Understanding the Political Preferences of Seniors’ Organizations. The Swiss Case.



Abstract: According to numerous politicians, reforming the welfare state in aging societies has become increasingly necessary in spite of the growing influence of advocacy groups that have made reforms more difficult to realize. Studying the preferences of seniors’ organizations is therefore crucial to comprehending future welfare state policies. In this paper, I will examine recurrent variables that researchers working on seniors’ organizations study in order to explain the type of framing or political discourse that these organizations use. Using FARES/VASOS, the largest seniors’ organization in Switzerland, as a case study, I will show how common explanations (especially the ones that refer to the importance of the context or of the political opportunities structure), if they work, can also be seen as too incomplete or limited. We will see that focusing on how leaders are selected, their activism, and their reasons for involvement provides interesting data to help us understand the goals and political battles of this organization.


From a sociological perspective, it is clear that the leaders of seniors’ organizations do not always represent the viewpoint of the entire elderly population (e.g., Michels, 1915), and over the last century this has become more common1. The literature on seniors’ organizations shows that often these groups do not only defend the interests of pensioners but instead tend to promote sustainable policies by defending not only the elderly but the whole pension system as well as other age groups (Campbell and Lynch, 2002)2.

There are many examples of moderate positions held by these interest groups in the United States. Indeed, the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) is known for the number of policy positions it promotes favoring benefits for children and other non-elderly groups. As Campbell and Lynch (2002) point out, the AARP was a founding member of the Generations United coalition, which was formed to counter the charge that older people were benefiting from government programs at the expense of children and other groups. In 1992, the AARP joined with the Coalition for America’s Children to promote education and health care for young people. “The organization supported the 1983 Social Security Amendments; the new law raised the retirement age from 65 to 67 by 2027, delayed the 1983 cost of living adjustment for six months, and increased payroll taxes. The group recognized that some change was inevitable and approved the bill because it spread the pain of reform among current recipients, future recipients and taxpayers. This generationally moderate position stands in contrast to seniors themselves, who tend to oppose program changes of any type, even those affecting future beneficiaries” (Campbell & Lynch, 2002: 16).

Similar observations can be made in the case of Switzerland, particularly in regard to the largest federation of seniors’ organizations in the country, the Swiss Federation of Associations of Retired Persons and Mutual Aid (FARES/VASOS). FARES/VASOS, founded in 1990, comprises 22 organizations and claims 140,000 members. The population of elderly citizens (those over 65) in Switzerland reached 1,580,854 in 2004, and the membership of FARES/VASOS accounts for 8.9% of that population. FARES/VASOS is a member and co-founder (in 2001) of the Swiss Council of the Elderly (CSA/SSR), the official partner favored by the federal authorities for dealing with age-related issues. Like the AARP in the United States, FARES/VASOS has taken positions favoring benefits for non-elderly groups. It came out in favor of maternity insurance in 1999, and in 2002 it opposed a popular initiative from the UDC/SVP (Swiss People’s Party, a right-wing conservative party) that planned to grant the profit made from selling the surplus of the Swiss national bank’s gold to the state pensions’ reserves. Instead, it supported a federal plan that aimed at a wider (or intergenerational) distribution3.

The literature provides possible explanations of the moderate or intergenerational positions held by seniors’ organizations. These are macro-level explanations, linked to the structure of the state, the appearance of retrenchment policies, or the development of counter-movements, but they are not connected to micro-level explanations. After a presentation of these macro-level explanations and the demonstration of their possible validity in the Swiss case, I will establish that these explanations are incomplete and will demonstrate that a focus on the members of the seniors’ organizations, as in the Swiss case, provides another way to understand the positions these groups defend.

Some hypotheses are formulated in the literature to explain the stances defended by these organizations (and the discrepancies with those defended by the elderly voters). These explanations refer to a certain number of organizational constraints and structural effects – already observed in other types of organizations (Michels, 1915; Weber 1978 [1922]; Kriesi, 1998; Mach, 1999; Streeck & Kenworthy, 2005)4– linked with the participation of these organizations in the policy-making process. Large and stable organizations, such as seniors’ organizations at a national level, develop powerful interests for their own survival that lead them to avoid political risks. Looking for a long-term relationship with and favor from the authorities, they give priority to political moderation (Binstock, 1997). Moderating claims and assuming a responsible position is the price they are prepared to pay for participation in the decision-making processes. In the same way, leaders are likely to be better informed than members about the political viability of various policy alternatives. As is the case with FARES/VASOS in Switzerland, the desire to be involved in the consultation process compels group leaders to understand the need for compromise. While elderly voters are interested in their own benefits, the seniors’ organizations accept that the sustainability of elderly benefits in the long term requires support for programs for other age groups as well as reform. Indeed, leaders of these groups do not consider only the preferences of their constituents in relation to policy, but also take into consideration the preferences of other groups or of the administration they have to deal with. Their participation in the decision-making process and the interaction with other groups can change the political view of these leaders and motivate them to accommodate other points of view and to take the public interest into account (Mansbridge, 1992).

Authors like Day (1998) or Pierson (1994) bring up contextual elements, with the emergence of “retrenchment policies” (i.e. policies promoting cuts in the Welfare State), to explain the stances defended by these organizations while Quadagno (1989) focuses on counter-movements. The latter discusses some of the AARP’s positions, particularly regarding children, that were taken after the generational equity debate of the 1980s. She states that “the thesis of generational equity has forced senior citizen advocates to respond in kind, and the generational equity idea has become an acceptable framework for policy discussion” (Quadagno, 1989: 371). The emergence of this (inter)generational debate5 can be traced back to groups who opposed pensioners’ organizations but at the same time this is also the way that the state administrations now talk about old age issues.

Monographs on seniors’ organizations (Holtzman, 1963; Pratt, 1976 & 1993; Morris, 1996; Van Atta, 1998) describe the political work and the stances of the organizations but neither focus on the socialization of their members nor offer data on their education levels or careers. For these reasons the development of these organizations and the type of arguments they use seem to be determined by the influence that these groups and branches of government exert on each other. Those writing this literature are only interested in the possible influence the State can have on this kind of organization and vice versa, and are not interested in the members of these groups and in their good reasons for an involvement in this organization.

In this discussion, I would like to show that an interest in the socialization of the leaders and members opens interesting perspectives to understand the positions of these organizations in the political debate. Following authors like Hughes (1984) [1971] or Fillieule (2001), my hypothesis is that the positioning of this kind of organization (and in the Swiss case, the FARES/VASOS) in the political debate is less the product of the integration of the organization in the consulting processes (i.e., their recognition as official partners by the authorities) than the result of a compatibility of such intergenerational objectives with long-standing objectives pursued by these activists all their lives (and before their involvement in such an organization). The analysis of their prior careers helps us understand the experiences the members bring to these organizations. It allows us to piece together the history of their former involvement, their demographics (e.g., age, sex, education, family situation) and their competencies. Furthermore, it helps us understand their expectations when they joined these groups, what they have learned, and their viewpoint on the role of the State. These various points seem essential to understanding not only who these members are but also their world views and their competencies in conducting their activity. Indeed, defending intergenerational policies, promoting maternity leave, or supporting increases in family benefits for children can be the product of particular organizational stakes such as looking responsible to the authorities, responding to the new counter-movements that develop a discourse on intergenerational equity, or the realization of the need for a compromise due to the participation on the national level. Above all, it is the product of the particular predispositions of persons who become involved in such organizations. If we wish to understand what kind of framing FARES/VASOS has developed, we need, therefore, to focus on the people who become involved in the organization. I will therefore propose some characteristics concerning the socialization of the most involved members to show that the intergenerational discourse defended by FARES/VASOS is perhaps less the product of tactics or of a moderation in the discourse than it is the outcome of an ideology acquired by their members much earlier.

Design and methods

To study and understand the positions taken by FARES/VASOS in the public debates, I have focused primarily on two types of data. 1) I look at the outcomes of the organization, that is, the positions as expressed on its Web site and in its publications (http://www.vasos.ch/index_vasos.htm). These allow us to understand the mindset of the organization, the framings (Snow, Rochford, Worden & Benford, 1986; Snow & Benford, 2000) and the nature of the claims made by the organization. 2) I carried out 30 interviews with members of this Federation (more precisely: members of seniors’ organizations that are part of FARES/VASOS). Some interviewees are members of their local group only; others are delegates of their group within FARES/VASOS; some others are FARES/VASOS delegates at the Swiss Council of the Elderly (CSA).

I did not work with a statistical sample but I proceeded with “iteration” (Olivier de Sardan, 1995). I interviewed people who take part in various, especially political, activities (e.g., responses to consultation proceedings and committees), locally and nationally. I tried to interview all the activists who are involved in the organizational decision making processes because of the role they play. Attending two years of meetings organized by these organizations (CSA/SSR, FARES/VASOS and the two largest organizations belonging to FARES/VASOS) allowed me to observe first-hand the different places where decisions are made and the actors involved in the political decision making process within these organizations6. This participation also allowed me to be sure of the relevance of the choice of the interviewees (Lahire, 1996; Olivier de Sardan, 1996).

I continued the interviewing process until new interviews gave only redundant data. The final number was 30, comprised of 16 men and 14 women. In terms of age, half of the interviewees are under 75 with two under 65, the legal age of retirement. The sample is characterized by a great heterogeneity (in terms of age) between the interviewees: the oldest interviewee (now deceased) was born in 1916, the youngest in 1951. In the life-story in-depth interviews I explored their careers, socialization, and their involvement in the organization. Through open questions, I questioned (without questioning them explicitly during the interviews) the following topics or mechanisms: why do individuals who have reached the age of retirement become members of this seniors’ organization? Have they already been involved in militancy previous to their involvement in seniors’ organizations? What are the expectations of pensioners who join this group? What do they do in practical terms?

Results: Multiple explanations for the intergenerational framing

A review of the positions taken by this federation on voting issues over the last ten years at the federal level7 shows an orientation towards the intergenerational. To give just few examples: in 1998, FARES/VASOS supported the September 27th vote “YES to the AVS/AHV (Swiss system of pensions) without raising the age of retirement” with the following argument, “Whoever defends the raising of the age of retirement also accepts that the number of job-seekers and unemployed will rise while, at the same time, the labor market is not open to the young. It is absurd to wish to have women work into an older age, precisely at a time when companies refuse to employ workers of a certain age.” FARES/VASOS took a position in favor of maternity insurance in 1999. On August 8th, 2002, the federation signed an intergenerational pact with the Swiss Council of youth activities (CSAJ/SAJV) when the Swiss were invited to vote on the use of the national bank’s gold reserves. FARES/VASOS argued that the seniors, by refusing an initiative that required that the profit made by selling the surplus of the national bank gold be allocated in its entirety to the AVS/AHV, avoided being reproached for “using this gold selfishly … and not leaving anything to the future generations.”

The effect of inclusion in the decision-making processes?

This intergenerational discourse can be interpreted as a desire on the part of FARES/VASOS to look politically cooperative and reasonable and to consolidate its position as a partner of the Swiss government on age-related issues. FARES/VASOS is a recent organization (founded in 1990), and since 2001 up to three quarters of its budget has been subsidized by the Confederation through the Swiss Council of the Elderly (CSA/SSR).8 It is one of the two organizations supported by the Confederation, the other being Swiss Association of the Elderly (ASA/SVS), that comprise the CSA/SSR, the official consultative body of the Confederation for age-related issues. It takes part in the preparation of Confederation reports on age issues (for example, the “contribution of Switzerland to the second world assembly on aging debates” that took place in Madrid in 2002). It is also involved in consultation processes. This however, does not fully explain the positions taken by FARES/VASOS. Indeed, the Swiss Council of the Elderly – which is comprised of FARES/VASOS and ASA/SVS and therefore has a more diverse membership – has opted for another argument or another “framing”. The Swiss Council of the Elderly works for a defense of the constitutional rights of the elderly, by stating that “no one must suffer from discrimination based on one’s origin, race, sex, age, language, social situation, lifestyle, religious, philosophical or political convictions, nor on physical, mental or psychological deficiency” according to Article 8 of the Federal Constitution.9

A factor of unity against the heterogeneity of the member organizations?

The intergenerational framing must also be viewed as a product of the search for common ground among the different member organizations of this federation. Throughout the 20th century, public policies resulted in the emergence of a “retired” group with the creation of the state pension (see Lenoir, 1979; Lalive d’Epinay, 1994; Dumons, 1993; Leimgruber, 2008) but also divided it with the establishment of the three “pillars” system made up of old age and survivors insurance in 1948, old age and disability supplementary benefits in 1966, and occupational pension funds and promotion of personal savings between 1972 and 1985 (see Gnaegi, 1998). The state pension system reflects the same financial inequalities as exist during one’s working life and these organizations are therefore heterogeneous in regards to the people they represent.

Without getting into the details of the activities of the different organizations, FARES/VASOS is made up of retirement home residents advocacy associations, local leisure activity groups, self-help groups, the Swiss federation of the partially sighted, the Swiss trade union’s retired commission, and groups who work for the political defense of retired persons. Therefore there is a considerable difference of objectives among the member groups. As a consequence, the objectives they pursue can sometimes diverge (with some organizations already ceasing to participate). Should the first or the second pillar be improved? Are complementary benefits at stake for the group or not? What kind of objectives can such an organization pursue? The intergenerational discourse can thus appear – as in the American case (Binstock, 1997) – to be a common and consensual objective.

A response to a context shift?

The intergenerational discourse of FARES/VASOS can also be related to the evolving political context. The years 1940 to 1970 saw an extension of policies in favor of old people in need. Since then, policies that favor restrictions on costly seniors have emerged. As Day (1998:131) stated, in relation to the United States, “[The] consensus surrounding government old-age programs and benefits had begun to crack. Older people, previously stereotyped as the deserving poor, were now often blamed for consuming an increasingly burdensome portion of the federal budget. Arguments that older people were receiving more than their ‘fair share’ of government benefits were often framed in terms of ‘generational equity.’ These developments began to challenge the legitimacy and influence of old-age interest groups”. In Switzerland, the first attacks against social policies for the elderly can be linked to Schweitzer’s work, Die Wirtschaftliche Lage der Rentner in der Schweiz, in 1980. Schweitzer questioned the notion that old people are poor10. Outside academic circles, this debate will be pursued by political parties, trade unions, and federal authorities (Wanner & Gabadinho, 2008). The head of the Federal Office of Social Insurance offers this view of the intergenerational policies, “A virtuous circle of reforms could be created if cover against traditional risks were adapted to ensure a sustainable intergenerational balance, if the retired population were also to help fund the 1st pillar, and if better family-work balance could be struck” (Rossier, 2008). A new debate about generational equality has thus emerged over the last fifteen years. At the end of the 1990s, the federal administration, inspired by what had been done in the Anglo-Saxon countries, commissioned the first study in Switzerland on generational equity (see Raffelhüschen & Borgmann, 2001). Should we assume therefore that FARES/VASOS had to respond to that new discourse that had been legitimized by the administration and had found a wider forum in the press?11 The organizations do not single-handedly choose the framing of the problems but are pressed to do so by the discourse of the opposing parties and the authorities.

The effect of the careers of leaders and members

Beyond these hypotheses, I would like to look more closely at the members involved in the federation and at how they are recruited. My point is not to dispute the points above but to put them into perspective and to introduce another variable to explain the particular development of this federation and its positions on issues. The political action of the federation is not solely the result of contextual transformations. It is to a larger extent the continuation of stances that had been adopted by its leaders for many years through their participation in other organizations.

While working on the individuals belonging to groups, Merton (1968 [1949]) remarked that the notion of “member” is problematic because it accounts for largely dissimilar situations. Members can get involved in different ways and for different reasons as in different places or at different levels of the organization. In the case of FARES/VASOS and of associations that are members of this federation, considerable heterogeneity can be seen in the reasons for joining these groups and/or in the objectives pursued. Some members join a group because they support the cause advocated by the group (for example, fighting to increase the pension) and take part in the activities at a national level. However, this is representative of a minority of the membership. Most of the time, joining is a response to word of mouth, on the invitation of a member and because of some type of leisure activity in the group (Gaxie, 2005). Sometimes involvement may be contrary to the political objectives of the organization: for example, people join the leisure activities but refuse to participate in political activities such as gathering signatures or giving money to a referendum committee (Lambelet, 2007).

From the interview data, I’ve done a typology of the logics of involvement. My typological approach refers to what Dubar and Demazière called “inductive typology” (1997) and Grémy and Le Moan (1977) called the “aggregation around core-units”. Such a typology relies on three conditions: first, it is important to create a new category every time a new life course does not match another one already encountered; then, if a new criterion appears to be relevant, it is necessary to rework the former distribution of “cases”; finally, if a criterion once considered relevant does not turn out to be discriminating in view of the new “cases,” the cases previously distinguished will be merged according to this criterion. Thus, I identified five different types of involvement of individuals in these organizations:

  • 1) An “expert involvement” occurs when individuals see value to the organization in the competencies acquired in their professional lives. The organization provides them a place where their technical expertise can be useful. As one man said: “I got involved in this organization in my town somewhat by accident. Some years ago, when I had just retired, someone asked me to give a talk on public transportation. I was a director of a public transportation company. And so, I took part in the meeting. And they were speaking about the functioning of the state pensions and some of the people speaking did not really know the facts. Although I was not a speaker, I asked if I could re-establish some facts about how the pension system works because there were so many mistakes in what they were saying. I had been confronted with these kinds of questions daily as director of a company. I know exactly how these kinds of things work. So they asked me to join their committee because they had the same lack of knowledge about the heath insurance system. Some of them were speaking about it quite incorrectly. I Said OK and I joined the organization”. Such individuals find a way of using their expertise in these associations (for example, their knowledge of the state pension system or the regulatory management of pension funds). Such individuals may join such a group for self-validation, more than out of a desire to defend the interests advocated by the groups. Such individuals tend to focus on their professional careers and leave aside their family lives or hobbies.
  • 2) A “continuous involvement on familiar ground” describes those who are very politically involved. This second type is the result of 1) a logical continuation of former involvement, as in political parties, trade unions, or professional associations, and 2) involves working with activists already known from other organizations where they have participated over the years on protest events, or in trade unions together. As one man said: “Before I retired, I was a union member and when I retired the question was: ‘Now that I’m retired, what can I do in my trade union?’ I had been campaigning within the framework of my job but also on more general issues. I was president of the regional section of my trade union for employees working for the state. But could I still campaign, as a retired person, within the frame work of my job? For sure, I could support my former colleagues in their campaigns, but I’m no longer in my old workplace. In fact, my job now is to manage my own ageing. There are some general problems concerning ageing, and so I’ve decided to campaign about ageing. So I get involved in some seniors’ associations”. Another said: “It was 1996, and I was still president of the city council in my town, or I was just finishing. I didn’t really think of campaigning for this kind of stuff, but, at the same time, I’ve campaigned all my life for social progress. And I knew a lot of people. The vice-president of the Federation in my canton came to see me. He had been the personnel manager of the canton’s public employees, a very respectable guy that I had often interacted with during my career. He came to me and asked me if I could take part at this seniors’ organization. The former chief of the city’s department of social affairs was also a member and he was also a person that I really admired. I also knew the former president of this organization a little. And so I decided to get involved in this organization”. They all know the rules of associative action, identify themselves in this way of organizing an action and already know some of the members of these organizations through their previous involvement. This new involvement often comes at the invitation of former co-militants or co-workers. People who have a “continuous involvement on familiar ground” in these organizations are affiliated with parties considered on the left or at the centre of the political spectrum: the Popular Workers’ Party, the Socialist Party, the Social Christian Party, and the Democratic Christian Party.
  • 3) “A deferred political involvement” includes those for whom retirement is a good time to renew former political affinities, to engage in previously deferred political activities, or to re-engage politically. As one individual said: “If I got involved in my organization, it was really not because I wanted someone to take care of me, but to help people who need help. And also, because I knew, during my career, some people who worked closely with this organization and for whom I had a lot a respect. I was working in Geneva as a psychiatrist, for me psychiatry was not giving pills, but it’s a job that has to be done with social assistants (…). And some of them, but also some other doctors that I had to work with or I’d heard of were members of the Popular Workers’ Party and founding members of an organization for the elderly, the disabled, widows and orphans. And they were really fighting to find solutions for people in need, like some of my patients. I didn’t really know them, but I had a lot of respect for them. And so, as I was still working, I decided that with my retirement, I would become a member of this organization”. Invariably such individuals encountered in their families or in their professional lives a much politicized relative or elected representative, whose involvement fascinated them and motivated them to join the cause. This type of political involvement, often impossible during their professional years, can be undertaken more freely after the retirement. This is similar to what Dauvin and Siméant (2002:162) define as “conforming to models of completion”. Retirement gives these individuals the opportunity to resolve the tension between the fact they have never been involved but wanted to be; it is a time to merge a “wanted” identity with a “real” identity. Retirement is the time to participate in a cause started decades earlier by people they respect.
  • 4) “Giving to exist” describes those individuals who desire to give back something (because they can afford it or have the energy for it); “giving” (time, for example) means that they belong to the group that “can give.” One woman said: “My activities are what keeps me alive. I’m not a woman who stays in her rocking chair or who knits pullovers for Rwanda. If that’s all I did, I would be really depressed. The less I think about myself, the better I feel. I need to feel useful. When you are alive, when you grow old, you need to feel useful. For that matter, when a few years ago I received disability insurance, some people said I was crazy to do everything that I was doing as I was receiving this insurance. But I needed to do something, to help other people. I said I needed to do a lot of volunteer work in order to “earn” the insurance money. It is perhaps a misplaced pride but I don’t want to not be part of the working world. Now I’m retired but for me retirement doesn’t exist. My activities are the joys of my life”. These individuals give time to elderly interest groups as well as to other groups, whether they are religious or mutual aid groups.
  • 5) “Enjoying leisure time and meeting people” refers to those who attend the activities organized by the associations for enjoyment rather than as volunteer workers or organizers. As one man said: “When I joined the association, it was because a friend was already a member and he knew that I was often walking and cycling alone. My wife is still working so I’m doing a lot of things alone. And I don’t really look for company. But my friend told me: “Why don’t you come and walk with us? The group is friendly.” And I’ve decided to go with them, once a week”. Their participation in the activities of the association is linked to a desire for social interaction: meeting people, seeing acquaintances, enjoying the afternoon with them. These people are not necessarily handicapped or isolated, and tend to be more elderly (In my sample, they were born before 1931). They also describe themselves as not very politically competent.

The interviews illuminated possible forms of involvement of the members. But if some other authors have already shown some of these forms of involvement (Simoneit, 1993), it seems more important to link these types of involvement with particular places of involvement in the organisations (see Figure 1).

Figure 1.

 Involvement and positioning in the groupNotes: [+] means that people with such type of involvement will be present at this organizational level; [−] means that people with such type of involvement won’t be present at this organizational level.

The interview data shed light on the implicit and explicit, as well as on the visible or hidden, selection processes at play in these organizations. As Gaxie (1978) shows, political involvement depends on the authority individuals give themselves to act in this area, which is based on their impression of competence (i.e., qualified to intervene at the same time as being sufficiently informed). This process is a function of social class, gender, age, and level of education. Firstly, the interviews show that only those who see their involvement as an “expert” or as “continuous on familiar ground” are present (that is, have chosen or been elected) at a national level within their association or within FARES/VASOS12. Secondly, the data reveal that these interviewees (those who see their involvement as an “expert” or as “continuous on familiar ground”) are all highly educated; they are academics, engineers, and graduates of competitive higher education institutions who held various management positions within companies or associations. On the other hand, interviewees in the three other involvement categories and who operate at the local and cantonal level have not graduated from a university or a superior school. Last but not least, the nature of involvement is connected with the existence of prior activist experience, such as in a political party or a trade union. Looking at those involved at the national level (in their organizations) within FARES/VASOS or CSA/SSR, we see that 13 of the 17 interviewees involved at that level have experience in a trade union or in a political party whereas the other 4 were employees in human resources services in national companies. It is experienced activists who become involved in pensioners’ organizations at the national level, and even though parliamentary experience is not required by the statutes of FARES/VASOS in order to become president of the organization, the two co-presidents in 2007 were formers MP’s13.

These interviews indicate that those who campaign at a national level are mostly older activists involved in leftist political parties or trade unions, and that they find in the seniors’ organizations an opportunity for a “continuous involvement on familiar ground”. This involvement occurs in a familiar environment for them, whether organizationally because they are accustomed to community norms or relationally because they meet up with former colleagues. This type of involvement is done by cooptation (Selznick, 1948 and 1966 [1949]). If former cantonal or national MPs, or former trade unionists become the heads of these organizations, it is because the recruitment is not done internally (i.e. inside the association) but by asking external people with specific skills to take the role. The interviewees reported that they had been approached by former activists or colleagues who convinced them to get involved in these associations because of their competencies or because of their current or former political positions.

These organizations provide a new opportunity for individuals to use resources or knowledge from their time in other activist groups or in their professional careers. These are individuals who can be characterized by an ‘overinvestment’ in activism and for whom professional life, political participation, leisure activities, and friendship have always been integrated. Their involvement in key positions within these organizations allows them to continue a life of activism as well as to maintain important social networks, particularly once they reach retirement age and must quit their jobs. Consequently, when asked to “retire” at the designated age of retirement, active involvement in seniors’ organizations allows them to continue their militancy despite the cessation of their career (Lambelet, 2011).

Thus, the interviewees, former leftist activists, have found opportunities for involvement in these seniors’ organizations, where they can carry on former battles. A co-founder of the FARES/VASOS, born in 1916, was already campaigning for maternity insurance in the 1940’s. Women activists say they are doing the same thing as seniors that they did before as women: campaigning for their autonomy and their capacity to make decisions about issues that concern them. These women are also fighting against political parties who consider women or the elderly as support for their campaigns but never ask them what they want. These activists don’t simply want to adopt positions held by leftist parties, but having worked hard all their lives to build a strong welfare state and policies connected with old age, health, and family, they are still working, in these seniors’ organizations, to the same end.

The intergenerational discourse appears, therefore, to be an extension of former partisan framings into a new one that claims to defend the general interest. This intergenerational discourse takes the place of former battles and promotes strong social policies for seniors as well as for active workers. If it takes the shape of an intergenerational discourse, it is nonetheless politically located. The different proposals supported by FARES/VASOS are most often supported by left-wing parties. On the contrary, the refusal to support the national bank gold initiative is a vote against an initiative supported by the Swiss People’s Party (UDC/SVP), a right-wing party. Quadagno (1989), in an article on the AGE – American interest group for generational equity – showed how the intergenerational discourse hides a political agenda that she refers to as “right-wing”: “Its success [of AGE] thus far can be attributed to its ability to obscure this right-wing agenda by building a broader coalition that speaks to the legitimate unmet needs of the poor” (1989:372). As in the case of FARES/VASOS, it seems that intergenerational framing may decisively and even unconsciously defend positions that could be called left-wing. The intention of the FARES/VASOS’ activists is not to reduce the benefits for the elderly but to improve the level of support for younger generations. We are dealing here with generational equity not from a restrictive but from an extensive point of view, thanks to the reinforcement of the welfare state.


I have questioned factors that could explain the choice of the intergenerational discourse by a federation of senior organizations. After a discussion of the American literature on this topic and because I have noticed that the more common explanations can also work in the Swiss case, I have tried to demonstrate that an interest for the activist career of the members gives us another way to explain the positions held by these organizations, particularly FARES/VASOS. Thus, we have seen how the positions defended by such organizations rely on diverse logic. They refer in part to a structural logic of a close association with the political authorities (whether by participating in consultation processes or through the subsidies it provides). They also refer to the transformation of the political context (with the emergence of retrenchment policies and counter-movements). They further refer to the possibility of such a discourse concealing from the public the differences or the internal inequalities of the member organizations of this federation. Finally, they refer more specifically to the “good reasons” governing the involvement of leaders.

The success of the “intergenerational” discourse seems thus to rely on its ability to integrate such tensions and constraints. It also relies on the diversity and the flexibility of the understandings and the investments of meaning it allows. It comes across as a “responsible” or as a “general interest orientated” discourse for the political authorities in a context in which the costs due to the care for the elderly are always criticized; at the same time, it appears to be a socially legitimate and consensual discourse for this organization. Most of all, it offers its leaders opportunity to fight for the expansion of the welfare state.


  • 1

    A previous version of this paper was presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association, San Francisco, August 8, 2009. I would like to thank Professor Jill Quadagno and the anonymous readers of the review for their helpful remarks and comments.

  • 2

    As Campbell and Lynch wrote, working on the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) in the United States and on the Italian Pensioners’ Unions in Italy, and using tools such as the American Election Studies and the Eurobarometer survey as measurements, the gap can be great between the positions held by advocacy groups and those defended by the retired themselves. As they stated, “Given elderly individuals’ reliance on public pensions and other programs, they are likely to both oppose cuts to their own programs, and express relatively low levels of support for the state benefits for non-elderly. In contrast, elderly interest groups, with their interest in the long-term sustainability of the welfare state, may adopt other positions on welfare reform issues. Compared to elderly individuals, these groups are likely to recognize the fiscal and political necessity of trimming the growth of elder programs while championing benefits for the seniors” (Campbell & Lynch, 2002: 2).

  • 3

    These two examples are interesting because we can see how the elderly citizens voted against the positions of FARES/VASOS. Indeed, as Bertozzi, Bonoli, and Gay-des-Combes (2005:109) pointed out, basing their opinion on Vox analysis, “If it had come down to voters aged 18 to 39, the project on the introduction of maternity benefits would have been accepted on June 13, 1999. But given the vote of the elderly population, this reform was finally rejected by 61% of the votes. The popular initiative from the UDC/SVP seeking to grant to the AVS/AHV (the first pillar of the Swiss system of pensions) the totality of the profit made by selling the surplus of gold of the Swiss national bank is the opposite example. Rejected by 52.4% of the voters on September 22, 2002, this initiative had been approved by the over-60 age range”. The discrepancy between the positions of the elderly advocacy groups and the votes of the elderly voters can thus be seen in Switzerland just as it was observed by Campbell and Lynch (2002) in the United States and in Italy.

  • 4

    This kind of explanation refers in large part to the neo-corporatist theories. Our purpose is not to decide if Switzerland, Italy or the United States are countries with a neo-corporatist system (the debates on this question are extensive). Authors like Campbell & Lynch use this kind of explanation in the American and Italian case, an explanation that also works in the Swiss case.

  • 5

    In the scientific literature, the generational and intergenerational issues refer to two rather different questions. The first is related to the issue of financial equity or the equality of chances in the different generations (Williamson, 2003; Kohli, 2004). The second refers more vaguely to the policies that attempt to (re)create the ties between individuals from different generations in an aging society (Hummel & Hugentobler, 2008). In fact, both dimensions often overlap, as answers to problems of generational equity can be referred to as intergenerational by the people involved in associations who are not always aware of the problems of definition.

  • 6

    For more details, Lambelet (2010).

  • 7

    This paper does not focus on all of the federation’s work or on all the stances produced by the task groups but only on those taken in public debates about federal voting issues.

  • 8

    The 2006 annual accounts resulted in a deficit of 1,000 CHF out of a budget of 38,000 CHF and a total wealth of 68,500 CHF. Out of an income of 37,000 CHF, 29,000 CHF came straight from the Swiss Council of the Elderly, so from the Confederation, while the rest came from collective and individual subscriptions.

  • 9

    The Swiss Council of the Elderly, presenting itself as a “partner for all the society and political issues in general,” has centred its discourse from the beginning on discrimination: against political discrimination due to age within the political institutions (2002); against more expensive health insurance for persons over 50 (2002); for a representation of the elderly on the pension funds committees (2004); against age discrimination in the right to drive (2005); against the technological gap (2006); against fiscal discrimination of retired married couples (2006), and what the CSA/SSR refers to as “constitutional inequality” that “is clearly a discrimination;” against discrimination in the media (2006).

  • 10

    For a response to this book, see Gilliand (1983).

  • 11

    See article titles such as “The Young/the Old: War or Love” in Le temps stratégique, 1999; “Sex, Money, Youth: They Have Taken It All. What Do We Have Left? Kick the Old Out?” in Technikart, March 2004; “The Power of Old People” in Allez savoir!, February 2006; “Génération CPE [first job contract]: Spoilt Parents, Frustrated Children” in Le point, March 2006; and “The Generation War Looms” in L’hebdo, April 2006.

  • 12

    With the exception of the founder of the FSR; under the circumstances, the absence of formal education (as determining the feeling of political competence) was substituted by militancy, first in the youth Christian workers organization and later working as trade union leader. Gaxie showed (1978:174–183) how the experience gathered in such organizations can compensate in a large part for the political competence not acquired at school.

  • 13

    This selection is partly due to the integration, by the federal authorities, of the federation into the political decision-making processes. It is also related to the necessary or desirable expertise needed to write down the stances during consultation processes, initiatives, or referenda. The type of connection between the authorities and the federation as consultation group has then “forced” the federation to favour members who are best qualified to perform such duties.

Alexandre Lambelet is, after a post-doc at the Pepper Institute on Aging and Public Policy of the Florida State University, Visiting Scholar at the Centre d’études européennes of Sciences Po Paris thanks to a fellowship for advanced researchers from the Swiss National Science Foundation. His main topics of research are social movements and interest groups. Contact information: Centre d’études européennes de Sciences Po, 27 rue Saint-Guillaume, 75337 Paris Cedex 07. Email: alexandre.lambelet@sciences-po.org.