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Transforming Anxieties of Ageing in Southeastern Europe. Political, Social, and Cultural Narratives of Demographic Change

Project coordinator: Ulf Brunnbauer (IOS)
Funding: VolkswagenStiftung, 2023–2027, in the program “Challenges for Europe: The Greying Continent”

The project has been recently approved by the Volkswagen Foundation and will launch in February 2023. It has two major objectives: (1) to produce comparative, multidisciplinary research on narratives of ageing and on demographic change in Southeastern Europe as a region which is representative of the challenges but also potentials of these processes for Europe as a whole; (2) to contribute – through participatory approaches – to moving from prevailing catastrophic representations of ageing towards more diverse and empowering ones. A further dimension is the analysis of the effects of the refugee movement from Ukraine on care arrangements and population development in Southeastern Europe.

The project is carried out by five partners in four countries:

  • Leibniz Institute for East and Southeast European Studies (coordinator). Principal Investigator (PI): Prof. Ulf Brunnbauer
  • Centre for Southeast European Studies at the University of Graz, PI: Prof. Florian Bieber
  • Department of History and Theory of Culture, Faculty of Philosophy, University of Sofia “St. Kl.Ohridski”, PI: Assoc. Prof. Galina Goncharova
  • Center for Interdisciplinary Research on Aging and Care (CIRAC), University of Graz, PI: Prof. Ulla Kriebernegg
  • Demographic Research Institute, Central Statistical Office, Budapest, PI: Prof. Attila Melegh

The project will contribute both to Southeast Europe Studies and Ageing Studies. As a volatile region not yet fully integrated into the European Union, Southeastern Europe is of particular importance for Europe. Through large-scale migration, not least of care-workers, it is intimately connected with the rest of Europe. The project explores countries which are already part of the EU and such that aspire to become members, and countries with different demographic histories. The region’s population trends (“greying”, massive emigration, population decline) have the potential to cause social and political instability because they are framed in terms of “catastrophe”, which gives rise to demographic nationalism.

Our analysis departs from the observation that demographic developments are a matter of public debate in Southeastern Europe to an extent rarely seen anywhere else in Europe. Demographic anxieties block the way forward for the region’s societies to become more inclusive, e.g., towards minorities and immigration. We will analyze these discourses, starting with the 1960s, and relate them to political agendas and demographic as well as social processes. Our research addresses different scales, from personal and community attitudes towards national and international policy and expert debates, and their interactions. Our questions are organized in five main thematic clusters: (1) socialist legacies and ambivalent transitions; (2) demographic and expert discourses; (3) cross-cultural pathways and life stories of ageing and care; (4) cultural representations of age and ageing; (5) public narratives and their politicization. Our joint research will have a strong early career support dimension as we plan to employ and train five PhD researchers.

The project advances interdisciplinarity and intersectional as well as transnational perspectives. It combines methods from social history, ethnology, sociology, demography, political science, and cultural and literary studies, using qualitative and quantitative methods. We draw especially on Aging Studies and Critical Discourse Analysis. One crucial concept is “framing”, applied to understand meaning-making by different actors. Understanding catastrophic representations of ageing and their politicization as well as symbolic over-determination is a precondition for the promotion of forward-looking, inclusive narratives. The project will build a scientific knowledge base for breaking up vicious framing cycles in order to support the transformation of (Southeastern) into resilient and caring societies that adapt to demographic change by allowing for social participation of senior citizens.

The project’s agenda involves public interventions on different levels driven by an ethos of open but critical science which enhances societal self-reflection and empowerment of marginalized groups. Importantly, we aim to do research about ageing and old age with older people. For example, we will use living labs to generate new questions, and we will organize validation workshops to communicate our results to old people, to caregivers and other stakeholders. Four associated partners (European Network of Aging Studies, Gerontological Society of Serbia, Alzheimer Bulgaria Association, Population Europe) will take part in our dissemination activities. We will produce a broad range of academic outputs, including a collective monograph, five dissertations, articles in peer reviewed journals, and a comprehensive database on demographic developments since the 1960s, plus historical and current population projections. Research data will be made available, and most of the publications will be in open access. A final conference in Sofia will highlight also cross-regional comparisons.


IOS project (led by Ulf Brunnbauer): Socialist legacies and ambivalent transitions

What is the legacy of state socialism and the transition period of the 1990s for current-day representations and policies? Which ruptures since the end of communist rule can be detected? How can we explain continuities and change? An example from 1985 can illustrate the ambiguities of socialism in the context of demography and ageing: Bulgaria’s Family Code of that year included the right of grandparents to personal contact with their grandchildren and the right to “grandparental” leave, as an adaptation to increased life expectancy.

The project carried out by IOS will trace demographic problem perceptions by the public and policy responses towards the demographic process of ageing in the media from the 1960s, when communist regimes started pro-natalist policies, to the 1990s. To this end, we will compare at least two Southeast European countries during state socialism. In a first step, representations of old age in public and political discourse during so-called “developed” socialism will be reconstructed through document research. Analyzing policy decisions, we will explore inclusion and exclusion dynamics. Why, for instance, was the farming population in Yugoslavia not covered by the old-age pension system (except in Slovenia)? What were the hidden agendas towards ethnic minorities, such as Roma, Albanians, or Turks? At the same time, socialist systems established infrastructures for the sociability of older people, such as ubiquitous pensioner clubs. Did these organizations intervene in debates about ageing and care? In a second step, we will explore a similar set of questions for the 1990s as a period of transformation. What priority was given to these issues in the turbulent politics of the 1990s? How were older people represented (in Slovenia and Serbia, pensioners’ parties managed to enter parliament)? What were the crucial changing points? The research by the PI and a PhD researcher plus input from the other teams will create a comparative timeline of policy measures targeting older adults and of associated semantic changes. With its historical approach, this cluster will make a step to situate Southeastern Europe in the global history of ageing.

Contact Person

Prof. Dr. Ulf Brunnbauer

Academic director of the Leibniz Institute for East and Southeast European Studies
Chair of History of Southeast and Eastern Europe at the University of Regensburg


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