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Old age as a new class or an outdated social category?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*
Affiliation:
Division of Psychiatry, UCL Faculty of Brain Sciences, London, UK

Abstract

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.

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

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