Skip to main content Accessibility help
Hostname: page-component-dc8c957cd-4x6s7 Total loading time: 0.347 Render date: 2022-01-28T12:00:57.667Z Has data issue: true Feature Flags: { "shouldUseShareProductTool": true, "shouldUseHypothesis": true, "isUnsiloEnabled": true, "metricsAbstractViews": false, "figures": true, "newCiteModal": false, "newCitedByModal": true, "newEcommerce": true, "newUsageEvents": true }

Old age as a new class or an outdated social category? Objective and symbolic representations of later life

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 November 2020

Chris Gilleard*
Division of Psychiatry, UCL Faculty of Brain Sciences, London, UK


Age has become an increasingly contested form of division within contemporary society, with some writers suggesting age has become ‘the new class’ while others point to increasing ‘ageism’ in society. In exploring such competing claims, this paper examines the basis for considering age as a social class, category or group. Drawing upon Bourdieu's writings on classification and the criteria for what constitutes a social class or category and the ‘objective’ and ‘symbolic’ criteria defining it, the paper argues that the material criteria for distinguishing between ‘retired’ and ‘working-age’ households have almost disappeared. At the same time, the symbolic representation of age is no longer confined to the parameters of poverty. Shorn of its objective distinction, the symbolic representation of old age seems to have bifurcated, between a generational identity where older people are represented as an advantaged group and an aged identity still essentialised as old and weak. The dissolution of an objective material basis for framing age has taken away much of the underlying basis for a coherent symbolic categorisation of age. Later life might better be seen as a contested symbolic space, framed by the dual axes of socio-historical generation and corporeal, chronological agedness.

Copyright © The Author(s), 2020. Published by Cambridge University Press

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


Abel-Smith, B and Townsend, P (1965) The Poor and the Poorest (Occasional Papers on Social Administration No. 17). London: G. Bell & Sons.Google Scholar
A'Hearn, B, Baten, J and Crayen, D (2009) Quantifying quantitative literacy: age heaping and the history of human capital. Journal of Economic History 69, 783808.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Ayalon, L (in press) There is nothing new under the sun: ageism and intergenerational tension in the age of the COVID-19 outbreak. International Psychogeriatrics. Available online doi:10.1017/S10416102200005751-4.Google Scholar
Barken, R (2019) ‘Old age’ as a social location: theorizing institutional processes, cultural expectations, and interactional practices. Sociology Compass 13, e12673.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Beckett, F (2010) What Did the Baby Boomers Ever Do for Us? London: Biteback Publishing.Google Scholar
Bourdieu, P (1986) Forms of capital. In Richardson, JG (ed.), Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education. New York, NY: Greenwood Press, pp. 241258.Google Scholar
Bourdieu, P (1987) What makes a social class? On the theoretical and practical existence of groups. Berkeley Journal of Sociology 32, 117.Google Scholar
Bourdieu, P (1992) Language and Symbolic Power. Cambridge: Polity Press.Google Scholar
Bourdieu, P (2018) Classification Struggles: Lectures at the College de France, 1981–1982. Cambridge: Polity Press.Google Scholar
Bourquin, P, Cribb, J, Waters, T and Xu, X (2019) Living Standards, Poverty and Inequality in the UK: 2019. London: Institute of Fiscal Studies. Available at Scholar
Bristow, J (2016) The making of ‘Boomergeddon’: the construction of the Baby Boomer generation as a social problem in Britain. British Journal of Sociology 67, 575591.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Bristow, J (2019) Stop Mugging Grandma: The Generation Wars and Why Boomer Blaming Won't Solve Anything. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
Bytheway, B (2005) Ageism and age categorization. Journal of Social Issues 61, 361374.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Cain, LD (1974) The growing importance of legal age in determining the status of the elderly. The Gerontologist 14, 167174.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Case, A and Deaton, A (2015) Rising morbidity and mortality in midlife among white non-Hispanic Americans in the 21st century. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 112, 1507815083.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Cole, D (1962) The Economic Circumstances of Old People. Welwyn, UK: Codicote Press.Google Scholar
Costa, DL (2000) Understanding the twentieth-century decline in chronic conditions among older men. Demography 37, 5372.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Coupland, J (2009) Discourse, identity and change in mid-to-late life: Interdisciplinary perspectives on language and ageing. Ageing & Society 29, 849861.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Cowgill, DO (1974) The aging of populations and societies. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 415, 118.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Cowgill, DO and Holmes, LD (1972) Aging and Modernization. New York, NY: Appleton-Century-Crofts and Fleschner Publishing Company.Google Scholar
Crayen, D and Baten, J (2008) Global trends in numeracy 1820–1949 and its implications for long-run growth. Center for Economic Studies and ifo Institute, Munich, CESifo Working Paper 2218.Google Scholar
Crystal, S, Dannefer, D and Hudson, R (2018) Cohort differences in life-course inequality: advances in theory and research on cumulative dis/advantage. Innovation in Aging 2, supplement 1, 403.Google Scholar
Emery, T (2012) Intergenerational conflict: evidence from Europe. Journal of Population Ageing 5, 722.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Emigh, RJ (2002) Numeracy or enumeration? The uses of numbers by states and societies. Social Science History 26, 653698.Google Scholar
Erk, J (2017) Is age the new class? Economic crisis and demographics in European politics. Critical Sociology 43, 5971.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Eyerman, R and Turner, BS (1998) Outline of a theory of generations. European Journal of Social Theory 1, 91106.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Fogel, RW (2004) The Escape from Hunger and Premature Death, 1700–2100: Europe, America, and The Third World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Fraser, N (1995) From redistribution to recognition? Dilemmas of justice in a post-Socialist world. New Left Review 212, 6893.Google Scholar
Gilleard, C (in press) The changing fortunes of UK retired households, 1977–2017. International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy. Available online doi:10.1108/IJSSP-05-2020-0162.Google Scholar
Gilleard, C and Higgs, P (2005) Contexts of Ageing: Class, Cohort and Community. Cambridge: Polity Press.Google Scholar
Gilleard, C and Higgs, P (2009) The power of silver: age and identity politics in the 21st century. Journal of Aging & Social Policy 21, 277295.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Goerres, A (2008) The grey vote: determinants of older voters’ party choice in Britain and West Germany. Electoral Studies 27, 285304.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Gruenberg, EM (2005) The failures of success. The Milbank Quarterly 83, 779800.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Gullette, MM (2012) Agewise: Fighting the New Ageism in America. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
Gullette, MM (2017) Ending Ageism or How Not to Shoot Old People. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Hamil-Luker, J (2001) The prospects of age war: inequality between (and within) age groups. Social Science Research 30, 386400.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Heller, MPS (2003) Who Will Pay? Coping with Aging Societies, Climate Change, and Other Long-term Fiscal Challenges. Washington, DC: International Monetary Fund.Google Scholar
Higgs, PF, Hyde, M, Gilleard, CJ, Victor, CR, Wiggins, RD and Jones, IR (2009) From passive to active consumers? Later life consumption in the UK from 1968–2005. Sociological Review 57, 102124.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Howker, E and Malik, S (2010) Jilted Generation: How Britain Has Bankrupted Its Youth. London: Icon Books.Google Scholar
Howker, E and Malik, S (2013) Jilted Generation: How Britain Has Bankrupted Its Youth, Revised Edn. London: Icon Books.Google Scholar
Hyde, M and Jones, IR (2015) Social class, age and identity in later life. In Formosa, M and Higgs, P (eds), Social Class in Later Life: Power, Identity and Lifestyle. Bristol, UK: Policy Press, pp. 7394.Google Scholar
Institute of Fiscal Studies (2019) Living Standards, Inequality and Poverty Spreadsheet, 1961–2017. Available at Scholar
Kotlikoff, LJ and Burns, S (2005) The Coming Generational Storm: What You Need to Know About America's Economic Future. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
Levy, BR (2017) Age-stereotype paradox: opportunity for social change. The Gerontologist 57, S118S126.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Low, J and Dupuis-Blanchard, S (2013) From zoomers to geezerade: representations of the aging body in ageist and consumerist society. Societies 3, 5265.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
McHugh, KE (2003) Three faces of ageism: society, image and place. Ageing & Society 23, 165185.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Ministry of Labour and National Service (1957) Report of an Enquiry into Household Expenditure, 1953–54. London: HMSO.Google Scholar
Office for National Statistics (ONS) (2016) Household Debt Inequalities. Newport, UK: ONS. Available at Scholar
Office for National Statistics (ONS) (2017) What Has Happened to the Income of Retired Households in the UK Over the Past 40 Years? Newport, UK: ONS. Available at Scholar
Office for National Statistics (ONS) (2018 a) Total Net Property Wealth by Household Reference Person (HRP) Age. Newport, UK: ONS. Available at Scholar
Office for National Statistics (ONS) (2018 b) Percentage of Households with Wealth in Formal Financial Assets Excluding Current Accounts by Household Reference Person: Great Britain, July 2014 to June 2016. Newport, UK: ONS. Available at Scholar
Office for National Statistics (ONS) (2019) Early Indicator Estimates from the Wealth and Assets Survey: Attitudes Towards Saving for Retirement, Automatic Enrolment into Workplace Pensions and Financial Situation, July 2016 to December 2017. Newport, UK: ONS. Available at Scholar
Pickard, S (2019) Age war as the new class war? Contemporary representations of intergenerational inequity. Journal of Social Policy 48, 369386.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Prévost, JG and Beaud, JP (2015) Statistics, Public Debate and the State, 1800–1945: A Social, Political and Intellectual History of Numbers. London: Routledge.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Rahman, F (2019) The generation of poverty: poverty over the life course for different generations. Resolution Foundation, London, Briefing Paper.Google Scholar
Resolution Foundation (2019) Home Ownership in the UK. London: Resolution Foundation. Available at Scholar
Roebuck, J (1979) When does ‘old age’ begin? The evolution of the English definition. Journal of Social History 12, 416428.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Rowntree, BS (1901) Poverty: A Study of Town Life. London: Macmillan.Google Scholar
Rowntree, BS and Lavers, GR (1951) Poverty and the Welfare State: A Third Social Survey of York Dealing Only with Economic Questions. London: Longmans.Google Scholar
Shragge, E (1984) Pensions Policy in Britain: A socialist analysis. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
Sinn, H-W and Uebelmesser, S (2002) Pensions and the path to gerontocracy in Germany. European Journal of Political Economy 19, 153158.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Street, D and Cossman, JS (2006) Greatest generation or greedy geezers? Social spending preferences and the elderly. Social Problems 53, 7596.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Taylor, P (2020) The revolt of the white-haired. Politico Europe. Available at Scholar
Thurow, LC (1996) The Future of Capitalism. London: Nicolas Brealey.Google Scholar
Townsend, P (1963) The Family Life of Older People. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books.Google Scholar
Townsend, P (1981) The structured dependency of the elderly. Ageing & Society 1, 528.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Turner, BS (1989) Ageing, status politics and sociological theory. British Journal of Sociology 40, 588606.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Turner, BS (1998) Ageing and generational conflicts: a reply to Sarah Irwin. British Journal of Sociology 49, 299304.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Walker, A (1980) The social creation of poverty and dependency in old age. Journal of Social Policy 9, 4975.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Weiss, D and Lang, FR (2012) The two faces of age identity. GeroPsych: The Journal of Gerontopsychology and Geriatric Psychiatry 25, 514.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Westerhof, GJ, Miche, M, Brothers, AF, Barrett, AE, Diehl, M, Montepare, JM, Wahl, H-W and Wurm, S (2014) The influence of subjective aging on health and longevity: a meta-analysis of longitudinal data. Psychology and Aging 29, 793802.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
White, J (2017) Climate change and the generational timescape. Sociological Review 65, 763778.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Willetts, D (2010) The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Took Their Children's Future – and Why They Should Give It Back. London: Atlantic.Google Scholar
Willetts, D (2019) War and Peace. David Willetts Reviews Two of the Latest Books on Intergenerational Equity for the Financial Times. London: Resolution Foundation. Available at Scholar
Williams, R (1987) Images of age and generation among older Aberdonians. In Bryman, A, Bytheway, B, Allatt, P and Keil, T (eds), Rethinking the Life Cycle. London: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 88102.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Williamson, JB and Watts-Roy, DM (1999) Framing the generational equity debate. In Williamson, JB, Watts-Roy, DM and Kingson, ER (eds), The Generational Equity Debate. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, pp. 339.Google Scholar

Send article to Kindle

To send this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about sending to your Kindle. Find out more about sending to your Kindle.

Note you can select to send to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be sent to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

Old age as a new class or an outdated social category? Objective and symbolic representations of later life
Available formats

Send article to Dropbox

To send this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Dropbox.

Old age as a new class or an outdated social category? Objective and symbolic representations of later life
Available formats

Send article to Google Drive

To send this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Google Drive.

Old age as a new class or an outdated social category? Objective and symbolic representations of later life
Available formats

Reply to: Submit a response

Please enter your response.

Your details

Please enter a valid email address.

Conflicting interests

Do you have any conflicting interests? *