family relationships, indicating the quantity and nature of social capital offered by each one.

The common ground shared by these two theses lies in the significance of social norms and of the structural context in the assessments older people make of their past and their close relationships. To some extent, however, both researchers provide a fresh look at certain clichés relating to the fundamental importance of the traditional family. But in particular, they also point out how significantly people's lives continue to be affected by social and gender inequalities.

Mixed feelings toward family

For instance, Nora Dasoki shows that people who did not have children do not experience fewer periods of happiness throughout the course of their lives than those who did become parents. In general, those people who had children report a peak of happiness around that specific time, but the curve then returns to the same level as for those people without children. Interestingly, men are more likely to identify their wedding and the birth of their children as particularly happy moments, suggesting that they could be more influenced than women by what is known as the "cultural life script", i.e. the social norms or prescriptive expectations of what a "normal" life should be like. Nora Dasoki explains this difference by the fact that motherhood involves greater sacrifices than fatherhood: women are therefore less likely to idealise the past.

In her thesis on the effect of family configurations in later life, Myriam Girardin shows that 20% of older people with children do not identify them as being among the most important people in their family network. Significant members of the family unit can also be siblings, relations in the wider family or close friends. This is far from the image of the classic nuclear family central to gerontology where the traditional model is a resource which ensures emotional and physical wellbeing in the 3rd and 4th ages. According to the researcher, the family is actually a highly ambivalent arena involving varying degrees of support and tension.

Without going into the detail of the six family configurations outlined in this work, we will consider for a moment the marked gender asymmetry identified by Myriam Girardin: older people whose daughter is the most significant person in their network benefit from a lower social capital than those whose family configuration places a son in the central role. In this case, the network is denser and characterised by stronger links of interdependency, often associated with a pivotal role taken by the daughter-in-law in providing support. Sons-in-law are almost never identified as significant people in configurations based around the daughter, who is left alone to support her elderly parent(s).

The importance of structure

These two theses perfectly illustrate the predominance of the structural context in people's lives. By exploring family configurations, Myriam Girardin highlights the cases of isolated people who have almost no significant loved one to count on. This situation especially affects those on low incomes and in poor health, mainly women who are widowed, single and/or childless. The researcher emphasises how important resources are in fostering reciprocity and ensuring a later life that is rich in emotional connections.

Meanwhile, Nora Dasoki identifies a difference between memories of happiness and vulnerability. She argues that these two processes use different mechanisms, highlighting the importance of social norms and historical representations. Her thesis confirms that memories of happiness remain longer than recollections of difficult times. It also teaches that memories of vulnerability are very significantly associated with collective experiences such as war. Younger people, who can scarcely remember this period, record it as a time of vulnerability, but state that they experienced other moments which were just as difficult thereafter. Older people, who were entering adulthood in the 1940s, have never again been through such a difficult time in the rest of their lives.

There are many other aspects to be explored in these two wonderful theses, especially their contributions to socioemotional selectivity theory, which states that towards the end of their lives, individuals focus on positive emotions, sorting through their various memories and relationships. But given that space is limited here, we will simply underline how impressed the thesis committees were with these pieces of research and encourage those interested to read them to fully benefit from their insight.

>> Nora Dasoki (2017). Mémoire autobiographique et vieillissement: représentation des périodes de bonheur et de vulnérabilité. Under the supervision of Dario Spini. University of Lausanne.

>> Myriam Girardin (2017). Les configurations familales aux dernières étapes de la vie. Under the supervision of Eric Widmer. University of Geneva.

What does vulnerability mean? Life course research seen through the prism of television series

What does vulnerability mean? Life course research seen through the prism of television series

The concept of vulnerability has become increasingly important in social sciences to explain different phenomena of fragility in the face of new social risks. The National Centre of Competence in Research LIVES has made important contributions to this theoretical reflection through its interdisciplinary approach. This has just resulted in a major publication and several important scientific collaborative projects about life course paradigms. For a better understanding of these developments, a detour via entertainment can be quite revealing. Scriptwriters of the most popular series have intuitively understood what the studies demonstrate: danger is most stressful when it combines both professional and private life. The individual must fight threats at different levels, including threats to his bodily integrity, as well as his relationships, identity and values. Finally, temporality is essential, both to the pace of a good story and in the course of real life.

People have been readily fascinated by series, with their dose of suspense and surprises, for as long as newspapers have existed. In the 20th century, television series replaced printed stories. With the third millennium and the digital revolution, their importance has grown with an increase in the choice and accessibility of shows. One of the most emblematic series of the 2000s was 24, which recounted, in almost real time, the daily life of Jack Bauer, a federal agent in the Counter Terrorist Unit. During the first season the hero was responsible for the protection of a candidate for the presidential election. At the same time his own family was under threat: his wife and daughter had been kidnapped. Excitement guaranteed for viewers who quickly became addicted to the story, thanks to the gripping pace and desperate energy emanating from the main character who, without his emotional bonds, would have been a ‘simple’ superman devoid of human complexity.

In the years since, countless series have used the recipe combining professional with private ingredients as a guarantee of success. This tension across different life domains – relationships, place of living, activities, health – is also the first line of investigation by the National Centre of Competence in Research LIVES – Overcoming vulnerability: Life course perspectives (NCCR LIVES). This scientific programme based at the University of Lausanne and the University of Geneva, with collaboration in Zurich, Berne, Fribourg, Basel, Lucerne, etc. has just published a special issue of the prestigious American journal Research in Human Development. This is an important stage in the theorisation of the concept of vulnerability, considered to be the most likely to federate multiple disciplines of social sciences involved in life course research.

Diffusion of stress

According to Dario Spini, Laura Bernardi and Michel Oris, the editors of the publication, “vulnerability is a lack of resources in one or more life domains that, in specific contexts, exposes individuals or groups to (1) negative consequences related to sources of stress; (2) an inability to cope effectively with stressors; and (3) an inability to recover from stressors or to take advantage of opportunities by a given deadline.” The authors appeal for a “systemic and dynamic” vision of vulnerability in the life course, and propose three orientations for research. Firstly, they consider that the process of diffusion of stress and the mobilization of resources is multidimensional, that it crosses different domains of life, as Jack Bauer’s situation illustrates. The three researchers go on to propose that the process is multilevel in nature, from the micro to the macro. This means that when observing vulnerable people, their social and normative environment must also be taken into consideration. Lastly, they underline that the analysis of vulnerability in the life course must be multidirectional: Vulnerability evolves over time, is subject to variations for which causes are rarely simple to identify, and escapes neither retrospective interpretation nor corrective anticipation.

The best example produced by an American studio to illustrate the three above-mentioned perspectives is Breaking Bad. The series won several awards and garnered acclaim from critics and viewers alike between 2008 and 2013. Five seasons tell the story of a man simple in appearance, a chemistry teacher in a suburban high school. He turns to producing drugs to provide for his family when he learns he has cancer. The intrigue skilfully combines Walter White’s two occupations – one legal, the other illegal – with his family’s financial and health problems – a pregnant wife, a disabled son, his almost paternal relationship with his accomplice, a police officer as brother-in-law, and his chemotherapy treatment which he must undergo and finance. His production of methamphetamine brings about a devastating chain of events which drag him further and further down the road to immorality.

Conflicting norms

If the series was such a success, other than for its cinematographic qualities, it is due to a main character each of us can identify with: a perfect representative of the middle class who is drawn into an unknown world, haunted by his conscience, but relishing the crimes he is led to commit. This example shows to what degree our referential norms can be brought into confrontation: do I have the right to do wrong to take care of my family? Is respect for the law simply a cowardly front, whereas the adrenaline generated by illegality makes a sick man finally feel truly alive? Do society’s expectations – be a good parent, earn an honest living, accept our lot – equip us for the unforeseen if the welfare State is defective?

This is, in part, the theme of the multilevel orientation proposed by the NCCR LIVES. In the special edition dedicated to vulnerability, Eric Widmer and Dario Spini publish a slightly provocative article establishing the notion of “misleading norms”. These are codes of conduct which are taken for granted but over time may lead to unfavourable developments. The two researchers take the example of parent couples with preschool children whereby the mother withdraws from professional life to conform to the predominant expectations of Swiss society. With the increase in the number of divorces, this norm of the stay-at-home mother leads to a high risk of vulnerability for those who look for a job later. To a lesser extent, the norm of the bread-winner father can prevent certain men from developing adequate relationships with their children, a situation that might make them suffer after a separation.

Little tales in the great history

The third approach, the multidirectional aspect, is easily explained using the British series, Downton Abbey. This saga, which covers the period from 1912 to the middle of the 1920s, evokes different historical events (the sinking of the Titanic, the First World War, the Spanish Flu, the Irish War of Independence, etc.) which have an impact on all the characters. The temporal dimension is not merely a background to create a context. Following the same characters over several years, and observing the evolution of successive generations, makes it possible to understand a highly-debated principle central to life course research: the accumulation of advantages and disadvantages, which is not always as mechanical as determinist approaches may lead us to think. Downton Abbey accentuates the relationships between and within social classes – aristocrats and servants, observing their practices and opinions, a reminder of the multilevel approach. And as in any good series, the multidimensional approach adds to the intrigue and gives the characters more depth.

It is noteworthy that in both the articles forming the special issue of Research in Human Development, and the three series referred to, inequality between men and women is patent. In 24, the hero’s wife and daughter are just sidekicks cast as victims. In Breaking Bad the main character’s wife is a stay-at-home mother about to give birth, despondent about her frustrated literary ambitions. And in Downton Abbey, the daughters cannot inherit, and this is the essential starting point for the narrative.

Higher risks for women

The gender theme is indeed central to the articles in the special edition about vulnerability published by the NCCR LIVES. The article focusing on the multidimensional theme, by Laura Bernardi, Grégoire Bollmann, Gina Potarca and Jérôme Rossier, demonstrates that the transition to parenthood affects women’s well-being much more than that of men, in their efforts to reconcile family, work and leisure; whereas personality differences have only limited impact. The article by Eric Widmer and Dario Spini about the multilevel theme effectively shows, as explained above, that women pay a higher price for respecting gender norms and staying at home to bring up their children. Finally, the article about the multidirectional aspect by Michel Oris, Rainer Gabriel, Gilbert Ritschard and Matthias Kliegel examines poverty in old age in Switzerland. The article illustrates that the most vulnerable are, once again, predominantly women: A part of the population which did not accumulate the necessary capital resources, in economic, social, cultural and institutional terms, before their retirement.

Television series may not represent real life, but research about life courses attempts to grasp it, to have a better understanding of the mechanisms. The common point between entertainment and scientific studies is the interest in the darker side of our existence, where human beings feel vulnerable. The difference is that research also attempts to understand what may help overcome the difficulties, whereas series take a perverse pleasure in making their characters suffer. “Happy endings” are becoming less and less fashionable because they generate less anticipation for a possible future season. Research on the other hand, has everything to gain from examining why some fare better than others. Understanding agency – in other words, the capacity for action which is vital to resilience – is the real challenge for future life course research, conclude Kenneth Ferraro and Markus H. Schafer, the American researchers asked to comment on this special edition: A publication which definitively positions LIVES as an academic standard internationally.

>> Dario Spini, Laura Bernardi, Michel Oris (2017). Vulnerability across the Life Course. Research in Human Development. Vol. 14, Issue 1.

>> A webinar will take place on February 24 at 5:00 pm, Geneva time (= 4:00 pm GMT, 11:00 am EST). Click here for more information.

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"Joint welfare and self-interest in families": Call for papers for a workshop at the SSA Congress

The workshop "Joint welfare and self-interest in families: Striking a balance between the individual, the family, and the community" is organised by a team from the Swiss Centre of Expertise in the Social Sciences FORS and the NCCR LIVES at the University of Lausanne in the framework of the Congress of the Swiss Sociological Association, which will take place from 21 to 23 June 2017 in Zurich. Deadline for submission is extended to March 6.

Western Countries have experienced complex changes in partnership and parenthood patterns in the last several decades. The share of partnerships accounted for by heterogamous married unions has declined. The pathways to family formation have become increasingly multifaceted, often characterized by a postponement or decline in childbearing within marriage, a rise in the proportion of children born within cohabitation, an increase in homosexual parenthood, and in step-parenthood as a consequence of the instability of unions. Family trajectories are more heterogeneous both in terms of events and in terms of their sequencing.

Joint welfare and self-interest in families

Increasing diversity in families may impact the alignment of individual self-interest and family wellbeing, which has implications for the practice of social support and solidarity within families and for the perceived and legal obligations among different family members. Solidarity towards former spouses or their children may compete with solidarity towards new partners and their offspring. Vice versa, the extent to which children support aging parents depends on their own as well as their parents’ partnership history, which may feature multiple sets of parents and parents-in-law, also potentially complicating intergenerational solidarity between grandparents and grandchildren.

The tension between self-interest and family wellbeing is also present in the division of work and care in families. Both paid work and care tasks have become an integral part of most individuals’ life course, producing coordination problems within and across families. This in turn may lead to trade-offs between individual wellbeing and wellbeing of family members, which has the potential to reinforce existing inequalities.

Moreover, these developments affect the way families are embedded in society. In the private sphere of the family, individuals learn about important aspects of social cohesion, such as exchange, cooperation, and trust, which constitute the basis for participation in the community, like volunteering, voting, or providing informal support. Changes in families may affect the family’s integrative function for society.

Family diversity and the welfare state

Whereas many social policies were developed to cover well-defined risks such as financial difficulties in childhood or old age, departures from the “standardized” family life course require a re-evaluation of social policy. Certain family constellations, for example divorced individuals and lone parents, are more at risk of poverty and deprivation than others and may not be able to rely on similar levels of support from their social networks.

Also, important differences exist as to which family forms have access to certain social provisions. Laws and policies in Europe have progressively included alternative living arrangements, but important differences remain regarding entitlements of cohabiting unions and the acknowledgement of “family rights” for same-sex partnerships (e.g., access to marriage or registered partnerships, adoption and assisted reproductive technology) or for step-parents in blended families. Such differences bring to the surface how social policies promote opportunities for certain family forms while denying them to others.


We welcome contributions focusing on various aspects of family diversity and change: demographic trends, legal arrangements and social policy, and their consequences. Contributions may address outcomes for individuals or families such as vulnerability, relationship quality, well-being, social networks, social support, civic and political participation, labour market participation or social trust.

We particularly welcome research papers that take a comparative approach (placing Switzerland in the context of Europe, or comparing Swiss cantons), a life course approach, or are based on longitudinal data, whether with a qualitative or quantitative approach or both.

English is the preferred language for abstracts and presentations. Please send your propopsal until February 25 to the organisers.


>> Call for papers in printable version

>> Congress website

Delights of Alp-Pop 2017: Health, Family, and Gender issues, with some snow frosting on the top
Delights of Alp-Pop 2017: Health, Family, and Gender issues, with some snow frosting on the top
Delights of Alp-Pop 2017: Health, Family, and Gender issues, with some snow frosting on the top

Delights of Alp-Pop 2017: Health, Family, and Gender issues, with some snow frosting on the top

Thirty-five scholars participated in the 7th Alpine Population International Conference (Alp-Pop 2017) in La Thuile (Aosta Valley, Italy) jointly organised from January 15 to 18, 2017 by the Dondena Centre for Research on Social Dynamics of Università Bocconi and the Swiss National Centre of Competence in Research LIVES of the universities of Lausanne and Geneva. The meeting was a great success thanks to the scientific quality of the presentations and the generous, sunny, snowy but also freezing weather.

What a better environment to talk about family issues than a conference where you can bring your children! This year at Alp-Pop, 5 toddlers and young children were being taken care of during the sessions, which gathered participants from several countries including Germany, the United States, Sweden, Finland, France, Israel, and of course Italy and Switzerland, home of the host research centres. The organisers were Prof. Arnstein Aassve and Dr. Massimo Anelli, from Bocconi Università, and Prof. Laura Bernardi and Dr. Gina Potarca, from the University of Lausanne.

The design of the Alpine Population International Conference is to get together social science scientists specialising in demography, economics and the life course in an informal setting mixing paper and poster presentations with winter sport activities, alternatively in Northern Italy and the Swiss Alps. After Villars-sur-Ollon (CH) last year, this issue happened at La Thuile in Italy. Snow had just fallen on the eve, and sun added a special touch of magic over the three days of the conference.

Global family change

On Sunday evening, Prof. Hans-Peter Kohler from the University of Pennsylvania gave the first “ski-note” talk on global family change. He presented a project he is conducting with the University of Oxford and the Università Bocconi to provide “a quantum leap” in understanding how and why family systems change with economic and demographic developments. “Family is the neglected dimension in understanding global population dynamics,” he said. The project is notably developing public-use database on global family change, integrating available information from existing surveys and many newly developed and standardised indicators such as the timing of the first sexual intercourse, human capital lost due to early marriage or fertility, time spent as provider or recipient of financial and non financial transfers, etc.

This large study aims at addressing to which extent global family change impedes or facilitates accomplishment of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. First results show evidence of a global convergence in cohabitation practices among populations, as well as convergence in the timing of first marriage and first sexual intercourse. No strong evidence of convergence was observed though in fertility, but there are global patterns of delayed transitions to adulthood.

Life expectancy

Prof. Alberto Palloni from the University of Wisconsin-Madison gave the second “ski-note” on Monday 16 January. He reviewed biological theories that link early growth and development with adult delayed effects on chronic illness and mortality, and formulated a new model to represent these pathways and their effects on adult health and mortality. This model could predict a slowdown in life expectancy, that contrasts with current explanations given to observed trends in this direction: while gains of life expectancy at age 60 during the years 1980 to 2000 have been of the order of 8 years, projected gains until 2050 could be of the order of 5 years.

The remaining sessions addressed the following topics: Human capital, assortative mating and social inequality; The impact of welfare and ethnicity on family outcomes; Education, subjective and relational aspects; Family and fertility; Gender across life course domains.

Young scholars

Several reknowned scholars presented counterintuitive and fascinating results. For instance Marika Jalovaara (University of Turku) showed that in Finland, a country known for its gender equality and work-life balance high standards, single men aged 39 earn less than same age partnered men, but still as much as the most earning women of the same age with the highest family patterns. Having children thus seemed favourable to men’s careers but clearly detrimental to women’s.

Also looking at the Finnish context, Jani Erola (University of Turku) presented a study that focused on the link between timing of parental death and children’s university education. The results indicated that, the younger the children at the time of losing their parent are, the more negative the effect is, particularly among the highly educated.

Mattia Oliviero (University of Trento) shared the findings of a cross-national study looking at the fertility behaviour of European internal migrants, highlighting the impact of cultural and institutional factors, as well as their interaction. He could demonstrate for example that traditional values influence fertility only in countries with low family policy expenditure.

"The exchanges were lively, regular participants and new comers showed lots of interest. Snow and sun also played their parts!," commented Prof. Laura Bernardi at the end of the meeting. Next one should take place in 2018.

>> Overview of Alp-Pop 2017 Programme

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Keeping in touch with former colleagues is a good strategy to get out of unemployment

Drawing on the unique and particularly rich data from the SOCNET survey on job seekers in the Canton of Vaud, Anna von Ow graduated with a PhD on December 13, 2016, at the University of Lausanne. Her doctoral thesis shows that it is more efficient and cost-effective to seek employment through professional networks than through private contacts without occupational similarities. Activating solely family or friendship ties can also lead to a job position, but less often, more slowly and at greater risk of lower wages.

Fear of unemployment is one of the Swiss people’s major concerns, as polls show year after year, despite a particularly high employment rate. Yet few studies have addressed the best ways of finding work, since exhaustive data on job seekers are rare, even in more affected countries. However, the SOCNET survey is filling this gap. Undertaken within the Swiss National Centre of Competence in Research LIVES in collaboration with the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO), this thorough study on unemployed people has resulted in two PhD dissertations: in 2015 Nicolas Turtschi’s work and most recently Anna von Ow’s thesis, defended at the University of Lausanne under Prof. Daniel Oesch’s supervision.

In the framework of the IP204 project, the team had access in early 2012 to all the new beneficiaries of the Regional Employment Offices of the Canton of Vaud. Almost 2000 people agreed to respond to the entire survey until 2013, which consisted in a series of questionnaires aiming, among others, to see who could find a job, through which means, in how much time and at what wages. The great strength of this survey rests on in its heterogeneous sample in terms of profiles within the same institutional context and macro-economic conditions. It is also supplemented with administrative data.

Work ties versus communal ties

Anna von Ow concentrated her analysis on the social capital of the job seekers. She differentiated between “work ties”, meaning network of former co-workers, other occupational acquaintances and relatives sharing job characteristics, and “communal ties”, expressing other types of relationships, including family members or friends who do not share occupational characteristics. The focus was on the availability, the mobilisation and the usefulness of those different social resources to find a job.

The dissertation of Anna von Ow integrated distinctive theories regarding social capital, social networks and the life course. She could confirm the importance of interpersonal relationships for finding work, and showed the predominant influence of work ties compared to communal ties. In the SOCNET sample, more than 40% of job seekers found a job thanks to an information from a network member, which in three of the four cases was actually a work tie. Getting out of unemployment took an average of 25 weeks through a work tie versus 33 weeks via a communal tie. Income difference was even more significant: finding a job through a communal tie was associated with a monthly loss of 289 Swiss francs on average compared to the previously earned salary, whereas those who benefited from a work tie saw an increase of 254 Swiss francs on average.

Cumulative inequalities

Anna von Ow argues that communal ties “act as the job access channel of last resort”, which do not guarantee the best match between the actual skills of the job seeker and the employment found. She also demonstrates the cumulative aspect of inequalities: people who have less cultural resources in terms of education are also the ones who benefit less from useful social resources to find employment, namely work ties, and who show less agency to mobilise these resources. When the first information on the new job came from a communal tie, men and highly educated participants were less disadvantaged than women and low skilled persons, as far as unemployment duration was concerned.

Analysis also showed that young people, at the onset of their occupational path, earned more when they found a job through a non-network channel, like answering to an announcement on the Internet or making a spontaneous application. It was observed that work ties are especially beneficial to middle-aged adults between 45 and 54 years old, at the pinnacle of their career; work ties also served foreigners better, while natives appear to find positions more easily via traditional channels like ads or spontaneous candidatures. However, the situation of European and non-European nationals differs, also according to their levels of education. Anna von Ow went into many details and conducted multiple analyses to get as much as she could out of the sample.

Promote mentoring

She concludes that the most vulnerable job seekers ought to be supported in order to help them build and activate their network, with an accent on work ties, and this especially for people aged 55+ and from low skilled backgrounds. She advocates the creation of mentoring programmes to assist unemployed persons who do not possess strong work ties.

Anna von Ow’s dissertation received the jury’s compliments at its defence on December 13, 2016, at the University of Lausanne. The level of detail exceeded what usually can be expected from such research, several experts stated. They also saw an interest in potential policy applications and underlined the great quality of data, which are now available to the research community thanks to Anna von Ow’s extremely meticulous clean-up work.

>> Anna von Ow (2016). Finding a job through social ties. A survey study on unemployed job seekers. Under the supervision of Daniel Oesch. University of Lausanne.

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Work-Life Balance and Gender Equality: 6th volume of our Springer Series in open access

This book portrays men’s experiences of home alone leave and how it affects their lives and family gender roles in different policy contexts and explores how this unique parental leave design is implemented in these contrasting policy regimes. Edited by Margaret O'Brien from UCL Institute of Education and Karin Wall from ICS - Instituto de Ciências Sociais da Universidade de Lisboa, the publication also contains a chapter by our former PhD student Isabel Valarino on the situation in Switzerland.

Drawing on empirical data from in-depth interviews with fathers across eleven countries, Comparative Perspectives on Work-Life Balance and Gender Equality shows that the experiences and social processes associated with fathers’ home alone leave involve a diversity of trends, revealing both innovations and absence of change, including pluralization as well as the constraining influence of policy, gender, and social context.

As a theoretical and empirical book it raises important issues on modernization of the life course and the family in contemporary societies. The book will be of particular interest to scholars in comparing western societies and welfare states as well as to scholars seeking to understand changing work-life policies and family life in societies with different social and historical pathways.

The Swiss National Centre of Competence in Research LIVES is happy that the publication includes a chapter by Isabel Valarino, entitled "Fathers on Leave Alone in Switzerland: Agents of Social Change?", drawing on research she initiated for her PhD thesis within LIVES and is now continuing.

That is the 6th volume of the NCCR LIVES edited Springer Series on Life Course Research and Social Policies, and it is now available in open access.

>> O'Brien, Margaret & Wall, Karin (Eds.) (2016). Comparative Perspectives on Work-Life Balance and Gender Equality. New York, USA: Springer, Life Course Research and Social Policies. Vol. 6.

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There are historical reasons for the lack of women in leadership positions in large Swiss companies

Long excluded from political life in Switzerland, women have only recently gained positions of power in the economy and are still very much in the minority when it comes to boardrooms and executive positions in large companies. For the seventh issue of the series Social Change in Switzerland, Stéphanie Ginalski looks back over history and describes how the current inequality has been socially constructed.

When compared to other European countries, Switzerland looks like the dunce standing in the corner when it comes to gender equality, even in relation to the elites. Statistics show that boards of directors in the largest Swiss companies have an average of only 13.9% women, less than in Spain or Italy, and almost three times fewer than in Norway! In her article "Women in leadership positions in large Swiss companies: an historical analysis of gender inequalities", published in French and German, Stéphanie Ginalski, a lecturer and researcher at the University of Lausanne, retraces the steps of the difficult and laborious rise of women within the Swiss economic oligarchy.

Until the early 1970s, Swiss women had neither the right to vote nor to stand in federal elections. This considerable delay when compared to other European countries still reverberates today in relation to the place of women in the economy, as the feminist struggle was monopolised by the voting issue, to the exclusion of other inequality issues. Up until that time, the very few women in leadership positions in companies were there for family reasons, and boardrooms were almost exclusively male bastions, based on a concept of co-optation where class and military rank were the important factors.

The "female card"

Having obtained the right to vote and to stand, some women began to break into the economic networks, mainly in the retail/mass distribution sector, where playing the "female card" was supposed to ensure a better fit between the strategy and the expectations of a predominantly female clientele. But it was only from the late 20th century onwards, with the advent of economic globalisation, that the proportion of women leaders really began to grow in the country's large corporations.

Today, it is mainly in public companies on the one hand, and in multinationals on the other that we see a genuine effort to improve the representation of women in the boardroom. The progress is due to the clearly indicated will of management to provide more male/female equality in the first instance, and more diversity in the second. But the debate about quotas, which would allow Switzerland to catch up, is still quite controversial at present and gives rise to significant opposition from economic circles.

>> Stéphanie Ginalski (2016). Les femmes à la tête des grandes entreprises suisses : une analyse historique des inégalités de genre / Frauen an der Spitze schweizerischer Grossunternehmen: Eine historische Analyse der Geschlechterungleichheiten. Social Change in Switzerland No 7. Retrieved from

Contact: Stéphanie Ginalski, tel. 021 692 37 75,

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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Becoming parents means becoming unequal, a long interdisciplinary research project concludes

When a child arrives, many couples manifest incoherence between their values regarding equality and their actual behaviour. This paradox is explained by the "gendered master statuses" concept, which is the common thread of a book by a group of sociologists, psychologists, social psychologists and demographers directed by Jean-Marie Le Goff and René Levy. Based on data gathered from young parents in the Lake Geneva area, this study also features in another new publication, which presents a comparison between several European countries, in which Switzerland appears particularly traditionalist.

Why do couples, who in spite of valuing equality between men and women, take on distinctly different roles after the birth of their first child? Because the transition to parenthood is the moment in the life course when "gendered master statuses" emerge the most. This concept exposes the way public and private spheres are distributed in our society: "Women 'can' engage in a professional activity or activities outside of the family if they do not conflict with the family's requirements. And men 'can' develop their role in the family or other activities outside of their professional life if that does not have a negative impact on their professional activity," explain René Levy and Jean-Marie Le Goff in their preface to the book entitled Devenir parents, devenir inégaux. Transition à la parentalité et inégalités de genre [Become parents and become unequal. Transition to parenthood and gender inequality], which Seismo Publishing has just released.

The study – Becoming a parent

This work of ten chapters, written by authors for the most part today linked with the National Centre of Competence in Research LIVES, presents the results of the Devenir parent [Becoming a parent] study. Data for the study was collected between 2005 and 2009 from couples living mainly in the Vaud and Geneva cantons. Each of the partners was interviewed three times: just prior to the birth of their first child, three to six months after the birth, and finally after the child had turned one. The analysis of quantitative data was enriched in certain cases by a qualitative approach, allowing comprehension of their representations and feelings.

This thorough study finds that "couples who are initially equal become more traditional when they have children. This is not intentional, but determined by their integration in the social structure." Several examples are given: the lack of proper paternity leave, the gender pay gap, the scarcity and cost of childcare services, the absence of policy for the conciliation of work and family life, and the disparity between working and school hours, as well as the kind of welfare state model. The authors also put forward the idea that the egalitarian convictions of young couples do not always match more classical gendered identities, passed on throughout their own childhood by the parental model, and reactivated by the arrival of a child.

This tendency for more traditional roles is not only expressed by the time dedicated to a professional activity – part-time for most mothers and full time for most fathers. It is also shown by the distribution of child-rearing and domestic tasks. Women invariably take on the highest quantity and the least rewarding tasks. The persistence of such practices clashes with the egalitarian values claimed by the young couples. This creates a dissonance, which has consequences on young mothers' satisfaction within their relationship and may create grounds for conflict.

Questions for Jean-Marie Le Goff, demographer, director of education and research at the University of Lausanne and research associate at NCCR LIVES

The data were collected ten years ago. Since then, the legislation around the arrival of children has been developed, and the level of education of women continues to increase. Does that lead to an improved rate of professional activity for women today?

The theory of gendered master statuses explains that the professional integration of women remains subordinate to their family life, for historical and institutional reasons; and the opposite applies to men. With regard to education, it is important to pay attention not only to the level reached, but also to the object of the education. Particularly if it leads to feminine-type jobs, where employers are more likely to offer the possibility of flexible working hours. This was not exactly the object of Devenir parent, but other research shows that young women predominantly choose their occupation with this in mind. Moreover, having a higher level of education does not necessarily protect them. There are still pre-conceived ideas about young mothers. See the article in Le Temps, dated 1 November 2016, which describes women who are dismissed just after their maternity leave.

If you could carry out the study again with a similar sample, what would your hypotheses be today?

A new study would not necessarily indicate changes compared with ten years ago. Perhaps a few more fathers who wish to reduce their working time, but to 80%; whereas the reduction of working time is greater for women. There is, however, something I wonder about a great deal, and which is linked to the increase of births outside of marriage in Switzerland. They now make up for almost a quarter of births. In the study I am currently working on with Valérie-Anne Ryser from FORS, it seems that unmarried couples are a little different to married couples; particularly because they discuss and negotiate more, and are more egalitarian. Two scenarios are conceivable if the number of births outside marriage continues to grow, as is the case in Scandinavian countries. First, such growth would be followed by the expansion of this more egalitarian model. Second, having a child out of wedlock would become commonplace and be adopted by all sorts of couples, including the more traditional. A replication of the Devenir parent survey in several years would make it possible to understand what happens around these births outside marriage.

The father's role continues to be considered secondary in child-rearing tasks. Is this the case in countries with more egalitarian structures?

Apparently Swedish fathers are more involved, given that paternity leave is obligatory. New routines are established when the first child is born, particularly for the organisation and distribution of child-rearing tasks. Paternity leave can contribute to greater equality. But we must not forget what happens prior to the birth of the child, even well before, as mentioned earlier in terms of education and occupation.

In the comparative work about European countries, you show that fathers in Switzerland are not very keen to reduce their working time. What happens in Nordic countries?

Part-time work does not have the same importance in Sweden as it does in Switzerland. In fact, it often concerns older workers, who leave the labour market gradually. The Swedish model differs in that a nursery is not only considered as allowing conciliation between family and work. The nursery also plays a role in the socialisation - and even the education - of the child. As a result, women can continue working full time, like men - and without feeling guilty!

>> Jean-Marie Le Goff et René Levy (dir.) (2016). Devenir parents, devenir inégaux. Transition à la parentalité et inégalités de genre. Genève : Editions Seismo, 352 p. (avec Laura Bernardi, Felix Bühlmann, Laura Cavalli, Guy Elcheroth, Rachel Fasel, Jacques-Antoine Gauthier, Nadia Girardin, Francesco Giudici, Béatrice Koncilja-Sartorius, Vincent Léger, Marlène Sapin, Claudine Sauvain-Dugerdil, Dario SpiniManuel Tettamanti, Isabel Valarino, Eric D. Widmer)

>> Nadia Girardin, Felix Bühlmann, Doris Hanappi, Jean-Marie Le Goff and Isabel Valarino (2016). The transition to parenthood in Switzerland: between institutional constraints and gender ideologies. In Daniela Grunow and Marie Evertsson (ed.) (2016). Couples' Transitions to Parenthood. Analysing Gender and Work in Europe. Cheltenham Glos (UK) : Edward Elgar Publishing

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Gender awareness event at the University of Lausanne: focus on early academic careers

On 24-25 November 2016, a conference entitled “Early academic careers in times of uncertainty: Challenges for gender equality policies and practices” will be held at the University of Lausanne (UNIL). Organised by the European research project GARCIA, the LIVES Equality Programme and the UNIL Equality Office (BEC), with the support of the Gender Studies Platform (PlaGe) and the Social Science Institute (ISS), this event will gather researchers and experts from different countries who are interested in promoting women’s academic careers.

This event is the Swiss national conference of the EU research project GARCIA (Gendering the academy and research: Combating career instability and asymmetries), directed by Prof. Nicky Le Feuvre. Concerned with fighting against gender stereotypes and promoting an egalitarian gender culture in seven different European universities, the GARCIA project will end in January 2017. Interesting outputs from the project include:

Close links with NCCR LIVES

Several workshops for junior and senior researchers have previously been organised in collaboration between the GARCIA project and the LIVES Equality Programme, and this conference will be an additional joint event. The ties between LIVES and GARCIA have been particularly tight, since Prof. Nicky Le Feuvre is the leader of the Swiss GARCIA team and of the LIVES IP206 (Gender & Occupations), Prof. Farinaz Fassa, the former Head of the LIVES Equality Programme, is a member of the Swiss GARCIA team, and Dr. Sabine Kradolfer, the LIVES Equality Officer, is the national coordinator of GARCIA.

During the conference, the main results of the GARCIA project will be presented, along with papers from various Swiss higher education and research institutions (swissuniversities, SNSF, etc.) and other invited speakers. A first half-day session on Thursday 24 November, entitled “After the PhD: Gendered aspects of undertaking an academic career... or not”, will address the socio-historical aspects of academic careers in the Swiss context, in relation to the alternative opportunities available on the Swiss labour market.

Keynote talk and workshops

On the Thursday evening, a keynote talk by Klea Faniko will study the conditions under which “senior” academics are most likely to support junior female PhDs. After this talk, a short video-clip (produced by the UNIL Equality Office (BEC) with the support of LIVES and GARCIA) aimed at raising gender awareness amongst UNIL hiring committee members, will be presented by the BEC.

On Friday 25 November the morning session “Acting for gender equality in early academic careers: Incentives, initiatives, implications” will tackle the effects of gender equality policies in the Swiss context. Three workshops will run in parallel during the Friday afternoon session:

  1. Promoting an “equality culture” in academic institutions: Tools, strategies and measurable outcomes (in French)
  2. “Follow the money, find the power issues: The principles and practices of gender budgeting” (in English)
  3. “Go abroad, become excellent? International mobility as a key issue in early academic careers” (in French)

>> Detailed Programme

>> Resources on gender awareness and early academic careers

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Winner of LIVES award showed how institutional labelling fosters bullying of disabled pupils

Handicapped children and adolescents are more at risk of physical, verbal and mental violence from fellow pupils than young people with other disadvantages, especially when they are identified as having special educational needs. For the publication of this research in Sociology, Stella Chatzitheochari received a prize at the annual conference of the Society for Longitudinal and Life Course Studies. The NCCR LIVES selection committee praised the scientific relevance and the originality of her study.

Stella Chatzitheochari

The LIVES Best Paper Award for Young Scholars recompenses interdisciplinary works on vulnerability in the life course. Remitted for the first time this year during the annual conference of the Society for Longitudinal and Life Course Studies(SLLS) in Bamberg, Germany, on October 6, 2016, the prize of 2000 euros went to Dr. Stella Chatzitheochari, assistant professor at the University of Warwick (UK), for her article Doubly Disadvantaged? Bullying Experiences Among Disabled Children and Young People in England”, published online in 2015 and in print in 2016 in the journal Sociology with Samantha Parsons of the University College London and Lucinda Platt of the London School of Economics and Political Science as co-authors.

 Double penalty

Dr. Chatzitheochari’s paper addresses the cumulating disadvantages met by pupils with physical or mental impairment who are victims of bullying. Already vulnerable because of their health condition and greater socio-economic difficulties associated with the handicap, disabled children and young people suffer a double penalty by experiencing hardship in their relationships within school. Being a victim has been proven to have potential harmful consequences for later life achievements, including emotional balance and socio-economic attainment.

The originality of this research is to bring a sociological, quantitative and longitudinal perspective to a topic that has been until now examined more from a psychological, qualitative or cross-sectional point of view. Drawing on data from the Millenium Cohort Study and the Longitudinal Study on Young People in England, Dr. Chatzitheochari looked at the reported victimisation of disabled kids and teenagers at age 7 and 15, controlling for other possible explanatory variables such as socio-economic status, educational performance, size and weight, gender, ethnicity, family configuration, etc.

Reproducing social inequalities

Using three measures of disability, i.e. Long-standing limiting illness (LSLI), Special Educational Needs (SEN), and SEN with an official statement by the school system, Dr. Chatzitheochari builds on a social model of disability and observes that higher victimisation rates of disabled children are partly explained by the other vulnerability factors. However, she also demonstrates that all other things being equal, the institutional labelling – the so-called SEN (especially when reinforced by a statement) – significantly increases the risk of being bullied. These findings “draw attention to the school context as a potential site of reproduction of social inequalities,” the authors conclude.

Selection process

Stella Chatzitheochari, holder of a PhD in sociology received in 2012 from the University of Surrey, is the first winner ever of the LIVES Best Paper Award for Young Scholars, which is due to be issued once every coming years. The selection committee, composed of the LIVES Board of directors and four other LIVES research leaders, representing several disciplines like sociology, social psychology, demography, statistics, economics, and social policy, received 53 articles coming from 20 countries all over the five continents. Six papers were presented by young researchers working in Switzerland, some of them being involved in the Swiss National Centre of Competence in Research LIVES.

The selection committee members ranked the articles according the following criteria: centrality of vulnerability and life course in the research, originality, interdisciplinarity, scientific relevance, and suitability of methods. Dr. Chatzitheochari easily won the contest and in addition to receiving a gift of 2000 euros, she has been complimentarily invited to present her study during the SLLS conference. Congratulations!

>> Chatzitheochari, S., Parsons, S., and Platt, L. (2016) Doubly Disadvantaged? Bullying Experiences Among Disabled Children and Young People in England, Sociology, 50(4): 695-713.

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A PhD thesis on the plight of older job seekers is now being published in book form

Isabel Baumann’s dissertation has just been released as the 5th issue of the Springer series Life Course Research and Social Policies, which is edited by the Swiss National Centre of Competence in Research LIVES. Based on original Swiss data about dismissed workers’ trajectories after plant closure, this publication shows that individuals aged over 55 face strong hurdles in returning to employment. All chapters are available in open access.

For the first time since the launch of the Springer series on Life Course Research and Social Policies in 2013, a single-authored publication has been issued, and it comes from a young researcher! Isabel Baumann focused on the former employees of five companies that underwent plant closure in Switzerland over the recent years. Within the framework of the NCCR LIVES’ IP204 and under the supervision of Prof. Daniel Oesch at the University of Lausanne, her research notably addressed the capacity of these workers to find a new job after layoff. Her results were presented in 2015, when she defended her manuscript and received her PhD. The main finding is that senior job seekers have much more difficulty overcoming unemployment than young and low-skilled people.

Since Switzerland’s low unemployment rate is exceptional compared to other countries, what can this publication bring to the international debate on occupational integration? “It shows that even in a country with low average unemployment, there are substantial differences between different types of workers. Accordingly, it is import to know who suffers most, before designing and implementing measures. In Switzerland, these policies should target mainly older workers, but elsewhere it could be other groups,” Isabel Baumann says.

Nowadays in Switzerland, there is a lot of discussion going on about hiring more senior workers to compensate the expected reduction of immigrants following the vote of February 2014. However, Isabel Baumann points to the lack of knowledge about the reason for older workers’ difficulties to find employment after job loss. She maintains that as long as we do not fully understand this phenomenon it is difficult to predict whether this development will improve older job seekers’ prospects. In addition, she is concerned with the demographic trend of a growing number of baby boomers, being now in their fifties, possibly threatened by exclusion: “The employment rate of this population is comparably high, but the worry is what happens when they lose their job.”

The Springer book follows the same structure as her doctoral thesis, with a slightly punchier introduction. Thanks to the support of the NCCR LIVES, the electronic version may be entirely downloaded for free, but hard copies may also be ordered at a very reasonable price. The NCCR LIVES hopes that this publication will encourage other junior researchers to apply to get their PhD dissertation published in the Springer series.

>> Baumann, I. (2016). The plight of older workers. Labor market experience after plant closure in the Swiss manufacturing sector. New York, USA: Springer, Life Course Research and Social Policies. Vol. 5.

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The centenarian boom: a challenge for society – and for their senior citizen children

People aged over 90 constitute the age group with the fastest growth rate. Prof. Daniela Jopp has been conducting studies on this population for several years and in various countries. She has started a new project in Switzerland which focuses on the relationship between these very old people and their children, who are themselves elderly. On 22 September 2016 she will give a public lecture to mark the opening of courses in the Faculty of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Lausanne.

“All centenarians soon?”, is the question posed by the title of the next public lecture by Daniela Jopp, Associate Professor at the University of Lausanne and at the National Centre of Competence in Research LIVES. During another speech, in the context of the REIACTIS conference in February, she had previously stated that one child in every two born in the 2000s could well live to be one hundred. The 4th age affects us not only because we may well reach it, but also because it is possible that our parents will live well beyond what they had imagined.

Advances in medicine are not the only reasons. A better standard of living and more health-conscious attitudes are enabling an increasing number of individuals to prolong their life expectancy. In ten years, the number of centenarians in the United States has increased by 30%. And the probability that the very elderly will be able to keep their cognitive capacities intact is also increasing. In a study carried out on a German sample by Daniela Jopp and other colleagues, more than half of centenarians were recently in this favourable position, compared to 41% a decade earlier.

The benefits of an active life

"We found that people born around 1912 who have the highest cognitive capacities are those who have been most active in their lives," the researcher explains. "For example, women in this cohort of centenarians who had access to a personal bank account have better cognitive function. For the people in the preceding cohort, who were born at the very beginning of the century, the predictor of better mental health was a higher level of education and good health. Apparently, for the more recent centenarian cohorts, keeping active during life has had a greater protective effect."

Speaking of mental health, another fact is also surprising: the vast majority of centenarians show no signs of depression, and only 10% say they want to die. Somewhat less surprisingly, those living in institutions show less satisfaction with life than those who have kept a private dwelling. Having plans and being involved with other people also helps the very old to retain this will to go on living: "A lady in New York told us that she wanted to know the result of next season’s Super Bowl. Two other people were holding on out of concern for their sick sons,” relates Daniela Jopp.

Social and emotional relationships

The findings of the international research network set up by Prof. Jopp appeared this summer in a special issue of the Journal of Aging & Social Policy. Based on three surveys carried out in Portugal, Germany and the United States, these papers are particularly concerned with the social and emotional relationships of these very old individuals, a line of research which Daniela Jopp is now continuing to pursue in Switzerland thanks to the support of the Leenaards Foundation and the National Centre of Competence in Research LIVES.

Given the acknowledged importance of emotional ties for well-being, and the fact that very old people have often seen most of their contemporaries disappear, Daniela Jopp’s research intends to explore the aspect of relationships between these individuals and their offspring, in or almost in the 3rd age. Her team has begun to hold interviews and is looking for still more contacts with elderly parent-children dyads in order to compare two groups: a first group composed of parents aged over 95 and their children aged over 65, and a second group consisting of parents aged from 70 to 85 and their children aged from 40 to 60.

The researcher expects to see an element of ambivalence in the relationships, particularly among the oldest dyads: "Children generally describe having a very elderly parent who is still alive as a positive thing, but they complain of no longer having enough time for themselves. Over time, old psychological wounds can eventually resurface and burden the relationship."

New needs

The aim, through better identification of the needs of the elderly and their senior citizen children, is to provide input about support not only for (almost) centenarians, but also for "young" retirees who care for their parents, because often their own health eventually suffers under this burden: "Governments should have carers on their radar," insists Daniela Jopp.

And since a significant part of the population is destined for the same fate, she is surprised that more attention is not given to the problems of the elderly and the very elderly. In her view measures should be implemented which provide a real role for the elderly in society, offering them measures for physical rehabilitation where necessary, paying attention to their mobility, ensuring that their glasses and hearing devices are adjusted regularly as required, and taking seriously and easing their sufferings. These are all signs of consideration of a better quality of life that are not yet part of the established patterns, as if this growing proportion of humanity were only a negligible number.

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Research on ageing reveals current and future ills of society

Gerontology is much more than just the science of those interested in the elderly. By combining the perspectives of the various disciplines involved, it can provide an overview of the contemporary world and an outline of the challenges that affect the young people of today and the not-so-young of tomorrow. The National Centre of Competence in Research LIVES is taking part in this process. The work of its researchers has produced several excellent doctoral theses, as well as a recent contribution to a major publication.

Recognition for the National Centre of Competence in Research LIVES: its director, Dario Spini, and three colleagues – Daniela Jopp, Stéphanie Pin, Silvia Stringhini – put their names to a chapter in the 4th edition of the Handbook of Theories of Aging, which includes more than 700 pages, published in the United States by Vern L. Bengtson and Richard A. Settersten, Jr., bringing together "the most highly respected luminaries in the field.”

Biologists, psychologists, sociologists and experts in social policy and practice are all called upon to set out the current state of knowledge about ageing, identify the theories that are no longer relevant and determine which theories should now replace them in the light of the latest findings. According to the editors, describing new models must serve to predict the challenges that lie ahead and guide future actions intended to improve the human condition.

Processes and dynamics

This 4th edition - some 30 years after the first in 1988 and less than 10 years since the previous edition in 2009 - takes a particular interest in the processes that are at work in ageing. It reflects the evolution of sociology and psychology, which are paying more and more attention to the dynamics studied from the life course perspectives, such as well-being or emotional relationships and the social network. The editors note that the underlying idea is to focus on the quality of life, on “aging well, not just aging long".

The chapter commissioned for the NCCR LIVES team therefore builds upon the rise of longitudinal studies, which are continuing to develop in Switzerland and in several other countries. The authors present four major lessons learned from recent and ongoing surveys in relation to older people. Firstly, the difficulty of placing such research within a single, fixed timeframe: which life phases to include for an overall understanding of the effects of age, how far back to go in the past, then how often to repeat the measures and how to delineate the different time periods in the pathways in an empirical sense?

Heterogeneity of life courses

Another problem: taking into account the heterogeneity of life courses and the multidirectional aspect of certain variables. For example, the well-known "paradox of well-being" - a theory considered as very robust up until recently, indicating that life satisfaction tends to increase with age - is only really true in rich countries and for people in good health. Models of ageing cannot therefore overlook differences in cohort, gender, and social and economic status.

One must also consider the multidimensional aspect of life courses, the fact that each existence is lived out in several domains, and is subject to factors which are both objective and subjective. Faced with difficulties, individuals may implement "selection, optimisation and compensation" mechanisms in the arrangement of their various types of resources (economic, social, physical, etc.) which make the identification of vulnerabilities and the understanding of resilience more complex for researchers.

Biological age and social age

Ultimately the ageing process occurs at several different levels. Biological age and social age do not always coincide; environmental, institutional and normative contexts also evolve and must be taken into account in the different generations studied.

It is difficult, therefore, to combine all of the many dynamics related to ageing in one definitive theory, Dario Spini and his colleagues conclude. Addressing both the welcome increase in longitudinal surveys and the difficulties for scholars in achieving interdisciplinary careers, they welcome the increased funding for life course studies, but remain cautious about the final contribution of these research activities to a comprehensive and universal understanding of the mechanisms of ageing.

A burst of doctoral theses

Cautious, or too modest? The doctoral theses completed in the framework of the National Centre of Competence in Research LIVES, some of which were presented very recently, certainly show definite progress in the analysis of certain aspects concerning the advance of old age. Laure Kaeser, Rainer Gabriel, Marie Baeriswyl, Julia Henke, and Barbara Masotti, who were awarded doctorates in 2015 and 2016 by the University of Geneva, all carried out their research at the Interfaculty Centre of Gerontology and Vulnerability Studies (CIGEV) under the (joint) leadership of Prof. Michel Oris and based on data collected by the Vivre-Leben-Vivere (VLV) survey, funded by LIVES. Other work is continuing and in the months and years ahead will provide new results.

These young researchers demonstrate that the change in the perception of older people, from supported elderly to active seniors, does not take into account the reality of the most vulnerable, those who have not really benefited from the democratisation of education, institutional and health progress, and the general rise in living standards. Their detailed analyses of the VLV sample, consisting of 3,600 people over the age of 65, and following two other major surveys carried out in 1979 and 1994, provide a very nuanced picture of ageing in Switzerland.

Perception of economic difficulties

Julia Henke, for example, who presented her thesis on 17 June, compares subjective and objective indicators of precariousness to show the limitations of using the sole criterion of the poverty line when assessing economic vulnerability. Income from the Old-Age and Survivor's Insurance (OASI) does not guarantee that those who have no savings, are isolated or are in poor health will be free of financial difficulties. According to the researcher, “it takes both, economic and psychological paradigms to understand quality of life”. She emphasises that “the creation of social indicators requires a number of normative decisions”, which contribute to shaping our vision of the world, especially in a data-driven society.

Social participation and well-being

The thesis of Marie Baeriswyl, presented on 16 June, also offers reflections along these lines. In her observation of the evolution of social participation in retirement, she notes that "the emergence of retirees who are multi-participatory, involved, consumers, and also integrated into different communities, whether private or public, is not happening without an increasingly large gap between these retirees and those who do not have the same opportunities and resources." Interestingly, a comparison with the surveys from 1979 and 1994 shows that before 2011, the question of life satisfaction was not addressed to the elderly, which again raises the question of what is being measured and what it reveals about current paradigms.

Marie Baeriswyl’s research confirms the link between social participation and well-being in retirement. It undermines certain theories such as the disintegration of social capital in contemporary societies and the loss of family solidarity, "fears that have long marked the consideration of issues affecting old age," notes the researcher. Conversely, she notes a polarisation between those well endowed with social, economic and cultural capital, who retain good emotional ties and have lives rich in activities, and those who are left behind, whose level of education is often low and who experience deteriorating health.

Gender inequalities also persist after retirement age, with men generally more involved in the public domain and women more focussed on the private sphere. An imbalance that will be interesting to revisit in a few years' time, to see if the growing participation of women in the labour market will change behaviours at the point of retirement.

Structures versus individuals

This exciting thesis concludes with a call not to forget the importance of providing institutionalised structures for social participation and not to give in to the "ideology of de-institutionalisation", which would leave older people solely responsible for their own active involvement and which would disavow the injustices that are at the root of the differences in social participation between more fortunate and less fortunate older people.

It is therefore in agreement with the conclusions of the chapter by Spini et al. in the Handbook of Theories of Aging, which states that “it is well established that life expectancy and well-being are related to socioeconomic environments, yet many theories of aging focus on personal characteristics and individually based explanations rather than considering them in the context of or in relation to environmental factors.” At a time when the demographic weight of older people is posing a challenge not only to the welfare state but also to the equilibrium between the generations in democratic debates, addressing current and future conditions of ageing is a topic of paramount importance that will continue to grow in relevance.

>> Vern L. Bengtson & Richard A. Settersten, Jr. (2016). Handbook of Theories of Aging. New York: Springer, 752 p.

>> Dario Spini, Daniela S. Jopp, Stéphanie Pin, and Silvia Stringhini (2016). The Multiplicity of Aging: Lessons for Theory and Conceptual Development From Longitudinal Studies. In Vern L. Bengtson & Richard A. Settersten, Jr. (2016). Handbook of Theories of Aging (p. 669-690). New York: Springer.

>> Julia Henke (2016). Revisiting Economic Vulnerability among Swiss Pensioners: Low Income, Difficulty in Making Ends Meet and Financial Worry. Under the supervision of Michel Oris. University of Geneva.

>> Marie Baeriswyl (2016). Participations et rôles sociaux à l’âge de la retraite. Une analyse des évolutions et enjeux autour de la participation sociale et des rapports sociaux de sexe. Under the supervision of Jean-François Bickel and Michel Oris. University of Geneva.

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The NCCR LIVES commits 700,000 CHF in three new projects on health and ageing

The call for project proposals on life course and vulnerability launched last January generated 42 applications and resulted in the selection of three innovative and promising research designs. The issues of health and ageing are at the core of these projects. Swiss Household Panel data will be used in two of them. One team from the German part of Switzerland is new to LIVES, while familiar LIVES members lead the other two projects.

This year the Swiss National Centre of Competence in Research LIVES invited researchers working in Swiss Universities or research institutes to apply for funding 3-year projects ranging from 200,000 to 300,000 Swiss francs. Interdisciplinary projects, as well as those using longitudinal data, were especially welcome.

Forty-two projects were proposed and three received approval. The selection process was led by the Advisory Board of LIVES, an independent group of international researchers who ranked the project proposals on criteria of quality, innovation and feasibility.

The three selected projects will start next September and represent a total of 700,000 CHF. They will focus on promising research questions on the issues of ageing and health in a longitudinal perspective, and hire junior researchers to assist the project leaders. Each project is related to one of the LIVES cross-cutting issues, examining dynamics of stress and resources across life domains, over time and across analysis levels (social interactions and normative climate).

Resilience after the onset of a chronic health condition

Dr. Claudio Peter, a senior scientist at the Swiss Paraplegic Research (SPF) in Nottwil and the Department of Health Sciences and Health Policy of the University of Lucerne, will lead a project on resilience and vulnerability after the onset of a chronic health condition. Together with Dr. Gisela Michel, associate professor in the same department and deputy director of the Swiss Childhood Cancer Registry, and Dr. Nicole Bachmann, a scientific collaborator at the University of Applied Sciences and Arts - North-Western Switzerland, they will hire a PhD student and a part-time post-doc researcher.

Using Swiss Household Panel (SHP) data, they plan to observe well-being and mental health over five years after the onset of a chronic disease (stroke, multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injury, rheumatoid arthritis, etc.) and compare these measures with pre-event levels. The aim is to determine what factors, such as physical, social and psychological resources, influence these processes. “Understanding the adjustment process to a physical chronic health condition is a key requirement for the development of purposeful interventions aiming to foster the person’s resilience,” the team posits.

Impact of life course events on health at older age

Also on the basis of SHP data and including SHARE (Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe) data, a second project aims at investigating the influence of life course events on health trajectories at older age. The team is composed of Dr. Stéphane Cullati, Prof. Claudine Burton-Jeangros, Dr. Delphine Courvoisier, Prof. Matthias Kliegel, Dr. Rainer Gabriel, from the University of Geneva and NCCR LIVES IP208 and IP213, as well as Prof. David Blane, from the International Centre for Life Course Studies in Society and Health at the University College London, and Dr. Idris Guessous, from the Unit of Population Epidemiology of the Geneva University Hospitals. A post-doctoral researcher will complete this interdisciplinary team of epidemiologists and gerontologists, including a medical researcher and a statistician.

Their research questions examine how childhood socioeconomic conditions and non-normative events like parental separation and job loss are associated with downward health trajectories at older age. They also want to focus on the long-term impact of family and occupational trajectories during active life on health trajectory after retirement. The hypothesis of cumulative advantages and disadvantages and the protecting effect of social mobility will be tested.

Very old persons and their old children

The third project addresses the relationships between very old persons and their aging children. Comparing two groups of parent-child dyads - one composed of parents aged over 95 and children aged over 65, the other one with parents aged 70-85 and children aged 40-60 -, the researchers posit that “older dyads face unique challenges due to the prolonged relationship and caregiving demands, and the elevated vulnerability related to both dyad members’ age and reduced resources, which place them at greater risk for poor outcomes”. Quantitative and qualitative data will be collected. The Leenaards Foundation has already funded the pilot study.

Prof. Daniela Jopp, a psychologist and member of NCCR LIVES IP212 at the University of Lausanne, leads this project in collaboration with Prof. Kathrin Boerner from the University of Massachusetts Boston and Prof. Heining Cham from Fordham University. Dr. Claudia Meystre, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Lausanne, will assist them, and three students will conduct the interviews. This mixed-methods survey will notably explore contextual factors and cultural values like “familism”, i.e. strong normative feelings of allegiance with family. The expected outcome is to identify needs of new health care policies for a fast growing population.

Image iStock © mathisworks

“Understanding key challenges for European societies in the 21st century”: The health issue

The 3rd International Conference of the European Social Survey (ESS), on 13-15th July 2016 at the University of Lausanne, is locally co-organised by FORS Swiss Centre of Expertise in the Social Sciences and sponsored by the NCCR LIVES. It notably features a presentation by Claudine Burton-Jeangros, Adrien Remund and Stéphane Cullati from the University of Geneva about health inequalities in Switzerland.

The 3rd International ESS Conference showcases research that uses data from the European Social Survey (ESS) to address issues such as migration, work and family life, wellbeing, health, welfare, political engagement and social norms and values. Practical and policy implications of the research will be drawn out wherever possible. The conference is being organised by the European Social Survey European Research Infrastructure Consortium (ESS ERIC) and the Swiss Centre of Expertise in the Social Sciences (FORS), with the support of the Swiss National Centre of Competence in Research LIVES – Overcoming Vulnerability: Life Course Perspectives.

The European Social Survey (ESS) is an academically driven cross-national survey that has been conducted across Europe since 2001. Every two years, face-to-face interviews are conducted with newly selected, cross-sectional samples. The survey measures the attitudes, beliefs and behaviour patterns of diverse populations in more than thirty nations.

During the 3rd International ESS Conference, Prof. Claudine Burton-Jeangros, Dr. Adrien Remund, and Dr. Stéphane Cullati, researchers at the University of Geneva and NCCR LIVES, presented “Do social inequalities in health and wellbeing decrease, increase or remain stable in Switzerland? A cross-sectional trend analysis (2002-2014)”

Increase of health inequalities

In a context of difficult socioeconomic conditions over the last years in Europe, social inequalities in health and wellbeing have increased in many high-income countries. The three researchers ask whether in Switzerland, where health inequalities tend to remain limited, health and wellbeing inequalities are changing or not. Their objective was to examine change in social inequalities in health and well-being between the years 2002 and 2014, using waves 1 (2002) to 7 (2014) of the Swiss sample of the European Social Survey.

They observed that over the 2002-2014 period, educational inequalities on self-reported health and being hampered in daily activities slightly increased: respondents with high educational levels tended to report better health status over time compared to respondents with low educational levels, and the former tended to report being hampered less frequently over time. Moreover, the association between household income and happiness (higher income, higher happiness) slightly increased over time.

Some correlations between health and wellbeing with a range of social factors remained stable over time: perception of neighbourhood insecurity (feeling unsafe when walking alone after dark) was lastingly and strongly associated with low self-rated health and with being hampered in daily activities; poor satisfaction with household income was associated with poor satisfaction with life, poor happiness, and (to the exception of wave 2006) with poor self-rated health; household income was associated with being hampered in daily activities (to the exception of wave 2008).

Other inequalities declined during the 2002-2014 period: women tended to report higher self-rated health compared to men until 2006, then the difference between them slightly diminished wave by wave until 2014.

They conclude that in Switzerland, health and well-being inequalities changed during the 2002-2014 period. Figures of temporal change included both increasing and decreasing social inequalities, with the first pattern (increasing inequalities) being more frequent. Long-standing, stable, social inequalities were also observed.

>> Sources: and (p.51)

7th Alpine Population Conference (Alp-Pop 2017) in La Thuile, Aosta Valley, Italy

7th Alpine Population Conference (Alp-Pop 2017) in La Thuile, Aosta Valley, Italy

Alp-Pop brings together scholars interested in population issues across several disciplines. For its 7th edition, which will take place from January 15 to 18, 2017, the organisers from the Dondena Centre for Research on Social Dynamics of University Bocconi (I) and the NCCR LIVES are launching a call for papers on issues like health, migration, families, the welfare state, economic development, institutions, well-being.

The confirmed Ski-note speakers for the 2017 Alp-Pop Conference are Prof. Hans-Peter Kohler (University of Pennsylvania) and Prof. Alberto Palloni (University of Wisconsin).

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.


The organisers -  the Dondena Centre for Research on Social Dynamics of University Bocconi (Italy) and the NCCR LIVES - welcome submissions on all population issues (e.g. health, migration, families, the welfare state, economic development, institutions, well-being, etc.). They particularly encourage submissions that take a life course perspective and/or address social inequalities.


Submissions of original papers or extended abstracts are invited by September 10, 2016, and submitters will be notified of acceptance within a couple of weeks.

Submissions and inquiries should be addressed via email to:

Organising committee

  • Prof. Arnstein Aassve, Bocconi University
  • Dr. Massimo Anelli, Bocconi University
  • Prof. Laura Bernardi, University of Lausanne
  • Dr. Gina Potarca, University of Lausanne
Image iStock © Sergei Moskalyuk

Apprenticeships vs. high school: both lead to employment, but salaries are higher with the matura

Does Switzerland allow too many young people to take a high school diploma, at the risk of confronting them with skill mismatches on the job market? Or, on the contrary, are they encouraged to focus too much on vocational training, which limits young adults to specific occupations, making them vulnerable to technological progress? The new issue of the series Social Change in Switzerland answers these two questions by analysing the perspectives for employment and salary that each type of education provide along the career path.

Based on data of the Swiss Labour Force Survey and the Swiss Household Panel, Maïlys Korber and Daniel Oesch, researchers at the University of Lausanne, show that having a Matura with no further university studies does not condemn people to live on the fringes of the job market. The rate of employment for secondary school graduates is very high in Switzerland, and their rate of unemployment is modest. Likewise, contrary to a preconceived idea, workers with vocational training are not at a loss when faced with the structural changes caused by the evolution of professions. Their employment rate remains high even after the age of 50.

Following an apprenticeship is, however, less advantageous with regard to salary evolution. From 30 years of age, workers who have got a high school diploma without higher education receive higher annual salaries than those who have got a certificate of vocational education. A Matura is also a contributing factor to better salary progression throughout the life course. This advantage for those with the Matura is particularly pronounced amongst women.

Results regarding employment for vocational training are thus excellent, but they are therefore less positive when it comes to salary evolution. Employees who only have a Matura are better paid in Switzerland, once they have gained some years of working experience. Consequently, in the Swiss job market there is no indication that there are too many high school graduates. If the aim is to make apprenticeships more attractive, it is necessary to increase salaries, rather than increasingly limit access to the Matura.

>> Korber, Maïlys & Oesch, Daniel (2016). Quelle perspectives d’emploi et de salaires après un apprentissage ? / Beschäftigungs- und Lohnperspektiven nach einer Matura. [What are the perspectives for employment and salary after an apprenticeship?] Social Change in Switzerland No 6, retrieved from

Contact: Daniel Oesch +41 (0)78 641 50 56 /

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.


Photo iStock © DonFord1

Vulnerability in Health Trajectories: Call for papers for the Swiss Journal of Sociology

Call for papers for the Special issue 2018, vol. 44(2) of the Swiss Journal of Sociology: "Vulnerability in Health Trajectories: Life Course Perspectives". Submission deadline: September 20, 2016. Gest editors: Stéphane Cullati (University of Geneva), Claudine Burton-Jeangros (University of Geneva), Thomas Abel (University of Bern).

In contemporary societies, the unequal distribution of health results from the influence of a range of social factors. The research on health inequalities has been recently re-visited and partly renewed by life course perspectives on health. Over the life course, social determinants affect individual health trajectories and shape the often sharply distinct health patterns among socially disadvantaged and advantaged groups. Both macro contexts (historical period, economic recessions) and micro contexts (family and working spheres, social networks) define how health trajectories unfold over the life course and how health inequalities develop among and across sub-populations. Such health inequalities continue to grow in many affluent countries, calling for more research at the crossroad of sociology of health and life course epidemiology.

Life course perspectives aim at a comprehensive understanding of the development of inequalities in health trajectories. Health is dynamic and changing over the life course, following different patterns (stability in good or poor conditions, decline, improvement, or recurrent fluctuations). As individuals age, general health slowly declines and is progressively impaired with increasing loss of functional and cognition abilities. In societies characterized by individualization and diversity of lifestyles, the development of trajectories unfolds at the interplay of agency and structure. Sociological conceptualizations of agency and structure contribute to our understanding of the processes by which inequalities in health trajectories occur over time and how social factors (i.e., socioeconomic position, working conditions, marital and family lives, lifestyles, gender, migration, discrimination) impact on health trajectories.

Educational, social security and health care systems influence life course trajectories, the resources individuals use at different stages of their life and their chances of staying in good health as long as possible. Socially disadvantaged groups are structurally positioned in unfavourable conditions in society. Therefore, they are likely to accumulate health risks (e.g. poor working and housing conditions, family circumstances) and to lack the material and
non-material resources needed to cope with the adversities of life and to develop healthy lifestyle habits. Such structural disadvantaged positions put them at higher risk of experiencing health decline earlier in their life course or at a faster rate of decline compared to the wealthier. They are also at higher risk of experiencing non-normative transitions for health reasons (job loss, divorce).

This special issue collects papers examining the processes by which social advantages and disadvantages affect the health of individuals over their life course. Which factors lead to health vulnerability and to chronic illness, handicap and disability, which contribute to an accelerated health decline (either mental, physical or social health)? Alternatively, which determinants have a favourable impact on health and allow individuals to remain in good health as they age? How are these processes influenced by embeddedness of people in the social structure? What are the social determinants (social system, socioeconomic position, family and working lives) and the individual determinants (biological inheritance, emotion, cognition, health behaviours) that moderate these processes? How can family and working spheres either support or impede health trajectories?

This special issue invites empirical papers based on either quantitative or qualitative data, or both. Theoretical papers and systematic reviews are also very welcomed. Papers should address health trajectories with a life course perspective. Analyses pertaining to different stages of the life course (foetal life, children, adolescents, adults, elderly) are welcome.

Guest editors:

Please submit your proposal for a contribution to Stéphane Cullati ( by 20 September 2016.
Your submission for the special issue should include the following:

  • name, email address, and affiliations of all the authors
  • title of the paper,
  • abstract of around 500 words, structured (topic, aim, methods, results, discussion, conclusion).

The guest editors will decide on the acceptance or rejection of the abstract until 20 October 2016.
Selected authors will be invited to submit their manuscript (max. 8,000 words, 50,000 characters including tables, figures and references) by 15 March 2017. The manuscripts will go through the usual peer-review process of the Swiss Journal of Sociology. Accepted languages are English, German or French. More information about the Swiss Journal of Sociology and the submission process are available in
Publication is planned for July 2018.
For any queries, please contact Stéphane Cullati at

How families evolve in Switzerland: the NCCR LIVES’ analysis for Swiss Statistics

How families evolve in Switzerland: the NCCR LIVES’ analysis for Swiss Statistics

Prof. Laura Bernardi and members of her team (Emanuela Struffolino, Andrés Guarin, Gina Potârca) as well as Marion Burkimsher are the authors of the three articles that compose the 1st issue of Demos, a new newsletter of demographic information from the Swiss Statistical Office. Single parenthood, fertility patterns and mixed marriages are the topics.

Lone mothers with children: continuity and change over time

One-parent households represent a growing phenomenon in many European countries. More importantly, the spread of separation and divorce rates across different social groups is fostering greater heterogeneity in the population of lone parents. While census data show that between 1970 and 2010 the share of lone parent households in Switzerland, i.e. indi­viduals living alone with one or more children below age 25, was stable at around 4%, the experience of lone parenthood has substantially changed. Before the 1980s in Switzerland, as in other European countries, one parent households were rela­tively stable living arrangements: once begun, lone parenthood was there to stay. In contrast, since the 1990s, we observe more frequent and faster transitions out of lone parenthood, especially because of the higher rates of secondunion forma­tion and family recomposition. This de­velopment is partially related to the changes in the population composition of lone parents as well as in the normative frame regulating union formation and dissolution. Such dynam­ics pose new challenges for defining, measuring, and imagin­ing efficient policies that support individuals through the tran­sitions in and out of lone parenthood.

Comparing fertility patterns of migrants and Swiss natives

The fertility behaviour of first and second generation migrants is a crucial determinant of population dynamics, particularly so in Switzerland, a country with a high proportion of migrants and a very diverse composition by ethnic group. We describe the differentials in the number of children and the timing of births between Swiss natives and different migrant groups and we interpret them as indicators of integration. We use informa­tion gathered in the Families and Generations Survey of 2013 complemented with data from the Swiss census of 2000.

Mixed marriages and their dissolution

Mixed marriages are defined as marriages between two indi­viduals of different origins. The predominance of such mar­riages indicates the social and cultural distance between the native population, on the one hand, and different immigrant groups, on the other. In this report, we examine how common and how stable mixed marriages are in Switzerland by asking the following questions: Which immigrant groups have more chances of marrying Swiss natives ? And which ones are more likely to divorce their Swiss spouse ? Have younger generations better or worse chances of forming and ending a marriage with a native ?

>> See the full newsletter

Photo iStock © vadimguzhva

Children have a life outside of school and family time. How should it be organised?

The very first Symposium on the Family took place in Geneva on 31 May 2016, at the request of the new association, Avenir Familles (Family Futures) and its Observatoire des familles (Observatory on the Family) based at the University of Geneva with the support of the National Centre of Competence in Research LIVES. This day of conferences, workshops and debates brought to light the growing and sometimes contradictory requirements for flexibilisation on the one hand and securement on the other in matters relating to childcare outside of school and family settings.

The first Geneva Symposium on the Family on 31 May at Uni Mail brought together some 90 participants from associations and from state-run, economic and academic bodies in order to consider the topic of arranging and taking responsibility for care outside school and outside the family for children from 4 to 18 years of age. The event, which is intended to be held again on a regular basis, was initiated and organised by Avenir Famille, an association created less than a year ago, which already has around forty partners. It includes a research element located in the Department of Sociology at the University of Geneva under the direction of Professor Eric Widmer, co-director of the National Centre of Competence in Research LIVES.

The morning was devoted to three plenary conference sessions featuring six speakers. Gianluigi Giacomel and Antonio Martin Diaz, currently researchers at the University of Lausanne, presented the results of the study Prise en charge extrascolaire et extrafamiliale des enfants genevois (Arranging and taking responsibility for care outside school and outside the family for children from Geneva), carried out in 2013-2014 on behalf of the City of Geneva and drawn from 1,700 households. We learn, for example, that 60% of pupils in Geneva use school canteens and 40% take part in after-school activities in the late afternoon. Almost one in every two children is regularly looked after by a member of the extended family, particularly on Wednesday afternoons. During the holidays, 7% of children do not go away at all, and we can see that organised daily activities have largely superseded holiday camps.

Prof. Widmer then produced an analysis of these results taking into account the socio-demographic profile of the parents. He found that low income is associated with a lower participation in extracurricular or after-school activities and use of the extended family, which raises the question of the supervision of these children, who are "increasingly left to themselves in places where the economic, cultural and social resources are weakest (...) when in fact they should be supported more in order to compensate for the social disadvantages". According to the researcher, migrant families in particular suffer from this "accumulation of deficiencies", resulting in a certain "social diffidence". He concluded by saying that we should not necessarily increase provisioning, but perhaps think about presenting or structuring it differently, appealing to the "collective intelligence" of the participants at the Symposium.

Flexibility versus security

On more than one occasion the two conferences which followed, as well as the workshops in the afternoon, gave food for thought about two current trends in society, flexibility and security, the requirements of which can sometimes be difficult to reconcile.

The sociologist Marie-Agnès Barrère-Maurisson, a researcher at CNRS and a specialist in the relationship between family and work, has identified three stages during the past fifty years in France: the familialism of the 60s and 70s, with a very gender-based division of the paternal and maternal roles, followed in the 80s by a feminist phase, where mothers found a place in the world of work, and finally, starting during the 1990s-2000s, an era of "parentalism" where the child is at the centre, regardless of the nature of the marital relationship between the parents. "What constitutes family today is the child and no longer the couple; it is the only constant in a wide range of parental relationships" the researcher has noted, calling for "a rethink of the way work is organised in order to move from a culture of presence to a culture of performance, that is, make working time as flexible as possible, including for men", whose growing involvement with children has been recognised.

This promotion of flexibility has certainly got a reaction from the public. "I am shocked because, in my own case, I have 60% attendance for 100% performance", noted one participant. Several people then stressed the need to distinguish between flexibility that you can choose and flexibility that is imposed.

This theme was illustrated perfectly at the next conference, hosted by René Clarisse and Nadine Le Floc'h, psychologists and lecturers at the University of Tours. As specialists in chronopsychology they were able to demonstrate the importance of respecting the child’s daily, weekly and annual rhythms, providing more information about the peaks and troughs in attention depending on the time and the seasons. They also provided some interesting data on the needs of children in terms of "parenting time" or, put another way, in terms of a "safe haven", warning about unpredictable working schedules and weekend working for parents, two sources of stress for children with consequences for their attention levels and therefore their capacity for learning.

The stakeholders’ point of view

The five afternoon workshops were an opportunity to review the situation and to discuss the support structures from the perspective of the various stakeholders: public or private schools, extra-curricular associations, companies, family associations or public institutions. The tension between the need for flexibility and the need for security was very evident there.

On the one hand stakeholders are looking for more flexibility in order to open nurseries, create new after-school or extracurricular activities, extend child-care timetables, enable tailored work schedules for parents, etc. But these demands also run counter to another strong trend in society, the trend towards greater security: ever stricter legal and regulatory requirements, anxiety of parents faced with incidents and the academic and sporting performance of children, lack of tolerance for the noisy group activities of young people, stigmatisation of certain less advantaged backgrounds. "We live in a society where it is no longer conceivable that a child could step onto a football pitch alone", was a comment heard during the afternoon.

The workshop dedicated to public institutions also allowed attention to be focused on some serious cases requiring the intervention of the specialist services. There was a lot of discussion about the alienation of young people and the need to improve prevention, viewed as a social investment, but also to strengthen dialogue with parents, proximity and networking, and to try new ways of communicating.

A white paper from the Symposium on the Family will pick up and develop all of these themes. One small but important step for the family in Geneva may be transformed into a giant leap forward for society!