Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Everyday belonging and temporal displacement amongst the ageing

By Vanessa May & Stewart Muir

The question of what happens to people’s sense of belonging to place as they age is a central concern among both academics and policymakers, not least because of the rapidly ageing population and the mounting evidence that shows that, as people grow older, become less mobile and thus less able or willing to engage in an active way with their neighbourhood, they are at risk of becoming socially excluded. Our research has approached these issues from the angle of belonging by exploring how people aged 50 and over, and living in or around a Northern city in England, experience belonging in their everyday lives. By ‘sense of belonging’, we are referring to a sense of connection with and attachment to the surrounding world; a connection that is often built on a sense of similarity and identification with people, places and culture. What we would like to add to the discussions around ‘ageing in place’ is a better understanding of the impact that time and ageing can have on belonging and of what we have called temporal displacement.

Although previous research on belonging has largely focused on geographical movement, for example international migration, or the effects of urban regeneration, our research has highlighted temporal movement as an important layer of belonging and not belonging. That is, ageing as an individual experience, and the passage of time as a collective one, meant that some people in our study experienced a sense of dislocation even whilst staying in one place. This temporal dislocation frequently appeared as a kind of ‘belonging from afar’, of feeling a sense of belonging to a place lost in time and/or of belonging to a different time.  

One example of feeling a sense of belonging to a place lost in time emerged in the account of a study participant we have called ‘Harry’, a man in his late 60s who had been forced to take early retirement due to health reasons. Although no longer working, Harry’s identity was centrally tied to the notion of being a ‘good’ worker: honest, hard-working, diligent, and financially independent. One way in which he emphasised his own identity was by distancing himself from what he saw as an increasingly pervasive culture in his (relatively deprived) neighbourhood of ‘lazy’ people who happily relied on the state to provide for them; of the neighbourhood changing from a ‘great area’ to one that had gone ‘downhill’. Harry strongly implied that this was a consequence of generational difference, with the lazy ‘others’ mostly described as younger people. Furthermore, this distancing and tale of decline came despite Harry also providing us with numerous examples of extremely friendly and helpful relations with his neighbours. As a result, Harry’s account of his daily life in his neighbourhood and his overall estimation of his area did not seem to match. One way of explaining this apparent contradiction came from looking at the point at which Harry felt his neighbourhood tipped into a spiral of decline, namely when he had to give up paid work. He seemed to be experiencing something that could be called ‘belonging from afar’, which in his case is expressed as belonging to a place (and self) lost in time.

While many of our respondents spoke of a general sense of common feeling with people of the same age, the sense of generational affinity seemed increasingly acute the older our respondents were. ‘Louise’, an 80-year-old woman living alone in a relatively affluent suburb, was in the process of moving from the ex-council house she had lived in for over fifty years to an assisted-living flat. This move was not prompted by physical need but rather because her age peers had mostly died or left the area. In describing this change, Louise did not use the same tropes of decline as did Harry: she noted that the place itself was largely the same as were the type of people who lived there. She also still maintained friendly relations with her newer neighbours and in some cases had known their parents. Yet, she felt that such relationships were relatively shallow because they were not built on common experience; she wanted the company of ‘people of my generation’ with whom she would have ‘common ground’.

Many of our older respondents also commented on their estrangement from contemporary trends in fashion, music and consumer spending and an ever-younger ‘society’. This did not necessarily translate into a sense of non-belonging because many such people still felt that they had a niche in contemporary life, at least for as long as there were enough people of a similar age who viewed contemporary life and remembered the past in a similar way. For some of our older respondents aged 80 and over, however, this niche was perceived to be shrinking. It was in this situation, when their generation was seemingly slowly dying out, that participants keenly felt a sense of generational belonging. We suggest that ageing potentially moves people out of a secure place in the world in an analogous way to migration (but with certain key differences, perhaps most notably in its partial but gradually growing impact). Perhaps people more clearly notice their generational belonging when their interactions outside the home, even when amicable, are increasingly with younger people who seemingly embody a different worldview. For some of our participants this, it seemed, could feel akin to living in a country that is simultaneously foreign and familiar, and helped generate a nostalgic sense of belonging to a time when they were deeply embedded in their ‘own’ generation. This also spilt over into how people experienced the places where they lived as ‘generationed’; as reflecting the values and lifestyles of certain generations over others and therefore offering a diminished sense of belonging.
Read the full article in Sociological Research Online here.

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