In Conversation – Cornelia Schweppe on Retirement Migration to the Global South

Emerging Global Care Chains and North-South Migration

Cornelia Schweppe is Professor of Social Pedagogy at the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany. She has researched on a wide range of topics including transnational social support, transnational aging, retirement migration and old age care. 

Just before the COVID-19 pandemic, she brought together scholars looking at northern retirement migration to the Global South. The results will be published in her upcoming publication: Schweppe, C. (ed.) (2021): Retirement migration to the Global South. Global Inequalities and entanglements. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Matthew: Cornelia, just before the pandemic lockdowns, you brought together an international conference that looked at North-South retirement migration. There’s been an increase in scholarly interest in migration to the Global South. How did you become interested in this issue?

Cornelia: Well, it came out of our research projects in Thailand and Kenya. So far there has been a lot of focus on retirement migration within Europe, mainly to the Mediterranean region, but in recent years research drew more and more attention to retirement migration to countries of the Global South. Even though there are some similarities, there are quite a few differences between migration within Europe or within industrialized countries, and migration from those countries to the Global South. Researchers who look at retirement migration to countries of the Global South are still not a huge group, it’s quite a young field of research. So, we thought it would be wonderful to bring this group together and to interchange, try to connect, and define key questions.

Matthew: What are some of the key concepts that have come up in terms of studying migration to the Global South?

Cornelia: One of the most important is global inequality, and especially how it interacts with old age in the Global North. Increasingly, aging in economically more affluent countries is entangled with the Global South. Some of the unresolved questions of old age, and limitations of old age, are shifted from the Global North to the Global South. 

Matthew: What are some of the unresolved questions of old age that you that you’re pinpointing?

Cornelia: One of the new emerging questions is that old age poverty is increasing again. In Germany, for example, it was better for a while, but now the projection is that poverty in old age will again become a major concern, and not just in Europe. If you look at Canada, Australia, Japan or the United States, one of the main reasons people are moving from these countries to places in the Global South is low income, mainly due to low pensions. Rising health care costs and old age care are other issues. There is a so-called ‘care crisis’ in many Northern countries, due to inadequate political responses to demographic change and changed old age care needs. Old age care is often expensive and inadequate. 

Matthew: Your research has also drawn attention to a specific kind of amenity migration, that you refer to as precarity migration in your work with Desirée Bender and Vincent Horn. How does that migration differ from the types of retirement and lifestyle migration that dominated research on these types of migrants in the 2000s?

Cornelia Schweppe, Gutenberg University, Mainz

Cornelia: As I said, there are similarities and differences. Inner-European retirement migrations often figured under the label of lifestyle or amenity migration. But if you look closely of that research, we can see already there are signs of precarity. Sometimes, low pensions in the migration to Spain were obvious, but it was not the focus. In migration to the Global South it becomes much more pronounced. Also health- and old age-care related issues are more pronounced. 

Matthew: Is there something special about the way that people are aging at this particular moment in time that also has influenced the way that aging has become transnational?

Cornelia: Well, the life conditions of old age have changed. All the possibility for mobility, immediate communication, cheap flights are very important. This generation has had quite a bit of mobility experience, either for work or vacation. It is not unusual for them to travel. For example, in Thailand and Kenya, most of our participants had vacationed there before, had worked or have family relations there. This made it easier for them to contemplate a move. They were not just going to wherever. These were places that they knew.

Matthew: So, it’s a precarity migration to some extent, if we look at it from an economic or care related angle, but in your research in Thailand you talk about how it is also sometimes about love and intimacy. How does that enter the picture? 

Cornelia: It is another motive that points to limitations of aging in the countries of origin. We saw this in our research in Thailand. Many men who migrate to Thailand go there because they long for a partner to share life with in old age, but can’t find one in the country of origin. It’s different in Thailand. The Thai women they meet are often working in prostitution, searching for a way out of poverty. Many of them consider longer-term relationships with a “Western” man as a promising solution. As opposed to their experiences in their countries of origin, the men quickly receive the attention of women and are addressed as desirable and attractive men. So they feel upgraded as a man and often develop (strong) feelings for the women. But this doesn’t only refer to men. In Kenya, some of the European women who go there, it’s for the same reason and the experience is the same.

Matthew: So what are these relationships all about? How do material inequalities influence these emotions?

Money is an important issue in these relationships, yes. Usually men pay for the living expenses of the couple and give additional money to the woman. But two global inequalities come together in their relationships. International retirement migrants have, in comparison to Thailand, relatively good incomes, but lack emotional resources in later-life. The Thai women they meet are often working in prostitution, delivering a form of care work, let’s say, in the broadest sense, in order to cope with difficult life circumstances. So it is lack of emotional resources and lack of money that are entangled. It’s much, much too easy to say it’s money against emotion. In kinship relationships and romantic relationships, money has always been an issue. Love and money have been and are still often considered as opposite pairs and hostile to each other but this has been questioned and many studies show that this is not the case and that money doesn’t “corrupt” these relationships.

Matthew: Are the participants also critical of themselves to some extent? Can they see how their relationships might be viewed from the position of people from Germany, other people from Germany?

Cornelia: Some do, others don’t. Retirement migration is often labeled, oh they’re all privileged. They are privileged in relation to the local population, and of course there are power relations involved. But if they migrate, it does not mean that they really improve their life. There are possibilities but also many risks involved in aging in these contexts.

Matthew: So, their vulnerability basically can be increased by migrating?

Cornelia: Definitely! In Thailand, for example, there are lots of suicides, high levels of alcoholism and serious health problems among retirement migrants. Financial strains are another problem. The often relatively low pensions turn out to be insufficient even though they increase in purchasing power. The lack of social protection is also a problem. Germans, for example, when they migrate to countries outside the EU lose their health and old age care insurance. Many can’t afford private insurance that the market offers. When they get sick, they often end up using the public Thai health care system anyway, and public health systems admit them because they need care, but there are millions of dollars in unpaid bills left by retirement migrants, which of course is a burden on the Thai public health system.

Matthew: Incredible! So, where might this be going? We are in the midst of a pandemic. What do you predict for the future? Will things change, or continue on course?

Cornelia: It’s hard to tell. The life conditions in the countries of origin will continue to give enough reasons to migrate. But it’s a complicated issue. For circular migrants, for example, right now it’s more difficult due to changed border crossing regulations. Also, Corona has severely impacted many countries of destination. So that also might have on impact the decision whether to migrate. I think it’s a challenge to be faced by further research.

Matthew Hayes is Professor of Sociology and Canada Research Chair in Global and Transnational Studies at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, Canada.

One thought on “In Conversation – Cornelia Schweppe on Retirement Migration to the Global South

  1. Fascinating. Thanks for this really useful insight to your work. I have already recommended the blogpost to someone working on retirement migration in Colombia. Congratulations on the book.


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