Age is often forgotten when we speak about diversity

Diversity Day about the Age-Friendly University


A student who is 48, a professor who is eighteen and someone defending his or her thesis at 70 years of age. Intuitively we know what ‘fits’ with what age. So age is much more than the actual years on a calendar, there are numerous cultural connotations attached. “It is not just what you are (four, sixteen, fifty or eighty), but also what you do,” says professor Aagje Swinnen at the beginning of the diversity afternoon on the age-friendly university, last Thursday at the Kumulus theatre.

Age is important, Swinnen argues, but strangely enough this category is often forgotten when we speak about diversity - gender, sexuality, religion, colour, et cetera. To continue with “youth, with its productivity” is the standard in Western culture. Everyone wants to be young, even those who are clearly slightly older. “Everyone is afraid of becoming a so-called senior citizen, that time in life when you become ill or demented or have to go into a home.”


In the academic world, just like in the rest of society, there many prejudices when it comes to age. For example, that older employees and older students cost more and are less productive, innovative and flexible. Young employees and students, on the other hand, would be cheaper, more ambitious and more innovative. “The younger, the more innovative? Research has shown that people in their forties are the most innovative.” And what about resistance to change by older people? “People want to change if they can grow, if they can develop themselves further. Here lies a task for HR.” To conclude with a few recommendations in becoming a proper Age-Friendly University: “We already have an international classroom, now we need an intergenerational classroom where all ages work together.” Furthermore: make Aging studies part of the curriculum and research programme, create collaboration between the different age groups in research. “Why shouldn't we think more about working in groups: It takes a team to excel.” And don't forget those who are retired. “Not just the alumni, but those who are retired are also important for the UM. At the moment they are almost invisible.”

Young researchers

The focus this afternoon is on two age categories: young researchers (25-35) and those over fifty. But after three informative and interesting videos and the personal stories of panel members who all zoomed in on age-related obstacles and opportunities in careers, the focus of attention turned to young researchers. The group that moves from temporary contract to temporary appointment. Or as director HRM Antoon Vugts explained: “If you come under support staff (OBP), you will often receive a permanent appointment after a year. If you start off as a young researcher (WP) who is doing a PhD, it will take years before you obtain a permanent position, if you manage at all. This creates a great deal of job uncertainty and competition. There is an imbalance between WP and OBP.” To add: “I worked for Mars, a world player when it comes to chocolate. They employ eighty thousand people; the UM has 4,500. Nevertheless, we have more temporary contracts than Mars.”

150 per cent

The story of Luana Russo, researcher at FASoS (tenure track), fits perfectly in this analysis. She told of how she always gave 150 per cent to her work, until she gave birth to her son. “I can’t take my son out of the picture, but I’m still that person who enjoys teaching and doing research. I love my job, I want to be an associate professor and obtain a large subsidy. Those are my ambitions. I know I will have to compete with people I like, people who are also good. I also love being a mum. I’m even considering a second child. I’m afraid that that will jeopardize my possibilities of becoming an assistant professor and my obtaining a permanent position. The ugly truth is that my personal choice of having a baby puts me in a more vulnerable position. How can the UM give me the instruments to be the researcher I want to be? I have to be visible, go to conferences, meet other people, do some networking.” This is only possible if there is enough money. “Receiving 600 euro per year to fund visits to conferences is not enough.” Certainly not with a child and a possible baby-sitter.


Swinnen pointed out that everyone, also people without children, have busy, stressful periods in their lives. “We have to rethink our academic life. Some years are very hard in a personal life. If you think in groups, it doesn't need to be a problem. The whole group takes it on.” Vugts: “People are very focused on their own careers. If we give groups more space, more responsibility, we can maybe solve the tension problem.”

Click here for the article of the morning programme on sexual harassment



Maastricht Age-Friendly University

Maastricht University joined Age-Friendly Universities with a short speech from rector Rianne Letschert last Thursday. It is the first university on the European mainland to do so. The international network that was founded in 2012 at Dublin City University asks its members to endorse the 10 AFU principles and to promote age-friendliness both in the study programmes and in their policies. A random selection of the AFU principles that were presented by AFU co-ordinator Christine O’Kelly:

  • To promote intergenerational learning to facilitate the reciprocal sharing of expertise between learners of all ages.
  • To increase the understanding of students of the longevity dividend and the increasing complexity and richness that ageing brings to our society.
  • To ensure that the university's research agenda is informed by the needs of an ageing society and to promote public discourse on how higher education can better respond to the varied interests and needs of older adults.
Age is often forgotten when we speak about diversity
The panel, at the left Aagje Swinnen, second from right Luana Russo
Author: Riki Janssen
Categories: news_top,
Tags: diversity

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