This myth-busting and question-focused textbook tackles the fascinating and important social and policy issues posed by the challenges and opportunities of ageing.
The unique pedagogical approach recognises the gap between the lives of students and older people, and equips students with the conceptual, analytical and critical tools to understand what it means to grow old and what it means to live in an ageing society.
• Myth-busting boxes incorporated into each chapter that unpack the common assumptions and stereotypes about ageing and older people in a clear and striking way;
• A multidisciplinary and issue-focused approach, interspersed with lively examples and vignettes bringing the debates to life;
• Group and self-study activities;
• A comprehensive glossary of key terms.
Answering questions which have arisen over years of longitudinal and systematic research on the social implications of ageing, this lively and engaging textbook provides an essential foundation for students in gerontology, sociology, social policy and related fields.
Many people are afraid of aging … much of the negative attitude is generated by a set of myths about individual and population aging that are not backed and often squarely contradicted by evidence. (Axel Börsch-Supan, 2013: 3)
If you are reading this book, chances are that you have signed up for a course in ageing studies or social gerontology, which is a sub-set of gerontology – the study of human ageing. Or, perhaps, you are working with older people and would like to know more about social policy issues related to ageing. You may even be one of those people who picked up this book because you are curious. Regardless, you are sure to have some questions about ageing and older people. In our experience of teaching people about ageing, we have identified a number of questions to which students want to know the answers, but are too afraid to ask. These questions range from ‘What counts as old age anyway?’ to ‘Will I have enough money to retire, and when?’. You probably have more questions of your own that relate to your personal experience, members of your family or what you have observed from news or public debate.
Whatever your question, we can assure you of two things: you are probably not alone in asking it, and the answer will be much more interesting than you expect. We have been so inspired by the questions that students have put to us over the years that we decided to use their curiosity to shape our whole book.
… older individuals with more positive self-perceptions of aging, measured up to 23 years earlier, lived 7.5 years longer than those with less positive self-perceptions of aging. This advantage remained after age, gender, socioeconomic status, loneliness, and functional health were included as covariates. (Levy et al, 2002)
It is a well-known fact that all older people will develop dementia. It is equally well known that when you pass the age of 60 you no longer have sex and lose the ability to function behind the wheel of a car (the two are not linked). These statements are untrue, but they represent commonly held misconceptions about what ageing is and what waits for us on the other side of turning 60. If these statements are false, how do they become so widely accepted? There are many reasons why these myths become ‘realities’; together we will explore the key components. In this chapter we will examine attitudes, stereotyping and prejudice, issues that unfortunately affect the lives of older adults and, indeed, of our own future selves.
Ageism is a prejudice unlike any other. A white person will never know what it is to live as a black person. A straight person cannot walk a day in the shoes of a gay person. A man will not experience the same glass ceiling of lower pay and slower progression faced daily by women in the workplace. However, given good fortune, we will all experience the ageing process and therefore ageism will affect us directly at some point.
We are entering the age of no retirement. The journey into that chilling reality is not a long one: the first generation who will experience it are now in their 40s and 50s. They grew up assuming they could expect the kind of retirement their parents enjoyed – stopping work in their mid-60s on a generous income, with time and good health enough to fulfil long-held dreams. For them, it may already be too late to make the changes necessary to retire at all. (Hill, The Guardian, 29 March 2017)
This chapter will describe the wide breadth of experiences of retirement around the world. For some people, particularly those who live in a country with a long-established welfare state and who enjoy good health, retirement can be a relaxing time where work-life balance is improved. For others, who live in a place where the statutory pension is miserly or non-existent, retirement is a continuation and sometimes worsening of grinding poverty. Disadvantageous circumstances are, in such cases, compounded by failing health and increased frailty that sometimes accompanies old age (Betti et al, 2015). So, the quality of retirement is intrinsically linked to the availability of an adequate income, commonly paid in the form of a pension. From the perspective of policy makers, pensions are important because they represent large proportions of governmental costs, as much as 46 per cent of social expenditure in some European countries (Ebbinghaus, 2015: 58).
In this chapter we will show how pensions can be interesting and easy to understand.
There are only four kinds of people in the world – those who have been caregivers, those who are caregivers, those who will be caregivers, and those who will need caregivers. (Rosalynn Carter, 2011)
In the opening paragraph of his book The Human Tide: How Population Shaped the Modern World, Morland (2019) offers a vivid description of population change in the UK since the mid-18th century. He gives the example of a typical young woman, Joan Rumbold, and her struggle to survive. In 1754, Joan was 19 years old and lived in London. There she met John Phillips, who gave her the dual gifts of a pregnancy and gonorrhoea before abandoning her. Like many desperate people at that time, Joan found herself falling on the mercy of the local workhouse. After some time, she was offered a job as a servant but, in order to take up the job, was forced to leave her son, John Junior, in the workhouse. He died there a couple of years later. Morland (2019: 3) draws the not surprising parallel that, ‘this unexceptional story of desperation, abandonment and infant death would today scandalise most societies in the developed world, triggering heart-searching and finger-pointing from both social services and the press.’
Morland’s (2019) book is an historical perspective on demography. Joan Rumbold’s story offers us a vivid, personalised account of what it was like to live without the welfare state and without the combination of scientific discovery and medical advances. It also gives us a flavour of what life was like for women when they had few rights, or none at all.
Aging populations are becoming more diverse in terms of color, culture, identity, disability, and socio-economic standing. As a result, the need for culturally competent professionals and businesses that serve and provide products for older adults is increasingly important. (American Society on Aging, nd)
This chapter addresses an issue that is too often ignored in textbooks about ageing. Even gerontologists – in fact, you might argue, especially gerontologists – might decide that it is convenient to group everyone over 60 into the single category of ‘older people’. Such categorisation is misleading. There is as much diversity and inequality in the older population as there is in the general population (Erber and Szuchman, 2015). For instance, rising inequality within birth cohorts is one of the biggest challenges facing policy makers in the coming decades. This means that we are seeing bigger income gaps between rich and poor retirees than between younger and older cohorts from the same class background (Walker, 2012). What this means on the ground is that we can see greater wealth disparity between classes. For example, those who were able to buy property or make investments during their working lives are retiring with substantially more resources than those who were unable to make the leap onto the housing ladder. Likewise, those whose income stagnated at subsistence rather than savings level are less likely to enjoy a financially comfortable old age.
We can see this when looking at the US market in terms of the disparity between white and African American homeownership. In 2018, total homeownership in the US was 64.
Women have another option. They can aspire to be wise, not merely nice; to be competent, not merely helpful; to be strong, not merely graceful… They can let themselves age naturally and without embarrassment, actively protesting and disobeying the conventions that stem from this society’s double standard about aging. (Sontag, 1972: 38)
In her many witty, insightful essays on life as an American woman, the late Nora Ephron offers some of the most quotable lines about each stage of the lifecourse. Her book Heartburn (1983) is a classic treatise on how women survive divorce. Her most famous film, When Harry Met Sally (1989) has become a 20th-century classic on heterosexual relationships. She sadly died at the age of 71 in 2012. In the final years of her life she published a number of humorous essays on being an older woman in America. Her words cut to the core of how gender and age intersect through the changing shape of the female body: ‘Anything you think is wrong with your body at the age of thirty-five you will be nostalgic for at the age of forty-five’ (Ephron, 2008: 1268).
We use the words of two second wave feminists, Sontag and Ephron, to open this chapter on gender as it is structured around critical questions asked by feminists who are interested in, or affected by, old age. Once we have laid out some differences in how men and women age, we use the concept of ‘intersectionality’ to look at reported experiences of ageing by men and women, critically examining how femininity and masculinity might interact with ageism and age-based social norms.
We owe all children a Planet Earth as wonderful as the one we have enjoyed. (Norwegian Grandparents Climate Change Campaign, nd)
In this chapter we tackle a complex but important topic in the study of ageing societies: solidarity between generations. ‘Solidarity between generations’ is the idea that people born in different periods and into separate birth cohorts support one another in order for the whole of society to thrive. This solidarity is a central fulcrum on which much of our social cooperation hinges. Everything from the financing of pensions and childcare, to caring for children and older people is dependent on people who occupy different life stages helping and supporting one another. This solidarity operates within families and at societal level. Within families, parents who are raising children are practising solidarity between generations. At societal levels, people who are currently working to support the education, health and welfare of the very young and the very old are practising solidarity between generations too.
Despite the significance of this form of social cooperation, solidarity between generations is not without its problems. In this chapter, we will take you through each of these debates, providing a critical analysis of how they affect the core principle of solidarity between generations. There are major scholarly debates around what constitutes a generation. Likewise, solidarity is not a concept we can take for granted. Social and political life in the 21st century seems destined to erode forms of solidarity and we examine how the ‘individualisation of the social’ is impacting on intergenerational solidarity (Beck, 1992).
You stole our future from us! (Placard displayed by two young women at a rally following UK vote to Leave the European Union on 23 June 2016)
In this chapter we will argue that research on ageing has failed to adequately take account of the role of political institutions and decision making in precipitating and responding to demographic change. In comparison with other areas of research such as care for older people or dementia, the political implications of demographic ageing have been under-researched. In this chapter we make the case that politics matters (Stoker, 2006) when investigating our ageing population. There are two ways to look at the politics of ageing. On the one hand, there is the issue of political participation – who votes and whether this is affected by age. On the other hand, there is the macro-level question as to how political decision making might affect population ageing, an important aspect of political demography. We will devote equal attention to each side of the debate, aiming to increase your understanding of both. We will draw on the work of demographers such as Weiner and Teitelbaum (2001) who argue that political demography (the study of population as it relates to government and politics) is an urgent challenge for scholars of population ageing. Given that the outcome of democratic elections is heavily influenced by population change, we will ask whether an ageing population is likely to lead to a ‘gerontocracy’ (rule by the aged). Examples from 2016 electoral events in the UK and the US will be used to illustrate this argument.
… in given historical circumstances, superior powers create systems of inequality and inferiority that bleed into individual lives. The ‘woman problem’ turned out to be sexism, not the supposed nature of women. The ‘Jewish problem’ was and is anti-Semitism, not Jews. The ‘Negro problem’ is still squarely racism. Now the whole world is said to be facing the ‘Graying Nation’ problem: too many old people, sickly, unproductive, costly, selfish … (Gullette, 2017: xviii)
‘Cultural gerontology’ is the term used to describe the growing interest in using arts and humanities approaches, methods and theories to understand ageing societies. This change, often referred to as ‘the cultural turn’ is very much the defining approach for early 21st century studies of ageing. While arts, humanities and other disciplines are making seismic and permanent impacts on how we view, discuss and understand human ageing, it is not possible to cover everything that is developing in a constantly changing area of research and study. Instead, we have reviewed a wide range of relevant literature, put it with our own experience and knowledge of ageing and tried to sketch a landscape of the field. First, we show how cultural gerontology offers a critique of political economy approaches (especially structured dependency). Second, we use narrative, an important analytical approach of humanities scholars, to show how the cultural turn has introduced scholars and students of ageing to new theory and methods. In practice, cultural gerontology scholars use narrative as a key method in offering robust critiques of biomedical approaches to understanding ageing, in particular the ‘decline narrative’, a point well made by Gullette at the opening of the chapter (and in Gullette, 1997; 2007; 2013; 2017).