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Should we retire later? A study of society and organizational level narratives

Konferensbidrag (offentliggjort, men ej förlagsutgivet)
Författare Rebecka Arman
Ewa Wikström
Roland Kadefors
Publicerad i 7th International Conference on Rhetoric and Narratives in Management Research (RNMR), March 2018, Barcelona
Publiceringsår 2018
Publicerad vid Institutionen för sociologi och arbetsvetenskap
Företagsekonomiska institutionen, Management & Organisation
Centrum för åldrande och hälsa (AgeCap)
Centrum för global HRM
Språk en
Ämnesord Age Management, delayed retirement, extending work life, organizational narratives
Ämneskategorier Arbetslivsstudier, Företagsekonomi


Large parts of the world, including all OECD countries, face population ageing (OECD 2017). It has been termed one of the most significant socio-economic challenges currently facing the EU. As part of this challenge, the institution of retirement and the timing of this life event is coming into question (Barouch, Syce & Gregoriou 2014; Fischer, Chafee & Sonnega 2016; Sargent, Lee, Martin & Zikic, 2013). This institution is important for all types of organizations who have employees. The timing of retirement is traditionally mainly depicted as “the earlier the better”, because it gives freedom to the individual (Bengtsson & Flisbäck 2017) and the employer gains resources to employ the new and more up-to-date generation (Pritchard & Whiting 2014). At the same time, there is a competing meta-narrative depicting a need to delay retirement, “for the good of the welfare system” as well as to keep valuable and experienced employees in the workforce and prevent a lack of labor. There is political agreement within the EU that an alarming increase in the “demographic dependency ratio” should be addressed: as EU citizens, we are encouraged to work more years in order to help sustain the welfare systems. However, the choice when to retire is by no means entirely up to the individual. In Sweden, collective agreements between social partners largely set the work life exit-frameworks. An employer may well apply a policy to encourage employees to exit prematurely, by providing attractive employment pension benefits already at age 60. From an employer’s perspective, motives for keeping older workers beyond retirement are often a current - or predicted future - lack of younger skilled labor and thus employers see a prolonged work life as a way to keep and develop competence within the workplace as well as taking social responsibility (Brooke & Taylor 2005). Thus, a pure business or organizational efficiency perspective can be taken, or this can be complemented and most likely mixed with issues of legitimacy and normative values of what is socially responsible for an organization to do (Cedefop 2010; Midtsundstad 2011; Wallin and Hussi 2011; Baldauf and Lindley 2013; Larsen and Pedersen 2017). Thus, there is not one way to make sense of and narrativize the need for prolonging work life and delaying retirement. It is against this background that this study will show how and why the society wide actors as well as organizational actors are taking part in (re-)creating retirement timing norms and practices. We propose that a narrative analysis can uncover the dynamics of the translation between meanings at within different arenas in society. This has implications for our understanding of the changes and maintenance in patterns of actions, in this case the institution of retirement timing. In our efforts, we join a stream of recent studies showing a renewed interest in specific so-called “cultural” aspects of institutionalization: particularly the meaning that actors bring to and associate with the actions that constitute recurring organizational practices (Zilber, 2008). We take the starting point of several other authors who argue that there is a need to turn back attention to the creation of the very taken-for-grantedness that is the hallmark of institutionalization (Zilber, 2008). Several studies make use of narrative analysis and concepts in order to explore the meaning structures used in organizational settings (e.g. Haack, Shoeneborn & Wickert 2012; Landau, Drori & Terjesen 2014; Zilber 2002 & 2009). The aim of the current study is to find out how the society-level narratives intended to influence practices concerning work life exits has had an influence over workplace-level narratives regarding attitudes towards older employees and retirement timing’. We also develop the narrative conceptual tools for studying organizational change further. The study was carried out using two main sources of data, documents and a qualitative case study of two large Swedish employers, one public and one private. In the document study, we mapped how stakeholders at two societal levels (the EU and Swedish national arena) narrativized their views with respect to the issue of retirement and work life exits. The case study involved interviews with all relevant actors in the two organizations, which included top-managers, line managers, HR-specialists, trade union representatives and employees – both older and their younger colleagues. At the societal level we found two competing institutional meta-narratives: 1) retirement plotted as an issue of economic efficiency where older workers have gone from being a burden to becoming a resource, and 2) retirement plotted as a human values and rights issue with retirement going from being coerced at a specific age to being the choice of the individual. In the efficiency narrative, the sustainability of the welfare system is at stake, the dependency ratio and inefficient use of labor causes strains. Policy makers are important and incentives, regulations and demography are explanatory devices. In Sweden, social partners are the villains, since they make agreements that cause significant numbers of early retirements, and individuals are also depicted as responsible to work as long as they are able. In the rights and values narrative, healthy and “employable” individuals who want to work longer should not be forced to exit for regulatory or discriminatory reasons while unhealthy and non-employable individuals who are forced to continue working should be supported in order to reach equality. The individuals’ opportunities and choice is important: employers, poor work environments and regulation should be adjusted accordingly. In the two organizations that we studied, the society level efficiency narrative translated into a dominant story of the wish to select the sufficiently efficient older workers to continue to develop, employ them longer, as well as make use of their knowledge beyond the statutory or traditional early retirement age. However, the story of equality, the individuals’ freedom of choice and equal opportunities was submerged into the story of efficiency. Age diversity and taking responsibility for older workers was only mentioned as instrumental in order to keep selected valuable labor and increase “employer attractiveness/branding” in order to decrease the cost of recruitment in a tight labor market. The notion of competence and workability overrides other values, even in the stories of the employed and the union representatives. These findings as well as the implications for theory and practice will be developed further in the extended abstract. References Baldauf, B. Lindley, R. (2013). Active ageing and age management – European case studies focusing on the caring sectors and local government. Research, Policy and Planning 30(1):37-50 Baruch, Yehuda, Susan Sayce, Andros Gregoriou, (2014) "Retirement in a global labour market: a call for abolishing the fixed retirement age", Personnel Review, Vol. 43 Issue: 3, pp.464-482, https://doi.org/10.1108/PR-04-2013-0059 Bengtsson, M., & Flisbäck, M. (2017). On leaving work as a calling: retirement as an existential imperative. International Journal of Ageing and Later Life, 11(1), 37-67. Brooke, L. Taylor, P. (2005). Older workers and employment: managing age relations. Ageing and Society, 25, pp 415-429 doi:10.1017/S0144686X05003466 Cedefop (2010). Socially responsible restructuring – Effective strategies for supporting redundant workers. (Working paper No 7). Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union Fisher, G. G., Chaffee, D. S., & Sonnega, A. (2016). Retirement timing: A review and recommendations for future research. Work, Aging and Retirement, 2(2), 230-261. Haack, P., Schoeneborn, D., & Wickert, C. (2012). Talking the talk, moral entrapment, creeping commitment? Exploring narrative dynamics in corporate responsibility standardization. Organization Studies, 33(5-6), 815-845. Landau, D., Drori, I., & Terjesen, S. (2014). Multiple legitimacy narratives and planned organizational change. Human Relations, 67(11), 1321-1345. Larsen, M. & Pedersen, P.J. J Labour Market Res (2017). Labour force activity after 65: what explain recent trends in Denmark, Germany and Sweden? 50(1):15–27 https://doi.org/10.1007/s12651-017-0223-7 Pritchard, K., & Whiting, R. (2014). Baby boomers and the lost generation: On the discursive construction of generations at work. Organization Studies, 35(11), 1605-1626. Sargent, L. D., Lee, M. D., Martin, B., & Zikic, J. (2013). Reinventing retirement: New pathways, new arrangements, new meanings. Human Relations, 66(1), 3-21. OECD (2017), Pensions at a Glance 2017: OECD and G20 Indicators, OECD Publishing, Paris. Wallin, M. Hussi, T. (2011). Best practices in Age management- evaluation of organisation cases. Helsinki: National Institute of Occupational Health. Zilber, T. B. (2002). Institutionalization as an interplay between actions, meanings, and actors: The case of a rape crisis center in Israel. Academy of management journal, 45(1), 234-254. Zilber, T. B. (2008). The work of meanings in institutional processes. The SAGE handbook of organizational institutionalism, 151-168.

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