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01/20/2009 14:53

A longer working life - a good thing for everyone?

Helena Aaberg Information Office
University of Gothenburg

    We are hearing with increasing frequency that we are going to have to work until we are older in order to keep the welfare system going in the future. Is this really possible for everyone? And is it desirable? In a new thesis Björn Ohlsson gives an account of life as a worker at Volvo, Gothenburg, and reveals that things can be particularly tough for certain groups of industrial workers. This is due to the fact that they have had a long and arduous working life, and that changes in the workplace have resulted in diminished opportunities for older people to stay on.

    The thesis "We who stayed at Volvo" is a study of the impact that many years of industrial work has on people and their attitude to their job, their life outside work and their own future. The study is based on life history interviews with 16 workers aged between 49 and 62 at Volvo's Torslanda plant. The objective has been to try to understand how workers' experiences and the ageing process have led them to think, feel and act in the way they do now.
    The study reveals that all of them want to retire before 65, preferably at 60 or even earlier. Many of them, particularly the women, also feel physically tired and/or have health problems that reduce their capacity for work. Their working lives have been characterised by subordination that has intensified as they have become older, resulting in mental tiredness. There are also a number of norms that reinforce their desire to take early retirement. One norm specific to the company consists of the recurrent pension scheme offers, a social norm is that it is considered an entitlement that everyone should have a few years as a healthy pensioner, and a class-related norm is that the workers consider early retirement for those who have had a physically demanding job for many years to be fair.
    Despite the desire to take early retirement, they stress how much work has meant to them, and to some extent, how much it still means. They emphasise in particular the sense of community that exists in a workplace, and the experience of continuity that work provides. The relatively well paid work has also provided them with the opportunity to create a good life materially with a sense of pride and dignity.

    Since the early 1990s older workers at the Torslanda plant have also been offered the unique opportunity of doing the usual assembly work at the same rate of pay as before, but with a less demands on their performance. These special "senior" posts were gradually phased out in the early 2000s due to rationalisations, which is one reason why it is now more difficult to find suitable jobs for those who need less physically demanding work.

    The influence they have in their working lives and the subordination they feel are aspects that contribute to their class affiliation. Björn Ohlsson feels that the sense of vulnerability and impotence is becoming particularly clear now that some two thousand workers at Volvo Cars have been made redundant or forced to leave their jobs in other ways.

    The study can also be viewed as an example of the way in which working life is changing in Sweden. The author of the thesis feels that there is a risk that the developments at Volvo in recent years will lead to a form of working life that is not sustainable in the long-term.
    - Besides putting some flesh on the bones of the discussion regarding the problem of an ageing population and the way in which working life is changing, I hope that the thesis will produce some understanding for the way in which industrial workers view their working lives, and that there can be ways of thinking other than those that predominate in the media, says Björn Ohlsson.

    Title of the thesis: We who stayed at Volvo - an ethnological study of senior automobile-industry blue-collar workers' working-lives and future plans.
    The thesis will be public defended on Friday 23 January at 1.00 pm
    Location: Room 10 in the University's main building, Vasaparken, Gothenburg, Sweden
    Opponent: Professor Anders Björklund, Stockholm
    The thesis can be ordered directly from Bokförlaget Arkipelag, c/o Etnologiska föreningen i Västsverige, University of Gothenburg, Box 200, 405 30 Gothenburg, Sweden
    or by tel. +46 (0)31-786 53 26 or e-mail:
    See also
    For further information contact Björn Ohlsson, tel. +46 (0)31-786 45 42 (work) mobile. +46 (0)733-09 92 04, +46 (0)31-42 55 16 (home) or e-mail:

    Press contact: Barbro Ryder Liljegren
    Faculty of Arts, University of Gothenburg
    Tel. +46 (0)31-786 48 65, e-mail

    More information:


    Criteria of this press release:
    Cultural sciences, Economics / business administration
    transregional, national
    Research results



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