Ask anyone in Britain or Europe to think of a typical migrant and the image that most likely floats into their mind is the Polish plumber or the Somali or Kurdish asylum seeker; or, from an earlier era, the Irish ‘navvy’ or the Turkish factory worker. Images, in other words, of young, mostly male, working-age ‘foreigners’ who are economic migrants, ‘guestworkers’, or refugees. Older or ‘later-life’ people have been excluded from the thinking and the literature on migration, unjustifiably so.

Ageing is less about life-stage and more about process. Whilst ‘age’ is a biological reality that may be measured in years, the meaning and experience of age, as well as the process of ageing, are socially, culturally and historically situated and constructed. In some societies, maturity and old age are related to life experience, being a grandparent, even using a walking stick; ‘elderly’ people may be venerated and looked after by the family circle. Elsewhere, older people are marginalised, rejected, hidden away; or the ‘culture of ageing’ may favour independence, individualism and attempts to remain physically and mentally active for decades beyond any notional retirement age.

Notions of relationality and intersectionality also enter the debate over the conceptualisation of ageing, especially in a context of migration and transnational familyhood. Older people are part of families and networks; intergenerationality is often the keystone of these relational structures of age. Whilst some research has documented the intergenerational ruptures and connections that migration and transnational living entail (King et al., 2006), less work has been done to explore the intersectionalities of ageing, including those brought out in a migratory setting; the ways in which later life intersects with other markers of social difference such as gender, ‘race’, class, sexuality, disability, and so on.

We can identify three strands of research on ageing and migration. First, there are older people who are left behind by migration. As younger age cohorts migrate, for work or lifestyle reasons, their parents and grandparents remain in the home country and a cross-generational rupture results within the family and the wider community. King and Vullnetari (2006) used the term ‘orphan pensioners’ to describe the plight of older generations in rural Albania, abandoned by the mass exodus of young adults in the 1990s. The challenges of the long-distance transnational care of the elderly have been thoroughly researched by Baldassar (2007) in the context of post-war Italian migration to Australia.

Second, there are people who migrate in later life, often at or around retirement. International retirement migrants are classic lifestyle migrants, seeking out pleasant rural or seaside locations. From the colder climes of northern USA or Canada, wealthy retirees head to the sunshine states of Florida and California, or further south into lower-cost Mexico. For some, the move is permanent; for others it is seasonal – they are ‘snowbirds’. Parallel flows of retiree migrants exist in Europe: Britons, Scandinavians, Germans and Dutch migrate to the Spanish coasts and islands, or to rural idylls such as Provence or Tuscany (King et al., 2000).

Our third category is those who migrate as younger people and who then age abroad. Given the histories of labour migration in post-war Europe (as well as North America, Australia, and so on), when millions of young men and women migrated to work in factories, on construction sites, and in services during the 1950s, 60s and 70s, this ‘ageing in place’ is currently a mass phenomenon. True, some have return-migrated to countries of origin upon leaving the labour market, but most have stayed, anchored by children and grandchildren who have been born, brought up, educated and socialised in the host societies. But there are other, more problematic, outcomes too. Hunter (2011) has written of the plight of labour migrants who went to France in the post-war decades as single migrants, leaving their families behind in North and West Africa, and who are still living sad, isolated lives in the hostels built to temporarily accommodate them as workers fifty years ago.

These three typologies are not discrete categories, and I return to the Albanian case to demonstrate this. Looking at the evolution of this migration stream, which in little more than two decades has seen more than a million Albanians – one-third of the country’s population – emigrate to Greece and Italy, the following sequenced interactions between age/ageing and migration can be observed (King and Vullnetari, 2006). Early departures – trekking over the mountains to Greece or crowding into boats to southern Italy – primarily comprised young men seeking temporary work. Following ‘regularisation’ schemes in both destination countries in the late 1990s, this short-term, irregular migration evolved into family settlement, leading to the abandonment of the older family members in Albania. Next, migration of the older generation started to occur, for several reasons. Grandparents could undertake childcare and home management, thereby releasing the migrant mother full-time into the Greek or Italian labour market. The three-generation migrant family also kept the Albanian language and culture alive within the household. But the isolation of the older generation then became a problem, as they were dependent solely on their families for social interaction; moreover, as the Greek and Italian-born second generation became older, the grandparents’ childcare role was diminished. Return migration of the older generation to Albania often ensued. Recently, however, the Greek financial crisis has destabilised the family settlement of Albanians in the country, and new necessities of transnational living and return migration are unfolding, lessening the isolation of those older people left behind.


Baldassar, L. (2007) ‘Transnational Families and Aged Care: The Mobility of Care and the Migrancy of Ageing’, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 33(2): 275–297.

Hunter, A. (2011) ‘Theory and Practice of Return Migration at Retirement’, Population, Space and Place, 17(2): 179–192.

King, R. and Vullnetari, J. (2006) ‘Orphan Pensioners and Migrating Grandparents: The Impact of Mass Migration on Older People in Rural Albania’, Ageing and Society, 26(5): 783–816.

King, R. et al. (2006) ‘Time, Generations and Gender in Migration and Settlement’, in R. Penninx et al. (eds.) The Dynamics of Migration and Settlement in Europe, Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

King, R., Warnes, T. and Williams, A. (2000) Sunset Lives: British Retirement Migration to the Mediterranean, Oxford: Berg.

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