This book focuses on older people as makers of meaning and insight, highlighting the evolving values, priorities and ways of communicating that make later life fascinating. It explores what creating ‘meaning’ in later life really implies, for older people themselves, for how to conceptualise older people and for relationships between generations.
The book offers a language for discussing major types of lifecourse meaning, not least those concerning ethical and temporal aspects of the ways people interpret their lifecourses, the ways older people form part of social and symbolic landscapes, and the types of wisdom they can offer.
It will appeal to students of gerontology, sociological methodology, humanistic sociology, philosophy, psychology, and health promotion and medicine.
This book aims to open debate so that issues surrounding life-course meanings – what people think is the meaning of life and what they value in life –attain a more overt status in gerontological discourse. Meaning is a social and personal matter, but also a political one; it affects political life and the preconditions for it are created politically. The approach to wisdom offered here specifically accommodates the sociality of human discourse, explicating wisdom in the context of everyday transactions – not on the model of the distant and perfect sage. It is a social, potentially political concept, with the potential to restore stature to later life: it emphasises significant groups of abilities people can work towards achieving, irrespective of whether they ‘work’. In this context, contributions by older people to the meaningfulness of human life-times can be seen not only as sources of challenge, but also sources of creativity and hope.
This chapter explores deeply-buried attitudes undermining both the significance of older people’s contributions to society and the struggle for language they face. Both relativism and hyper-rationalistic neo-liberalism make it impossible to see life-courses as offering insights of significant value. Even those who support ethical stances often misinterpret them as matters of mere preference or choice - leaving social and political decisions to be dominated by technical experts. This denies authority and interest to reasoning about the social and political world; it destabilises the conception of wise thought, even though the idea of ‘wisdom’ continues to play a persistent part in everyday life and in understanding older age. Key advantages include its capacity to absorb and analyse diverse aspects of the human condition: ethical discourse, the sociality of thought, the absence of certainty in private and public life, and the varieties of significance attributable to experience.
Since most people would prefer eventually to enjoy an old age in which they could flourish, it is of pressing concern how older people, often in conjunction with other generations, create meaning in their lives. The issues involved are partly political: when societies discourage the expectation that meaning can be found in later life, it becomes harder for older individuals themselves to find meaning in their lives, or to present themselves as having a right to opinions, feelings and projects. This is an acute form of social exclusion - but exploring it is not straightforward. Using examples from the author’s experience in Ireland, the UK, Germany, Austria and the US, the introduction shows how meaning in later life needs to be interrogated by methods that are not all univocal, nor based on isolated individual data, but span a number of disciplines and interests, including ethics and the study of wisdom.
Chapter 4 interrogates the notion of wisdom, reviewing work by psychologists and others, including the type of deliberation Aristotle associates with wisdom. He sees it as characteristic of human beings to use wise reasoning to share values and reach decisions about what is right, in both strategic and ethical senses: the highest type of discourse possible in our lives in the community. Accounts of wisdom may be perfectionist, demanding lofty individual achievement, but those preferred here are more hospitable to human imperfection. In this reading, wisdom is portrayed as engaged in by ordinary people, collaborating to achieve more insight than they could reach on their own. The chapter next explores related exchanges in art or literature, including popular films, examining their widespread appeal. Lastly, it gives examples from the author’s ethnographic research, based on familiarity with local practices, yielding a transactional, social account of wisdom highly applicable to later life.
Making meaning is a socially and existentially significant activity. To ignore this opens the way to a view of life, including later life, in which work is the be-all and end-all of human existence, and those lacking paid work are valueless. The chapter therefore explores a range of more constructive approaches among gerontologists to what meaning and insight in later life involve. These gerontologists draw on discourses of religion and spirituality, of developmental or positive psychology, or of social and political crisis. They may stress how morality, and the meaning of the life-course, are constituted in large part by the practices of everyday life – albeit in ways that are responsive to political and economic pressures. Such gerontologists are able to explore the lived experience of meaning, resisting ideologies and stereotypes that obstruct taking meaning seriously for and from older people.
This chapter offers a threefold division in gerontological approaches to meaning and insight in older people’s lives. ‘Meaning’ may, first, stress connectedness between individuals and some wider set of circumstances: having values or practices going beyond oneself. This may include ‘spiritual’ meaning, in the sense of transcendence, a feeling of connectedness with some wider aspect of existence; this is not limited to religious spirituality, and also embraces commitment to ethical meaning. Secondly, meaning may explicitly highlight the life-course, taking special account of the role of time. This includes ideas about personal development and ‘tasks of life’ – challenges in relation to community, work or relationships. It includes pride or lack of it that people may take in their own life-courses; generational meaning; and ‘generativity’. The third group focuses on meaning in the sense of insight. First, older people’s very existence can be a source of insight for others; secondly, life-course meaning may refer to familiarity with the human condition. Thirdly, there is meaning or insight in the sense of wisdom, explored in more detail in the subsequent chapter.
Populations around the globe age. For Western countries, this demographic shift is one of the biggest current challenges, challenging individual life plans, family arrangements, market structures, care provisions, and the financial basis of pension schemes. This volume uses the life-course perspective to investigate causes and effects of population ageing. The life-course perspective suggests that individuals’ experiences at an early age can influence decisions and behaviour at a later age. Similarly, historical events such as World War II or the current economic crisis can alter current and future live choices of the individuals who lived through these events. Thus, the foundation for population ageing has already been laid in the past, and the effects of today’s intervention into population ageing will only be visible years or even decades in the future. This volume explains how insight from demography and life-course research can be merged to gain a better understanding of population ageing. It then applies a critical perspective to illustrate social inequalities in life-course effects. Finally, it discusses the practical implications on these insights, e.g. on families, the labour market, and on policy-making. To exemplify the discussions, the book includes examples from across Europe, Australia, China, and Northern America.
Population ageing is a demographic phenomenon, which is often captured in population projections. Demographers make such projections based on a combination of fertility rates, mortality rates, and migration rates. These three pieces of information correspond to the life events of childbirth, death, and migration, which are structuring elements in life-courses. The present chapter draws on this connection between macro-level change and individual lives to illustrate that population ageing tells a story about life-courses.
The final chapter summarizes the findings of this book, discusses them, and draws conclusions. It thereby refines the initial explanation how the life-course perspective enhances our knowledge about population ageing, which was presented in the introduction. In particular, this chapter elaborates on the role of social inequalities and on practical implications emerging from this perspective. Additionally, this chapter reflects on country-differences in the findings, and on the role of historical events such as the current economic crisis.