Blog | December 2018

Ageing in a Time of Mobility: An Introduction

by Megha Amrith

When I tell acquaintances in passing about our new research group exploring the connections between ageing and migration, some of the first images that come to their minds are of northern European retirees moving to the south of Spain (not to mention references to the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel); or of migrants caring for ageing populations in countries such as Germany or Japan. Beyond these two common themes, bringing up the subject of ‘ageing’ often fails to generate lively conversations. Meanwhile, in scholarship and in public debates about migration, the focus is predominantly on the youth or working-age adults – their aspirations, motivations and the consequences (discursively framed in so many ways) of their mobilities. Older populations are, implicitly or explicitly, represented as unproductive, passive and sedentary, their role in migration projects of less significance.  

So why then, is it relevant to study older populations in contexts of migration? The world is moving toward significantly older populations. Globally, the number of older persons aged 60 years or over is expected to more than double from 962 million in 2017 to over 2 billion in 2050 (UNDESA, 2017); while mobility and migration continue to be fundamental to societies across the world. These two demographic realities, however, are often addressed in separate debates. Yet in many pertinent ways, ageing and migration are intertwined when we consider the experiences of older refugees around the world, the expansion of institutionalised care and retirement communities in a range of transnational contexts, those who move for work at a later stage of their lives, or those who return to an ambiguously-defined home after years abroad as a migrant. Even those who do not physically move are actively involved in the migration projects of others, highlighting important interdependencies across generations. All of these cases reveal that there is much diversity in translocal ageing experiences, as well as notable inequalities and ambivalences, the implications of which we are yet to fully grasp.  This is why we believe it to be timely and relevant to explore the intersections between ageing and migration within the framework of the Max Planck Research Group ‘Ageing in a Time of Mobility’. 

As a research group, we are keenly interested in how the broader social, economic and political transformations associated with global ageing and migration shape the intimate and everyday lives of people in different parts of the world. The question of ageing offers a lens into key ethical debates about how one ought to live: from changing normative ideas and expectations about care, including its commodification in diverse forms; transformations in familial practices; shifting practices of work and community; and growing inequalities that reflect how life trajectories are situated in particular colonial and postcolonial historical, political and economic constellations. The category of ‘older populations’ therefore encompasses multiple life histories and experiences that do not always fit the clear-cut institutionalised categorisations of older-age.  In our research, we are interested in the subjective, relational and social constructions of age, how they are both locally-embedded but also shifting in contexts of migration and mobility. As such, we seek to move beyond a singular and stereotypical construction of older-age as a demographic problem tied to vulnerabilities and care-needs, but as something intricately tied to novel practices of sociality and community, as well as expressions of agency, activism and politics.

At the same time, we remain deeply attentive to the politics of mobility and how citizenship and documents continue to affect how people might carry out their lives, individually and collectively, across borders. The recent experiences of those belonging to the ‘Windrush generation’ is just one stark example: those who arrived in the UK from the Caribbean in the 1950s and 1960s and who have since built their lives and homes in the UK, are now, as senior citizens, facing deportation to countries that they may only know from their childhood, as well as exclusion from health services and jobs. Belonging here is something that has to be negotiated and proven over a lifetime, and over generations, among those marked and racialised as ‘other’. Across the world, the realities of hardened borders mean tightening family reunification policies, reducing the possibilities for migrants to have older parents and grandparents nearby. This current political climate has profound implications on the lives of transnational families, generating anxieties about how to transfer forms of social protection (which are often state-bound) between different places and deal with matters of care, including end-of-life care and death.

Our focus as a research group is on societies typically perceived as young, but which are themselves rapidly ageing. According to United Nations statistics, the number of older persons is expected to grow fastest in Africa, followed by Latin America and the Caribbean and Asia over the coming decades. However, these regions have been less visible in research and policy agendas, and more often than not, models and notions of ageing still hold a dominant ‘Euro-American’ emphasis (Lamb, 2015; Sivaramakrishnan, 2018). In focussing on the intersections between ageing and migration in regions of the Global South, we seek to contribute a more global perspective and narratives from the ground up which reflect the varied ways through which people make sense, culturally, politically and ethically, of these transformations.

As we prepare to go to the field, we each consider in the posts that follow how the intersections between ageing and mobilities take on specificities in the regions in which we will work.  Dora Sampaio tells us about what inspires her new project on conflicts and solidarities in transnational Brazilian families, in which she will look at how Brazilian migrants in the US and UK, some of them undocumented, negotiate care for their ageing parents who remain in Brazil. Victoria Sakti reflects on photographs taken during her earlier fieldwork among the East Timorese diaspora in Indonesia, as a lens through which to understand the everyday lives of people who grow older ‘between places’ in politicised contexts of protracted displacement. Nele Wolter, in her project, considers the different kinds of work that older people in Cameroon engage in and how these livelihood strategies in older-age are tied to varied mobility and migration patterns in and across rural and urban landscapes. And finally, my own research asks what it means to age abroad as a ‘temporary’ migrant worker in an Asian city, and what their futures might look like upon returning home after decades away in precarious labour and migratory situations.

Together, we are interested in how people, whose lives span multiple locales, navigate borders at diverse scales. We will explore conceptual debates that centre on care, citizenship, mobilities/immobilities, temporality, work and inequalities. Our work is primarily situated in the disciplines of anthropology and geography, with ethnography, in-depth interviews, visual methods and mappings sitting at the core of our research methodologies. Watch this space as our project develops and as we share our reflections from the field!


Lamb, S. (2015) ‘Beyond the View of the West: Ageing and Anthropology’, in J. Twigg & W. Martin (eds) The Cultural Handbook of Gerontology, Routledge, pp. 37-44.

Sivaramakrisnan, K. (2018) As the World Ages: Rethinking a Demographic Crisis, Harvard University Press.

UNDESA (2017) ‘World Population Ageing: 2017’


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