Older Women in Learning and Enterprise 50+


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Lifelong Learning Programme


London Metropolitan University
The Municipality of Norrköping

Connecting age and gender in societal context: studying women ‘olderpreneurs’ in Italy and the UK

ResearchAbstract of paper accepted for presentation at the ‘Gendered ageing at work: beyond the ‘double jeopardy’’ stream:

Connecting age and gender in societal context: studying women ‘olderpreneurs’ in Italy and the UK

The context of this paper is the ‘demographic time bomb’ – specifically concerns within Western European countries regarding the impact of rapidly ageing populations on welfare expenditure and the associated expectations that older people will remain economically, physically and socially active and independent for ever longer. We draw on on-going research into ‘older’ (50+) women’s self-employment and entrepreneurship; this currently involves a comparative study of Italian and British participants on the OWLE50+ programme. This EU funded project provides workshops and support for women over 50, designed to enhance their prospects for employment and self-employment and to encourage community involvement and active (senior) citizenship. Expectations of greater activity and engagement amongst older people reflect discourses of the self-produced, autonomous and flexible ‘enterprising self’, which rather downplay and marginalise the impact of structural and societal factors on individual subjectivities, and on the choices available to them (Ainsworth & Hardy 2008; Brannen and Nilsen 2005).

The aim of this paper, which takes the form of a work-in-progress, is to introduce and explore the intersection of age and gender in the accounts of women living in contrasting societal contexts. According to Gal (2010) Italy belongs to the Mediterranean ‘extended family’ of countries, which in contrast to the UK are characterised by greater dominance of the male breadwinner model and greater involvement of family networks and religious organisations in providing welfare and care. Although women in Italy have a much lower rate of labour market participation than those in the UK (as do both women and men in the 55-64 age group) (Ferraresi and Segre 2004), 16% of the female workforce in Italy are self-employed or small business owners, compared to the European average of 10%.

The paper draws on the preliminary analysis of 20 interviews carried out in Italy and the UK with women with business plans for self-employment. The focus of the analysis is the interplay of identity construction with explicit or implicit reference to the structures, organisations and institutions that shape and constrain their experience and aspirations. The emergent themes include: how participants respond to pressures to represent older age in positive terms and to resist the negativities attached particularly to female ageing; the availability to them of the identity ‘olderpreneur’ which represents older people as particularly suited to, and successful at entrepreneurship; the meaning of self-employment constructed in relation to financial and non-financial purposes and to the idea of a work-life balance in older age. It is not the intention of the paper to generalise about the experience of Italian women as opposed to British women, or to homogenise older women as a group but to contribute to the discussion of how societal influences ‘shape and reproduce’ age and gender norms.

Ainsworth, S. and Hardy, C. (2008) ‘The enterprising self: an unsuitable job for an older worker’ Organization 15(3) 389-405
Brannen, J. and Nilsen, A. (2005) ‘Individualisation, choice and structure: a discussion of current trends in sociological analysis’ Sociological Review 53(3) 412-428
Fearraresi, P. and Segre, G (2004) Ageing, welfare and growth: is the Italian welfare system far behind the European trends? Società italiana di economia pubblica
Gal, J. (2010) ‘Is there an extended family of Mediterranean welfare states?’ Journal of European Social Policy 20(4) 283-300
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