As long as you don’t get stuck on the sofa drinking beer

Men are also talking and thinking about ageing.
As men get older, the most important things they can do are to stay active and take care of their functional ability.

When ageing and age-related worries are debated in public, the talk often focuses on women. Whether the discussion is about physical appearance or the need for care, getting old seems to be framed as a women’s problem.

There used to be a good reason for this: the life expectancy of men was much shorter, so most elderly people were women. However, the situation is now changing, and men have very few arenas where they can talk about ageing.

There is relatively little talk about the experiences of ageing in general. On the one hand, old age is seen as a burden to society. The pensions time bomb and the alarming dependency ratio are talked about: who is going to pay for the health care costs of the growing elderly population and how will the health care system cope?

On the other hand, there is empowering talk about “active old age”: pensioners are travelling the world and settling in Spain. There is most likely a blind spot between these two extremes – with numerous ways and experiences of being elderly – that is not much talked about.

Such issues inspired postdoctoral researchers Ilkka Pietilä and Hanna Ojala of the University of Tampere, Finland, when they decided to concentrate on men’s experiences of ageing. In 2010, Pietilä and Ojala started to conduct interviews with Finnish men who were approaching retirement age or who had recently retired to ask them what they thought about ageing.

The men turned out to have many thoughts. The interviews dealt with health, age discrimination, fighting against old age and experiences of being a grandfather. The changing relationships between sons and ageing fathers were also discussed.

Men are mostly concerned about the same issues as women: they mention the loss of functional ability and health, and financial worries.

Joy is brought to men’s lives – just as to women’s – by other people, children and grandchildren.

“The difference is in how these things are communicated. Men are worried about their functional ability in the traditionally masculine spheres of life, such as having the strength to work in the forest at the summer cottage,” Pietilä says.

Fitness is one of the most important themes for the men. Blue-collar workers are especially concerned about their last years at work.

“They are worried about how they will cope in their physically taxing jobs when they are over fifty, or how their ageing bodies will fare in the next downsizing at the workplace,” Ojala says.

Even after they have retired, men emphasise being active and independent as a counterpoint to ageing.

“It is important for them to avoid ‘getting stuck on the sofa drinking beer’. Staying active and coping with advanced age is seen as a personal choice. The idea is that as long as they remain active, they will be all right,” Ojala continues.

The men’s talk is not just about personal priorities; it also concerns cultural values. For example, in the United States men may well emphasise matters of appearance as much as staying active and say that they also pay attention to their appearance.

Finnish men, on the other hand, may use moisturiser, but at the same time they want to emphasise that they are treating their dry skin, not preventing wrinkles.

“Men do not want to be vain and they make a difference between what they are doing and ‘feminine’ beauty routines. However, that does not mean that men do not care about their appearance or take care of it,” Pietilä says.

For men, acceptable ways of looking after their appearance include exercise and visits to the sauna. According to the researchers, the dividing line between “feminine and masculine” ways of looking after oneself sometimes seems comical and tinged with double standards.

“One should take care of oneself, and a total disregard for one’s appearance would not be acceptable, either. However, the measures taken cannot be obvious but have to look natural. For example, men can dye their greying hair, but only if they started doing so when they were still able to do it without anyone noticing,” Ojala says.

The men’s absolute limit is cosmetic surgery – or that used to be the case a couple of years ago: their attitudes might have changed by now.

However, it is clear that men find it more important to look like they have good functional ability than to appear aesthetically pleasing.

When the researchers interviewed the men, they noticed that the public debate on ageing is dominated by many myths that do not resonate with the respondents’ own experiences. For example, retirement is often talked about as a crisis that is particularly hard for men because of the traditional notion of men being breadwinners.

The men Pietilä and Ojala interviewed saw things differently.

“Men recognise the talk about the crisis and many of them told us that they had thought about retirement and even felt anxious about how it might go, but nearly all of them said that ‘things went fine’,” Ojala explains.

Many of the men knew of someone for whom retirement had been difficult, but all of them said that the transition had happened smoothly. The same was true for age discrimination. The men knew that such a phenomenon exists, but they had no personal experience of it.

However, according to the researchers, the men may have not wanted to acknowledge such experiences, because admitting to having suffered age discrimination would simultaneously mean admitting to being “old”, and that is something the men wanted to avoid feeling.

“Being old is seen as negative. In that sense, the men have adopted the Western conception of old age,” Pietilä says.

Another myth the researchers want to dispel is the often repeated idea that men – especially those of the older generation – do not want to talk. Pietilä and Ojala have a different story.

“We have never had any trouble finding interviewees for our research. None of the men we have asked has refused,” Pietilä says.

There were also no problems in getting answers to the questions in the interviews.

“From time to time, the talk just poured out of the interviewees. Our thinking is that men do talk when they are given the opportunity, when someone is asking them questions and listening to what they have to say,” Ojala says.

The MANage project

Ilkka Pietilä and Hanna Ojala have analysed men’s experiences of ageing in their MANage project, which started in 2010.

The researchers interviewed twenty-three men who were about to retire or who had recently retired. The men represented different social classes: some of the men were metalworkers and others hold a Master of Science Technology degree.

The interviews that were conducted in 2010 and 2011. The process began with group interviews, after which each man was interviewed three times. The interview process ended with a second group interview.

In April 2017, the researchers started follow-up interviews with the previously interviewed men. The aim is to find out what has happened to them in the past six or seven years.

Text: Hanna Hyvärinen
Photograph: Jonne Renvall