Remembering My Hat

10th March 2011

Slow liveblog on ‘positive ageing’: Part 2

Filed under: Uncategorized — rememberingmyhat @ 14:39
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The next installment of chronicling my getting-to-grips with the concepts of positive/active/successful ageing.

(cc) twicepix

I’ve just read this paper:

Minkler, M., & Holstein, M. B. (2008). From civil rights to … civic engagement? Concerns of two older critical gerontologists about a “new social movement” and what it portends. Journal of Aging Studies, 22(2), 196-204.

from which I have learned that the debate in the US is also about ‘civic engagement’ in later life. Part of Minkler and Holstein’s argument is that this theoretically broad idea of continuing political participation and active involvement in community life in practice gets reduced to formal volunteering in public or private organisations. They identify a number of problems with this, some of which are quite theoretical about the nature of subjectivity. Since I’m wanting to end up with something I can use to teach students, I’m going to focus on trying to render their more theoretical observations into something that I think will be more comprehensible to the sort of students I think are going to study this course:

  • that it has the effect of equating older people’s value with their continuing productivity. If you’re not producing something of public value, through volunteering, you’re not seen as ageing well.
  • that it privileges the public sphere over the private. Many older women have substantial childcare responsibilities for their grandchildren which preclude volunteering, but this isn’t seen as civic engagement.
  • that it doesn’t allow for acts of self-nurture, which people also need.
  • volunteering is much more possible for the fit and healthy than for those with health problems. Emphasising the importance of volunteering further suggests that the oldest old (the ‘fourth agers’) are not legitimate/significant/ageing well.
  • It doesn’t recognise economic differences. You can’t afford to volunteer in later life if you are still working in low paid jobs. (And I’d add, with my ex-volunteer-co-ordinator hat on, volunteering can cost you money, even within a well-managed scheme which pays expenses. Not large amounts of money but amounts that you notice if you are living on a very limited budget).
  • the emphasis on volunteering doesn’t tend to count political activism or other more contested, less apple-pie, forms of public engagement. It’s all about mitigating the status quo, rather than transforming it
  • it’s all just a way of getting older people to do for free the work that governments and other organisations ought to be doing and paying people to do (there’s an obvious link here to critiques of the Big Society idea here in the UK).

That feels like incremental additions to my previous understandings, but useful ones. I don’t think this is the droid article I’m looking for for the students, as it seems the debate is too different in the US.



  1. I love the picture you’ve chosen here.
    I share the concerns you’ve expressed here. Also, do things like involvement in religious communities qualify as civic engagement? I suspect the older people I know who contribute enormously to the lives of their religious community groups (practically, as well as intellectually, socially and spiritually) wouldn’t see that as voluntary work.

    Comment by Sharon — 10th March 2011 @ 15:29 | Reply

    • It’s a fabulous photograph isn’t it. Much more challenging about non-normative images of ageing than the Jenny Joseph wearing red and purple poem, of which the red and purple flowers in this woman’s hair reminded me.

      That’s a really interesting question about whether religious forms of civic engagement ‘count’. I don’t know the US context well enough to be able to answer it. My sense is that the difference of terminology in the UK, where people more often talk about positive/successful/active ageing, would make it easier for activity associated with religious groups to ‘count’ as a marker of doing ageing ‘right’. But I’m sure you’re right about people not framing that to themselves as voluntary work.

      Comment by rememberingmyhat — 10th March 2011 @ 15:54 | Reply

  2. (That question was prompted partly by a friend reading my draft CV and saying “you seem to have missed off all your voluntary work”, and me thinking “what voluntary work?”.)

    Comment by Sharon — 10th March 2011 @ 15:57 | Reply

    • Quite! Did you include your activisms too?! Mine don’t feel like ‘civic engagement’ or ‘voluntary work’ so I don’t think I’d think to put them on a CV unless they were directly relevant, whereas I always go on about Women’s Aid.

      Comment by rememberingmyhat — 10th March 2011 @ 16:07 | Reply

      • I did add activism stuff and Quaker stuff and singing stuff – but none of those feel like ‘civic engagement’ or ‘voluntary work’ to me!

        Comment by Sharon — 10th March 2011 @ 16:09 | Reply

        • But if you were an older person, (and I thought I had a right to judge how successfully you were ageing, and the issue of judging is another critique that I haven’t articulated properly yet), I think I’d probably look at your life and judge you to be ageing very positively/successfully/actively partly because of all those activities.

          And thinking ‘but of course Sharon is ageing, as indeed am I and every living creature’ has made me think of another critique – ‘positive ageing’ etc. treats ageing as a property only of older people, rather than a lifelong activity.

          Thank you, this has been a really useful elaboration of the argument to me.

          Comment by rememberingmyhat — 10th March 2011 @ 16:41 | Reply

          • *smiles* I like to think I’m already ageing positively.
            I got very excited this morning by the discovery of another, prominently placed, white hair!

            Comment by Sharon — 10th March 2011 @ 16:45 | Reply

            • Just as long as you also feel free to age negatively/grumpily/badly when you want to too.

              Comment by rememberingmyhat — 10th March 2011 @ 17:09 | Reply

  3. […] differences. (This all overlaps with the Positive Ageing critiques that I blogged about here and here in 2011, at a similar stage of module production). This is all absolutely fascinating, but […]

    Pingback by The Fourth Age: A collection of resources | Remembering My Hat — 23rd May 2013 @ 11:16 | Reply

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