Challenging Marginalization at the Universities of the Third Age in Poland


  • Jessica C Robbins-Ruszkowski Woodrow Wilson Internation Center for Scholars Weiser Center for Emerging Democracies, University of Michigan



active aging, postsocialism, Universities of the Third Age, Poland


Older people in Poland often describe and experience old age as a time in the life course marked by discrimination and marginalization. In this postsocialist context, a still-dominant Cold-War logic links older people to the devalued socialist past and younger people to the present and future of the Polish nation-state. Contemporary media portray old age as defined by physical and mental decline and social isolation. The most visible challenge to such temporal, bodily, and social exclusion occurs through Universities of the Third Age, where older people learn new skills, cultivate hobbies, and explicitly theorize growing old as a positive phase of life. Drawing on twenty months of ethnographic research, this article traces key sociocultural, political-economic, and historical factors that contribute to discrimination against and empowerment of older people in Poland. By analyzing national politics and media representations of old age together with ethnographic data from Universities of the Third Age, this article highlights the practices through which older Poles feel themselves to be transformed in old age—and asks who may be excluded from such practices—thus contributing to gerontological discussions of “active aging” and anthropological understandings of sociality in late life.