You’ve been studying the issues of the “third age” for several years already. What did you start with?

The first project by the Russian Science Foundation was launched in 2014. It was dedicated to social inclusion of the elderly. My initial hypothesis was that the best way of doing it is engagement: for those who are working, it is best to continue to work, and for those who don’t, it is better to find some new activity. Sure enough, it is not full-time occupation that I am talking about. That can be community service, or volunteering with at least a minimum wage. Only engagement in the widest sense of the word can ensure social inclusion.

As the issue of inclusion of the elderly is underdeveloped, and I’ve been focusing on studying third age issues for a long time already, I want to continue on with my work. In Russia, this topic has not been given enough attention, so studying it is all the more relevant.

As of now, we did many publications and released a book. We used many different methods for our research, starting with traditional ones like surveys, which we conducted in 2015 and in 2017. The former was based on accidental sampling, and for the latter, we did a stratified sampling by age and gender. In 2015, we paid more attention to the issue of information and the inclusion of the elderly in the modern information society. We studied whether they are ready to learn the basics of IT and using the Internet. In 2017, we focused on a wider range of questions: social services, medicine and occupational issues, having surveyed 500 residents of St. Petersburg.

What were the results?

I have to say that the results were only reliable from the standpoint of sociological methods. Personally, I don’t really trust them.


Both mine and my colleagues’ experience speaks to the fact that the elderly really care about answering questions “in a proper way”. This is why they often give answers they consider “proper”, which can often be untrue. Therefore, we have to deal with human bias.

Irina Grigorieva
Irina Grigorieva

For instance, being an elderly person myself, I know that there are many old people who go to cosmetic clinics and other medical institutions. Older women often use their services. Still, it is not common to talk about such things, which is why it’s hard to tell how often they go there, how much money they spend on such services and so on.

You said that surveys weren’t the only method you used.

Sure. We also did a set of interviews, and interviews imply communicating with a particular person, which makes them more precise. We also spoke to teachers at IT courses, and then to the elderly people who participated in them.

At the same time, we made observations by using technologies from ITMO University, i.e. collected data from Internet communities and social networks by using special software like IQbuzz.

For instance, we studied how communities of the elderly function. Why did we decide to focus on this topic?  Not so long ago, the idea of organizing activities for the elderly got great support from the social service system. We decided to test the strength of social bonds that are created at recreational centers where the elderly meet and communicate. Our joint project with Ludmila Vidyasova implied using special means provided by the eScience research institute for this purpose.

It turned out that such bonds are very weak. In a way, we’ve proved quite an evident idea: in order to remain socially active, one has to be work, both with others and alone. People communicate more actively if they are united by some location, or, as is the case with professional communities, by their education and common fields of interest. However, the elderly rarely have common professional interests, which is why the bonds formed at recreational centers are quite weak.

We also discovered that learning information and communication technologies has become quite a popular pastime among pensioners. Still, they find it hard to engage in the modern information-driven society, despite the effort society makes to get them involved. Nevertheless, we believe that the problem here has to do with not their learning skills getting worse because of old age, but rather the approaches used to teach them. Most are based on pedagogy, which focuses on teaching children, while there is such a field as gerogogics that is aimed at teaching the elderly, but doesn’t get enough attention.

So you say that many approaches that are currently used in social policy are ineffective?

Nowadays, the elderly are considered socially excluded. Still, I believe that the reason for it is that the approaches used by our social services and the government are not effective enough. What we have now is more about “pity”: the society aims to show appreciation for the elderlies’ past achievements and put them to rest. On the contrary, the proper way to go would be to create opportunities so that the elderly would be able to fend for themselves, and play a proper role in the world today, be respected for who they are and not just who they once were.

Do sociologists have an opportunity to influence social policy in such a way that it would cater to the tasks at hand?

For now, scientists can’t influence social institutions directly. Yet, the research tasks in this field look most promising. What’s more, they have become all the more relevant due to the recent pension reform that got off to a bad start.

The first issue to be solved has to do with engagement: it is important to show the elderly that they can continue to lead an active life. For a very long time, they were being persuaded that they can’t do that and have to make way for the young. This is an attitude that we have to let go of.

In addition, we still don’t have the data on how many pensioners continue to work, as most of them don’t work officially. This makes it hard to trace the digital footprints of the elderly. In our next project, we plan to use Professor  Boukhanovsky’s software suite to continue studying this issue, and continue to collaborate with specialists from the eScience Research Institute. We hope that a new approach will help us gather more interesting data.

What are the expected results of your work?

First and foremost, it should give us a true picture of the current state of affairs which, I repeat, we still don’t have. Social policy has to respond to the existing social risks. The most relevant is ageing, as, unlike health and financial issues, it’s inevitable. Currently, we can’t even figure out how the pension system has to be organized. In some 40 years, the world we live in can become totally different, though people still have to be sure that they will be able to fend for themselves during this long period.

Another important aspect is health. How can one stay healthy and capable? There is a hypothesis that a person who’s adapted to the specifics of their organism can live for a long time even if they have particular illnesses. We want to study this issue, as well. For now, we are planning to monitor which drugs people buy, which can be done by collaborating with pharmacies. Also, we are already using digital means to study what people post on the internet about their health issues.

Finally, an important focus of our work deals with people’s reactions to different solutions in the field of social policy. Obviously, we already have a great amount of data, including one that has to do with the recent pension reform.

Today, we need to figure out the ways to adapting social policies to the needs of the elderly. First of all, this has to do with the healthcare system, as the needs of the elderly in this relation differ from those of other categories. Secondly, that would be everything related to the elderlies’ engagement. In future, we’ll be dealing with not just the issues of engaging the elderly, but also with preparing middle-aged people for ageing, helping them adapt to the changes in their organisms and social life. We need to explain to the young that retirement is not as far in the future as it might seem, and they already have to be thinking about their pension, as forecasting changes in the modern world is most difficult.

Overall, this is a huge set of social and political issues. Social policy largely depends on how different populations perceive particular solutions, and we don’t have enough data. The methods currently used by sociologists are no longer relevant, which is why our goal is to study the current state of affairs and learn how people perceive their future. We already have many ideas on how to do that which have to check using modern digital methods.