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We’re thinking a lot about career development in ERA at the moment. Careers in and outside academia will be the main focus of our pre-conference ‘Better Futures for Gerontologists’ on July 5 (the day before the main BSG conference).  Thanks to everyone who has signed up, shared the link or offered to contribute – we are looking forward to seeing you. There are still spaces for any early career researchers who haven’t signed up yet – via our  Eventbrite page.

According to the Thesis Whisperer (Inger Mewburn) all emerging researchers should be preparing for a life outside academia. She says: “The first step is to start consciously approaching your PhD like you won’t be an academic and pushing back on these explicit and implicit expectations”.  Her advice is increasingly re-iterated in numerous forums.

However, for those who love research, more clarity is needed on the possibilities for worthwhile research outside a university environment. For some early career researchers, nowhere matches up to academia as the best place to create the new knowledge and to work as ‘scholar activists’ (translating research into action) or ‘pracademics’ (scholars who are practitioners in their field) or ‘honest brokers’ (scholars trusted to lay out all the issues).  When they find themselves trapped in precarious job limbo they refuse to put on brave faces and stay silent about their structural disadvantage as casualised academic workers – there’s more on this and  the recent strike action on the UCU (University and College Union) website.

Despite the gloomy outlook for some in academia, it’s not all doom and gloom in gerontology. Early career gerontologists come from all sorts of personal and professional backgrounds, and some are on their fifth career. Many seem to feel optimistic about future opportunities and find their work meaningful and worthwhile, amidst hope, desire, anxiety and uncertainty.

All credit to the BSG’s new Special Interest Group Ageing Business Society and its members for putting on events about ‘Alt-ac’ work.  ‘Alt-ac’ is short for alternative-academic. It sounds like jargon, but is a nicer term than ‘careers outside academia’. It evokes the possibility of being ‘in-between’ or ‘peri’ or ‘para’ or ‘hybrid’ or ‘on the fringes’, rather than the starker ‘outside’ academia. It also draws attention to opportunities to transfer academic skills to a range of fields, such as monitoring, evaluation, impact, innovation and insights, in the business, policy and charity sectors.

There’s one unanswered question. What should early career researchers who want to put their gerontology research skills to good use call themselves? If we were in a lift and asked to explain what we do in 30 seconds (the famous ‘elevator pitch’ idea) I’m not sure how many of us would call ourselves gerontologists.

I personally wouldn’t. I say that I’m a researcher interested in ageing, later life and longevity and work in and outside academia – but it depends on who I’m talking to. I haven’t yet figured out a succinct explanation, like this one from an entrepreneur who says she has moved from ‘soliciting’ to ‘scrubbing’ (she has switched from working as a solicitor in the legal sector in the UK to running a cleaning business).

Some ERA members would call themselves gerontologists, or ‘Gerontologe’ in German. For instance, Christoph Heuser has worked as a geriatric nurse and run a care home in Germany, and won an award for an academic article while undertaking his doctoral research in Southampton.  His experience as a practitioner coupled with his scholarship mean that he can wear the badge, and he does so with rightful pride.  

In contrast, it seems that the term gerontologist can be a touchy subject in the UK. Perhaps it was ever thus, according to an Ageing Issues blogpost on the topic 10 years ago. The author reflected on her own ambivalence about the term, and on how many of her friends, family and colleagues thought gerontology was something to do with ‘geriatrics’ or ‘old people’.

Looking at the testimony in  The Ageing of British Gerontology  it seems that British academic experts on ageing often define their professional identity by their original discipline, and treat gerontology as a field or focus. Some seem to vary what they say depending on their current research. For instance, one participant says that she has variously described herself as an anthropologist working in cemeteries, a medical sociologist and a socio-legal researcher. Another says he has often called himself a sociologist of social policy and ageing.  Some make creative use of the prefix ‘gero’ – for instance the scholars in the Socio-Gerontechnology Network.

Outside academia there doesn’t appear to be much usage, even though anyone could use it. This is because the word ‘gerontologist’ is not a protected title for which one needs an entry in a professional register (correct me if I’m wrong). For instance, companies could appoint ‘chief gerontology officers’ or ‘gero-officers’ or ‘geron-officers or even ‘geront-officers’. We might see more of this in future, although the idea of catering to an exclusive group of older consumers risks perpetuating the notion of ‘difference’, as discussed in a Centre for Ageing Better blog

There’s one problem with this discussion. The question ‘do you call yourself a gerontologist’ focuses too narrowly on being ‘in or ‘out’ at one particular time in one particular place. Thinking about ‘accidental gerontologists’ is more useful because it captures the idea that many people might be ‘hidden gerontologists’ who are drawn towards and grow into gerontology, or stumble into it, or do it along with other work. ‘Accidental’ opens a space which lets us recognise our multiple identities and perspectives, and welcome in people who are on the same journey, but at a different stage.  I first heard it at our ERA pre-conference last year and see that it has even been researched and codified (of course it has, we all love research!) For instance: one study identified four themes relating to gerontologist professional identity (GPI) – accidental, prescriptive, situational or none.

This analysis and other nuggets are on the Gerontological Society of America (GSA) website. They have some great material on ‘Gerontology careers outside of academia: Broadening your horizons’ and a ‘careers in ageing’ week every April.  Reading through it all is such a useful reminder that different socio-cultural contexts are crucial when thinking about jobs – and of course The Gerontologist is the GSA’s journal.

Perhaps most useful of all regarding the word ‘gerontologist’ are the interviews for the GSA’s Women in Gerontology Legacy Programme.  One of the questions was perfect – “at what stage in your career did you start to embrace the term gerontologist?”  Some of the interviewees say that it was an accident of fate, and several mentioned the book ‘The Accidental Tourist’ by Anne Tyler. Others said that it was a circuitous route, or that they wear many hats. I was gripped by the warmth and soul that came through two short films in particular, those in which Toni Miles and Gail Sonnesso were interviewed by emerging researchers.

The upshot? It seems to be easier to use the word gerontologist in the USA, Germany and elsewhere, than the UK. But it’s OK to feel ambivalent in the UK and to use other words. The real issue is the flourishing of gerontology in all spheres, and the flourishing of gerontologists of all ages, in alliance with others, in order to challenge ageism and unequal opportunities for a good old age. As Pat Thane put it at the end of her book Old Age in English History “We need to work with a more complex and realistic picture of who older people are and of their roles in society and the economy than the simple, depressing, inaccurate image of burdensome dependency.”  

I’m off to walk the dog and have a think about our next Gerontology and Tonic – our discussion forums for accidental gerontologists. Thanks to everyone who attends ERA events for such interesting discussions, and to ERA chair Heather Mulkey for pointing us towards the Gerontological Society of America, to outgoing ERA Chair Matthew Lariviere for introducing us to ‘gerontechnology’,  to ERA treasurer Alison Benzimra for arranging ‘Alt-ac’ events, to ERA speaker Dinah Bennett for reminding us about elevator pitches, and to ERA committee member Christoph Heuser for inspiring this blogpost after an accidental Zoom chat.