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"People feel more in control of their ageing"

  • The European Commission estimates that 5-6% of pensioners in the EU leave their home country in order to retire in another.
  • For many, migration is a way of strengthening their economic position by finding a place with a lower cost of living.
  • Migration is also about taking control of one’s own life, choosing a climate that suits one’s personal well-being, and is regarded as a new adventure.

Liesl Gambold

Liesl Gambold is an associate professor in the department of sociology and social anthropology at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada. Her current research is on ageing and international retirement migration.

In your opinion, are many of Europe’s seniors relocating in their later years?
In 2007 I travelled to Brussels as part of my research and interviewed a European Commission researcher on this topic. We talked about statistics on the seniors who had relocated permanently within the EU. He said that it was rather difficult to know because there were few data available on the number of retirement migrants and their final destinations. This is largely because EU citizens and their family members have the right to move and reside freely within the EU member states and do not have to register in their host country. He estimated that 5-6% of pensioners leave their home country to retire in another country within the EU. Based on my research, however, I would argue that this number is growing.

At what age, on average, do seniors make such a move? For example, when newly retired or much later, say, in their 80s?
For most people it happens soon after retirement. I think migration has become part of a retirement strategy today . It is different to the way retirement mobility and migration happened in the past. I interviewed roughly 20 people who had migrated internally within the EU in their early 70s. Some had carried on in their profession in their later years in careers such as real estate, where they could continue to work, but for most of them they had time to experience retirement at home and learned that they wanted something different.

"The driving factors behind people’s desire to relocate later in life are climate, adventure, financial considerations and these days a hugely supporting element is the Internet."
"I think migration has become part of a retirement strategy today."

Which areas are proving the most popular for seniors?
I did most of my research in Spain and in southern and western France, and they have been very popular areas. In France, there is a tendency for retirees to move inland because it’s cheaper. For example, all along the southern coast of France there’s been a lot of migration from desirable coastal locations to inland areas, which has resulted in significant real-estate savings. Portugal and the Algarve have been growing in popularity, and Morocco is a huge retirement destination for the French.

What are the driving factors behind people’s desire to relocate in later life?
I think there are four primary driving factors: climate, adventure/fear of the “known”, financial considerations, and these days a hugely supporting element is the Internet . It would have been very difficult for most people to imagine such a move even ten years ago. The reason it’s becoming easier is that people are comfortable with Internet banking, and they can stay in touch with family and friends via Facetime or Skype. Everyone I interviewed said that the online world and digital support services had made their decision easier. Climate ties into a lot of other elements in an older person’s life, such as mobility, and can hugely impact an individual’s well-being and their activity levels.

What aspects of a country’s social and healthcare systems are important to people who relocate?
If an expat community exists, then that’s very important as they will help a new migrant to assimilate. It allows individuals to become as involved as they want to be—or not, especially if they are not fluent in the local language. Healthcare is equally important. More and more people who would be considered middle-class are making the decision to relocate to try to strengthen their economic position in their retirement years  because they don’t have a large pension or a lot of savings. This is an economic decision in terms of finding a place where the cost of living is lower.

In your opinion, do you think that such movement increases people’s happiness and enjoyment in life?
I think that they are happier, but it’s a double-edged sword. On the one hand, I would argue that the baby boomers are doing ageing in the same way as they’ve done everything else in life—differently from their parent’s generation . They are self-advocates, agents of change. The people on whom I have done my research feel very happy with their decision. It’s not that they don’t miss home or friends and family, but they feel that they are more in control of their ageing, and that feels good. On the other hand, the discourse that’s out there from governments and the public and private sectors is: “You’d better take care of your ageing and retirement because the government won’t help you.” Previous generations would question this, but in a neo-liberal economy the onus is on the individual. I think it’s great that these people can do something different, find a happy life and feel confident about ageing.

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"Baby boomers are doing ageing in the same way as they’ve done everything else in life – differently from their parent’s generation."