The definition and perception of age in our society has fundamentally changed.The term ‘retirement age’ only came to designate a specific phase of life during the 20th century and in tandem with the development of old age provision.

As a consequence of better living conditions and advances in medicine, life expectancy has been improving since the mid-19th century. In 1860, only 8.5 percent of Switzerland's population was aged over 60 years. In 1941 – prior to the introduction of old age and survivors’ insurance (AHV) – this share of the population had already reached 13 percent. This represented an increase of around 50 percent. Since 1941, the number of elderly over 60 has continued to climb, amounting to 20 percent of the population at the onset of the 21st century. Demographic aging cannot therefore be considered a new phenomenon. Nonetheless, it was a crucial topic in the debates surrounding the development of old age provision in the 20th century.

Statistics on the aging population reflect a range of different aspects. There are fundamental differences in how age is experienced depending on social position and occupational career, health, nationality and sex. The perception of age has likewise been subject to ongoing change over the course of time.

Provision in Old Age

In addition to higher life expectancy, altered family structures and the rapid development of industrialised societies further complicated the living conditions of the elderly. Old age was a major cause of poverty and social neediness at the beginning of the 20th century. Most elderly without incomes or assets had to rely on their relatives as well as on social assistance. Only a minority had access to benefits of the first pension funds. The concept of ‘retirement age’ as a phase of life secured by a regular pension income was only just taking root.

Two opposing views of the elderly were held during the impassioned debates on the introduction of the AHV between 1918 and 1947: on the one hand, there was a negative depiction of old age as a synonym for decay, physical fragility and material need; on the other, it was seen positively in terms of solidarity between the generations and between those who worked and those who no longer worked. How can people age with dignity after a long life of work? Or, in other words and to quote the title of the 1941 popular initiative for Swiss old age insurance: how can a ‘secure old age’ be guaranteed? This pressing question was answered for the first time in January 1948, with the disbursement of the first AHV pensions. The establishment of the AHV represented the official recognition of retirement age as the third chapter of life (after youth and working life); it laid the groundwork for the emergence of pensioners as a new social class.

The Age of Retirement

In 1920, 83 percent of men aged between 65 and 69, and 60 percent of men over 70, continued to work. These proportions fell by 17 and five percent respectively by the end of the century. Three factors facilitated the transition from work to retirement: the increase to the AHV pension level (from ten percent of an average wage in 1947 to around 35 percent since 1978), the introduction of supplementary benefits (EL) in 1966, as well as the on-going development of occupational provision. These developments were particularly beneficiary to men, who had been engaged in paid work all their active lives. Women have a higher life expectancy than men and represent the majority of people aged over 80; typically though, their careers are not as linear due to the periods many women spend switching between employment and house or family work. For half a century, the AHV disregarded these important contributions and women were usually included in the AHV through spouse pensions (rescinded in the tenth AHV revision enacted in 2003).

Along with the increasing withdrawal of the elderly from the labour market came a protracted retirement period due to higher life expectancy. At the beginning of the 20th century, less than half of the Swiss population reached the age of 65; those who did could expect to live for another decade. A century later, nine tenths of the population live to reach retirement age. Once 65, the retired have an average life expectancy of a further 18 years. More than two million people received a monthly AHV pension in 2012. Even though over a third of them live abroad, pension recipients make up a significant portion of the overall population (around 20 percent). 

Alongside the expansion of benefits disbursed by old age provision, medical and social support structures for the elderly have also seen substantial development. Although the health burden continues to vary greatly among occupations and professions, progress in this area has led to an overall improvement in the health of the elderly and a higher standard of living. The combination of higher life expectancy, improved financial situation and both medical and social progress pushed back the age of retirement to such an extent that a degree of ‘rejuvenation’ can be observed in old age. Leisure programmes, products and services for the elderly as well as discounts at cinemas, cultural centres and sports facilities are testament to the highly active lifestyle many elderly people enjoy, as well as their integration into consumer society.

Age, Politics and Relations Between the Generations

The definition of retirement age as a chapter of life in its own right has led to the establishment of organisations committed to practical support for the elderly, the consideration of their specific needs and political lobbying. For instance, Pro Senectute – a charity founded in 1920 – increasingly focused on the mental and physical quality of life of pensioners from the 1980s onwards. Sections of the AVIVO (Association of the elderly, disabled, widows and orphans) have been dedicated to expanding the AHV and improving its benefits since 1949. Inspired by similar movements in the USA and Germany, the Grey Panthers have also been promoting the interests of pensioners in German-speaking Switzerland since the end of the 1980s. The Swiss Seniors’ Council has been coordinating the activities of these various groups at a national level since 2001.

The issue of old age provision occupies a central position in public debates about social policy at the beginning of the 21st century. Occasionally, catastrophic scenarios of the future of pension systems are invoked; there is the notion of a gulf between the generation of the purportedly privileged pensioners and the younger age categories who have to bear the burden of pension payments. This pessimistic view, however, fails to take into account the major differences in income and assets among pensioners. If attention is only drawn to the potential for conflict associated with the redistribution of wealth, it is easy to miss the fact that pensioners provide a substantial contribution to social cohesion. In Switzerland, for example, grandparents – particularly grandmothers – provide half the childcare outside the family household for pre-school children. The elderly engaged in associations make an important contribution in voluntary work too, promoting social solidarity that benefits all ages.

> Old age provision in numbers

Literatur / Bibliographie / Bibliografia / References: Heller Geneviève (ed.) (1994), Le poids des ans. Une histoire de la vieillesse en Suisse romande, Lausanne; Lambelet Alexandre (2013) Des âgés en AG. Sociologie des organisations de défense des retraités, Lausanne.