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The aim of this paper is to review the social constructionist view of age and ageing that emerged in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It begins with a general consideration of social constructionism as an epistemological framing of the world, before turning to its use in social gerontology. It considers two distinct social constructionist approaches treating later life as a social reality: (a) as a structural consequence of the rise of the modern state and its organisation of the labour market and (b) as a consequence of shifting cultural and social representations. Arguing that the earlier more structuralist accounts have gradually become overshadowed by concerns over age as identity, socially constructivist approaches now place as much emphasis upon the social representation of age as on its social-structural organisation. The paper then reviews the costs and benefits of social constructionism in general and its becoming a key part in the study of ageing. Its benefits arise from drawing attention to the salience of the cultural and the social in fashioning age and ageing and thereby advancing the sociology of later life. At the same time, social constructionist approaches to old age risk neglecting an other personal and social reality arising from corporeal decline and fear of the body-to-come. The paper concludes by noting how, whether approaching ageing and old age as natural kinds or as human kinds, adopting biological or sociological methodologies, all such methods privilege the externality of age – whether as a social or a biological fact. What is not captured by either is the problematic internality of age. What might be called the subjectivity of age will remain a topic for cultural representation, beyond the methods of both biological and social science.
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.
This paper explores the concept of the completed life outlined in recent writing in the Netherlands on euthanasia and assisted suicide and its implications for ageing studies. Central to this theme is the basic right of people to self-determine the length of their later life, linked with the subsidiary right to assistance in achieving such self-determination. Although the notion of weariness with life has a long history, the recent advocacy of a self-limited life seems shaped by the new social movements presaged upon individual rights together with what might be called a distinctly third-age habitus, giving centre stage to autonomy over the nature and extent of a desired later life, including choice over the manner and timing of a person's ending. In exploring this concept, consideration is given to the notion of a ‘right to die’, ‘rational suicide’ and the inclusion of death as a lifestyle choice. While reservations are noted over the unequivocal good attached to such self-determination, including the limits to freedom imposed by the duty to avoid hurt to society, the article concludes by seeing the notion of a completed life as a challenge to traditional ideas about later life.
Ethnicity and race have become increasingly salient categories of social division for both policy makers and researchers in contemporary society (Bottero, 2004). As regards their social location in later life, however, they remain more or less marginal to the immediate issues they present to social integration and social conflict in the wider society (Torres, 2019a). The presence of ethnic minorities is itself seen through the lens of migration, whether as the consequence of historical processes of de-colonisation or of contemporary global unrest and upheaval. This is so particularly in the European context, while in North America ethnicity and race have rather different meanings and points of reference. In contrast to ethnicity which, at least until recently, has been refracted through migration and the self-narrative of its modern emergence, in the USA race is more surely located as a pervasive divide cutting through society. Their exclusion from full participation in the economy, which continued, albeit in more diluted form, well into the twentieth century, has placed African Americans as a group apart, distinct from the position of other ethnic groups whose members have often been seen as those who ‘built’ society. These divergent histories are crucial in trying to understand the nature of ethnic and racial divides as well as the accompanying experiences within Europe and America and their various realisations in later life. While they bring new meanings and interpretations to the concerns of old age, they do so in different ways, and through different historical trajectories in each of the two continents. In this sense, the divisions of race and ethnicity are themselves mediated by and intersect with the circumstances and experiences of age and agedness.
Before discussing the social divisions of ethnicity and race in relation to their specific realisations in later life, we should first consider what is being described by these linked but separable terms. Discussing how the modern state has sought to establish an appropriate organisation of ethnicity, race and migration, Ludi Simpson has made the following observation:
In the UK, the motivation for government measurement of ‘ethnic group’ can be traced to aims of anti-discrimination, multi-culturalism, controlling immigration, and social cohesion, each of which demands different categories and analyses.
Sociological writing about class has been criticised for being gender neutral, in the sense that many writers focus on distributions of power, income and advantages that emerged from the workings of the productive economy, a set of institutions and processes that until recently was dominated by men's employment and the profitable returns on capital with scarcely any reference to the role of women (Marshall, 1994). In her seminal paper on women and class analysis, Stanworth (1984) went further and pointed out that this focus missed the importance of both women's employment and the role that gender played in creating the inequalities of power and reward. Retirement too was framed by the termination of men's formal engagement with the labour market. Women's domestic labour was less visible and was assumed to continue in a more or less uninterrupted fashion throughout their adult lives. This is evident in how women's experience of retirement was described as ‘twice as much husband and half as much money’. These lacunae in relation to the gendered nature of formal and informal work and its aftermath in post-working life began to be addressed by the social sciences in the wake of the second-wave feminism of the 1960s and 1970s (Barker, 2015). Only in the last decades of the twentieth century did the role of gender in shaping difference and structuring inequality come to greater prominence with a greater recognition of the gendered nature of later life (Calasanti and Zajicek, 1993; Garner, 1999; Hooyman, 1999). While the focus of this research was initially based on treating ageing as a woman's issue, attention has since explored men's ageing as a relatively underresearched and under-theorised topic (King and Calasanti, 2013; Thompson and Bennett, 2017).
This chapter examines gender as a structured social division, a source of inequality that runs throughout the adult life course. Its realisation in later life will be explored through four themes. The first addresses the interaction between men's and women's paid work and their subsequent economic position in post-working life. The second examines the role of the household economy in maintaining and modifying older men and women's social capital. The third considers the differential experience of health and well-being among older men and women, while the fourth deals with the different representations of gender in later life in literature, the mass media and the market.
Social class and its related inequalities have been a mainstay of research in the social sciences. Research into class-related inequalities has existed alongside, but has often not been connected with, the concerns of class theory. Despite both approaches seeming to depend upon one another in order to give substance to their claims of social significance, a strange lack of engagement continues to exist between the two traditions (Scambler and Higgs, 1999). In contrast to the limited work on social class theory, social class-related inequalities have been extensively researched, particularly in relation to health, where the connection between class, health and mortality has been well established (Antonovsky, 1967; Bartley, 2004). Even though this research has been criticised for its lack of theoretical justification and categorical imprecision (Cartwright and O’Brien, 1974), it continues to bask in the glow of its underpinning the analysis of the ‘Black Report’ (Whitehead 1992), establishing what the UK Conservative government came to term ‘health variations’. Its influence has continued, with regular assessments of its impact (MacIntyre, 1997), as well as acknowledgement of its role in creating the burgeoning field of health inequalities research (Bouchard et al, 2015).
While the field of inequalities has eschewed highly theorised concepts of class, ideas of social gradients or status abound (Marmot, 2006) along with the assumed psycho-social pathways to ill health created by such gradients (Wilkinson and Pickett, 2010). In the UK, policy recommendations such as those contained in the Acheson Report and the Marmot Review have focused on strategies to overcome inequalities even if this has been described as ‘a labour of Sisyphus’ (Bambra et al, 2011). The lack of a clear understanding of the structuring of social class links together the two strands of thinking about inequality in all its disparate forms (Goldthorpe, 2010; Scambler and Scambler 2015; Wemrell et al, 2016). Those concerned with these issues are confronted with the fact that while the nature of social class analysis has long been a central issue in the study of society and its social divisions, class remains, in the words of one contemporary analyst, ‘a slippery concept’ employed through a wide range of potentially disparate indices (Bottero, 2015: 15).
Growing social divisions within society have become a matter of renewed concern as the forces of the financialisation, globalisation and marketisation of the economy have come to form the prevailing explanatory narrative underlying change in the contemporary world (Krippner, 2005; Stockhammer, 2012, 2015; Anttonen and Meagher, 2013). While terms such as divisions, inequalities, exclusions and oppression provide much of the social text for these narratives, there is often a lack of precision in the way they are used. In writing a book about the divisions of later life, it is necessary to begin by examining these terms and their employment within the social sciences. ‘Social divisions’ has been used in a number of ways to describe or represent the structuring of society and its social relations (Carling, 1991; Morris 1995; Anthias, 1998; Payne, 2007). Most uses tend to emphasise the presence and operation of objective structural differences between social groups and their consequences for the stratification of opportunity and advantage. Under this ambit are the ways in which social structures impact on the lives that people live, the opportunities and obstacles they face, as well as the ways they find to make sense of themselves and their place in the world. These latter issues constitute the subjective realisations of social division that exist both in the context of and in contrast to the objective institutional structures that realise such divisions. The former concerns issues of location or position, the latter identity and belonging.
The term ‘social differences’, on the other hand, is less focused upon hierarchies of inequality and disadvantage. Like divisions, it is concerned with the categorisation of persons. But unlike social divisions, it incorporates processes of creating and maintaining distinctions and structuring the separation between common selves and distant others. Identity and subjectivity play more of a critical role in sourcing social difference, while social divisions imply an externally ordered hierarchy of resources, power and status. This book aims to draw attention to both difference and division in addressing the diversity with which later lives are experienced, lived and socially realised. Consciousness of age or agedness constitutes a social difference, of course, but the consciousness of age does not necessarily map onto the structural divisions in power resources and status that exist between younger and older people.
Previous chapters have explored the ‘traditional’ social divisions of later life, namely social class, gender, ethnicity/race and disability. It has been argued that each has acquired a greater salience in the study of ageing in large part because of the expansion and diversification of later life itself. Each in their own way has served as both cause and effect in realising the ‘new ageing’ (Gergen and Gergen, 2000). Unsurprisingly their impact is most noticeable among recently retired cohorts of ‘baby boomers’ where difference, diversity and inequality are all more notable. Members of the oldest cohorts, by contrast, are less differentiated and less unequal, both in the diversity of their assets and resources and in the cultural habitus that have shaped their later lifestyles. Hence, the later lives of the baby-boomer cohorts define the contours of the new ageing more closely as they are more extensively engaged with the ‘cultures of the third age’ (Gilleard and Higgs, 2009). No doubt this will become even more evident as the cohort of the ‘late’ boomers, those born in the 1960s, reach retirement age. For now, however, those cohorts born in the 1940s and 1950s provide the principal arena where the social divisions of later life are most evident and whose consumer habitus continue to expand.
The social divides that we have considered central to this diversification of later life reflect (albeit in a somewhat reified form) many of the social differences, distinctions, identities and inequalities that render contextual the experiences and opportunities that constitute third age culture. This chapter shifts attention away from the sources of such broad social categorisation that have so far been addressed – of able-bodiedness, class, ethnicity, gender and race – towards a more general consideration of how the various social locations of later life are both crossed and realised by the intersections between them. In doing so, the aim is particularly to highlight the role played by the ‘new’ social movements not least in ‘queering’ the traditional territory of social divisions with their unmarked and essentialised binary oppositions. Issues of structure and subjectivity that were once central to Marxist approaches to class are now being raised afresh, in the distinction between divisions consciously acknowledged as social identities (or locations) and divisions that are neither acknowledged nor even recognised as identities or locations but which nevertheless serve to structure difference in people's later lives (Moran, 2018).
As the population ages, this book reveals how divides that are apparent through childhood and working life change and are added to in later life. Two internationally renowned experts in ageing look beyond longstanding factors like class, gender and ethnicity to explore new social divisions, including contrasting states of physical fitness and mental health. They show how differences in health and frailty are creating fresh inequalities in later life, with significant implications for the future of our ageing societies. This accessible overview of social divisions is essential reading for those interested in the sociology of ageing and its differences, diversities and inequalities.
This book is concerned with the social divisions of later life. It is not primarily a critique of inequality in later life, or a polemic for greater social justice in old age. Rather it is an attempt to illustrate how later life has become a more diverse social location than ever before. That diversity includes inequalities and differences that are structured by the social relations of work, the organisation of households and the changing nature of the economies of contemporary developed societies. However, it goes beyond this, exploring both what structures divisions and what structures difference. We have added the role of the body as a marker of division and difference in addition to the classical structural accounts of social division. While the disability movement has sought to reframe bodily impairments in terms of unequal access, and the anti-ageism movement has sought to critique the ideology of bodily decline by which age is culturally, politically and socially represented, we have considered the body as both a site and a source of social division that has acquired much greater salience within our ageing societies. We have also sought to identify how later life serves as both a site or social location of social divisions and an intersection mediating between social differences and social divisions. Just as class operates differently during working life, compared with how it operates before and after working life, so too we argue do other divisions, like gender, ethnicity and disability. Using later life as a lens to interrogate the nature of social division and social difference is as important as using social division and difference to illuminate the changing nature of later life. By emphasising this reciprocity, we hope to show that age and ageing are also matters of importance to social theory and the social sciences more generally.
Social divisions based upon ethnicity or race, gender or socio-economic position form relatively stable sources of identity across the life course. Other aspects of identity are less fixed, particularly those based on bodily appearance and physical functioning. While gender and race form relatively stable sources of embodied distinction, those categories associated with the corporeal markers of illness, impairment or infirmity decidedly do not. Though capable of serving as sources of identity and implicated in various forms of discrimination and inequality, disability and infirmity form rather more contingent sources of social division in part because of the temporal flux within which they emerge. There is a distinction, for example, between the predictable status of becoming aged and the less predictable status of becoming disabled, ill or infirm. Most people see bodily change as constituting the ‘authentic’ basis of age and ageing; reminders of the inevitable temporality that is attached to identity, location and status. Those changes that are evidenced by the ageing body, which do not reflect illness or impairment, best signify the universality attributed to growing old. However, the ageing body is also a site and signifier of illness and infirmity, neither of which convey the same message of inevitability, predictability or universality. The statuses of illness, impairment and infirmity embody and reflect the operation of chance and misfortune in a way that ageing does not; and hence they imply an inequality or unfairness that age lacks. And though culture and society may help or hinder the processes of illness and of infirmity, society per se is not considered their originating cause (Mendes de Leon and Rajan, 2014). Although the social provides the context within which people-as-bodies are framed and understood, the body's corporeality serves as the critical reference point for the signs of both ageing and infirmity. Corporeality acts as a common base. Its materiality as age, however, cannot be so easily subcontracted out to the operations of the economy, culture or society: Though in some sense a social division, it is not imbued with the same intimations of unfairness and misfortune.
Bodies, however thoroughly represented by their corporeality, cannot be easily separated from social processes. Ageing, just like impairment and infirmity, occurs within bodies but also within societies; but unlike impairment and infirmity, age does not reflect already existing social divisions nor does it construct new ones.
The central argument of this book is that later life is no longer an unmarked social category, defined and determined by its position at the end of a life already lived. If old age was ever such a straightforwardly structured social category, it is certainly not so now. It occupies a much more interesting social space than that. Not only do most people in the developed economies reach old age, but having reached it, most can reasonably expect to find their journey continue through it. Later life is expanding, in its length and in its diversity, creating a greater variety of ways of being an older person and living a later life. This, it is argued, constitutes a radical change, which is intimately linked with broader social changes associated with what Ulrich Beck called the transition from ‘first’ to ‘second’ modernity (Beck and Lau, 2005). The homogeneity of the older population, once taken for granted by policy makers as they legislated to secure old age, has since imploded. It is increasingly difficult to create a unitary set of policies capable of achieving ‘a happier old age’. Faced with the diversity and contradictoriness of later life, no singular categorisation of old age is sustainable, whether by markets, states or the service sector. No longer the residue of a life left over after the operations of a society of producers had done its work, later life extends into ever-widening social arenas. Consumerism and its lifestyle distinctions, the growth and multiplicity of social identities, the changing demography of the life course, the competing forms of community and the shift from collective social rights to individual human rights have all combined to transform later life beyond its earlier ordering as the secured end of a modern life.
Later life is not without its boundaries. It is still constrained by the institutions of first modernity as well as by the sheer weight of the body's own ageless ageing. The chapters of this book have tried to capture this duality, of later lives led differently, still shaped by the structures of the past but now fashioning themselves to face the challenges of the future. Many aspects of later life can be understood as the echoes of lives lived within the social divisions and structures laid out by prior experience.
In recent years, several authors have drawn attention to signs of growing inequalities in the ageing populations of the developed economies. Such formulations have employed the concept of precariousness to suggest that a ‘new’ precarity has emerged in old age. Questioning this position and drawing on data reported over the last two decades on income and health inequalities between and within retired and working-age households, the present paper argues that evidence of this ‘precarity’ is speculative at most and relates more to imagined futures than to empirically observed trends in the present. The ageing of ageing societies – that is the growing agedness of the older population – might imply an increase in precarity or vulnerability at older ages, but this is not a result of changes in the underlying economic and social relations of society. Instead, we would contend that it is the corporeal consequences of living longer. By conflating the various meanings of ‘precarity’ there is a corresponding danger that the very real changes brought about by population ageing will be underplayed, which may be to the detriment of the most vulnerable. The idea of a new precarity in later life may thus not serve the ends to which it is intended.
The development of social gerontology has led to the emergence of its own terminology and conceptual armoury. ‘Ageism’ has been a key concept in articulating the mission of gerontology and was deliberately intended to act as an equivalent to the concepts of racism and sexism. As a term, it has established itself as a lodestone for thinking about the de-valued and residualised social status of older people in contemporary society. Given this background, ageism has often been used to describe an overarching ideology that operates in society to the detriment of older people and which in large part explains their economic, social and cultural marginality. This paper critiques this approach and suggests an alternative based upon the idea of the social imaginary of the fourth age. It argues that not only is the idea of ageism too totalising and contradictory but that it fails to address key aspects of the corporeality of old age. Adopting the idea of a social imaginary offers a more nuanced theoretical approach to the tensions that are present in later life without reducing them to a single external cause or explanation. In so doing, this leaves the term free to serve, in a purely descriptive manner, as a marker of prejudice.
Whatever the balance between successful and unsuccessful ageing that is achieved by a particular generation or society, each success creates in its shadow new possibilities of failure. As more people age there are more examples, of both success and failure. The presence of the unsuccessfully aged, whether framed as the ‘aged and infirm’ or as those ‘impotent through age’ sees them become the objects of what we have called society's moral imperative of care. Where once their numbers were few and their circumstances more amenable to resolution, in contemporary ageing societies their predicament has become more challenging as the later lives of successive cohorts have improved. In response, the post-war welfare state has searched for alternative ‘post-modern’ resolutions beyond the modern developments of pensions and long-stay hospital beds. Community care, deinstitutionalisation and the marketisation of services have all been adopted and all found wanting.
Even in the light of scandals, funding crises and market failures, the moral imperative of care remains unchallenged. The provision of care for aged and infirm persons, now especially including those with mental infirmity, has lost none of its ethical underpinnings. Arguably it has become more sensitive to quality of life concerns compared with the care regimes of first modernity. This is reflected in the centrality of terms such as ‘dignity’ and ‘person-centred care’ in motivating improvement in the provision of formal care. In this book we have approached the problem of ‘unsuccessful’ ageing through the rubric of the fourth age and its positioning within the moral imperative of care. In particular we have considered how the new vocabulary of ‘personhood’ and ‘person-centred’ care serves to reduce the impact of such failure.
Personhood has become a pivotal term among those concerned with improving care particularly for people with dementia. Acknowledging the importance of personhood has become one of the defining aspects of policy and practice in dementia care (NICE, 2006; Nuffield Council on Bioethics, 2009; Thomas and Milligan, 2015). A concern for person-centred care is not confined to those working in this area, and has been applied more generally to people of all ages, and with varied disabilities and impairments. What makes the articulation of these arguments within the field of dementia care so significant is the way that dementia itself has been understood.