Remembering My Hat

11th April 2011

Fiction and the cultural mediation of ageing: Part 1

Filed under: Uncategorized — rememberingmyhat @ 13:00

The usual idiosyncratic, non-representative notes from a conference. [Reactions and comments from me in square brackets]

This was a conference organized by one of the projects within the New Dynamics of Ageing programme, called FCMAP. It was a nice mixture of traditional academic conference, feedback to research participants (on the Friday) and public event (a conversation between Fay Weldon and Will Self on ageing). I wanted to attend it because it seemed to be aimed both at social scientists and at literature/Arts kinds of people and I thought that would bring me into contact with different sets of ideas and literatures than the usual plain social science kind of conferences I attend. Also, since I was going to present some of the findings from my research about bisexual people imagining the future, I wanted to play with the idea of those imaginings being fictions, to see if that led me into any interesting new direction.

The FCMAP project had two strands, one using a Mass Observation directive, and the other asking members of U3A in London to form reading groups to read a prescribed set of novels about ageing and then to keep a reading diary. They generated about 1 and a half million words of reading diaries. The report is available here. The novels they read, which form a nice reading list of fiction about ageing, are here.

First Plenary

Pat Thane, King’s College, London

Cultures of Ageing in Britain since 1945

Not just that people live to old age now, but that people grow up expecting to live to old age. Changed the way that people can imagine their life courses.

Reason women’s pension age was set lower than men’s was because of campaigns in the 30s, showing that women pushed out of work as got older, partly because of misogyny/ageism combo, but also women’s worse health pre-NHS etc. So women needed to be eligible for pensions younger.

Interest in older people in 1950s because of apocalyptic demography about falling birthrates. Quite a lot of social research then.

Working class men in 1950s finding retirement very tough – Peter Townsend research in East London. Because: they hadn’t expected retirement; low incomes (can’t buy round in pub anymore); been working since early teens; whole identity. Women not finding retirement tough as a) not necessarily doing paid work before b)not defined by paid work identity c) still doing unpaid domestic work and care of family members so still feeling useful.

Retirement experienced as less tough as the century progressed, as more expected. Less research too until 1980s, until birthrate drop noticed again. Another panic.

(cc) OwenBlacker

[How hard it is not to be complicit in apocalyptic demography when stressing the importance of studying ageing. I try not to do it in my own research, but I benefit from it because it means people see my work as more relevant.]

1980s saw an increase in early retirement – why? Generous retirement packages for middle-class workers. Also age discrimination, jobs in short supply, so leave them for younger people. (unlike now when solution is keep OP in work longer).

Retirement ages now going up a bit on average. Companies less willing to give generous pensions because pension funds shrunk. But also some decline in age discrimination in workplace. Current financial crisis has not increased rates of unemployment among OP, unlike previous recessions.

Birth rates now going up again. Will the current panic about an ageing population end soon? [Is that bad news for gerontologists like me?]

Third and Fourth Age Subjectivities Panel Plenary

Keith Richards (not that one)

3rd Age Trust – U3A

Peter Lazlett one of the founders of U3A (the others being Michael Young and Eric Midwinter), also coined the concept of the 3rd Age in his book A Fresh Map of Life.

Main response from one member of a reading group – novel characters would have been fine if only they’d only joined their local U3A group.

Dorothy Sheridan, Mass Observation

34 yrs own life working there for 75 yrs of Mass Obslife

No category ‘ageing’ ‘old age’ or similar in Phase One of Mass Obs (1937 – 1950s-ish) Air-raids, yes!

[Have another look at Little Kinsey sometime]

Bill Bytheway’s directive asking people about their birthdays was one of the most sensitive they ever did. Much more so that directives about sex, money, religion [I think this comment was partly rhetoric, but even so, interesting]

Nick Hubble

1992 and 2006 Mass Observation directives, similar words.How use categories ‘young, middle aged, elderly’. Lots of people 1992 rejected word ‘elderly’, so didn’t use in 2006

Wanting to define 4th age, not as decrepitude and death, as defined by Lazlett, but as time of reflection and coming-to-terms with life.

[Question from me: Isn’t that just gero-transendence again? (I think I asked a bit more politely than that!) Is the concept of the 4th Age redeemable at all? You needed it to create the concept of the 3rd age, but is it actually a useful concept now we have made the point about active/positive/younger ageing? It is useful to be able to make a broad categorical difference between older people who are independent and healthy and older people who are not. But it also creates an artificial boundary and does it creates more problems in otherising the old-old than it is worth?]

Audience comment: ‘Disability is the way the older age group discriminates among themselves’

Plenary on policy

Philip Tew

Wanting to influence the inflection of policy around ageing [nice way of thinking about how narrative/discursive kinds of research can have relevance to policy]

Louise Bazalgette


Overview of current policy landscape in relations to older people

(cc) Keith Sergeant

1) Working in later life:

Majority of people working beyond retirement age are part-time – 68% of women, 50%ish of men [I didn’t get the statistic, but around 50%]

Vince Cable just announced removing flexible working rights for people working in small organisations – bad news for older people [and women/people with caring responsibilities]

2) Financial security

Coalition govt doesn’t seem to have a clear policy on universal benefits. But if child benefit is going to become means tested, winter fuel payments next on list?

3) Health & social care services

2010 Equalities Act comes into force 2012. Outlaws age discrimination in health care. Huge change potentially, will it make any diff?

Panel: Ageing and Film

Josie Dolan, UWE

Older women in cinema [not her title, but what it was about]

Film recommendation: Whales of August (1987)

Film about 4 older people, starring Bette Davis and Lillian Gish when in their 70s and 90s.

A rare example. of beautiful but non-eroticised older bodies.

Margaret Gatling, James Cook Univ, Queensland, Austrlia

Warts and all: Depictions of older women in children’s film and TV

Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media

analysis of 1990 -2005 G rated films [general viewing, like U I think]

3000 characters

28% were female

Only 17% narrators female

[Very depressing.  I wonder if anyone has done any analysis of cBeebies. My impression is it is not quite that bad, but still boys/men/male characters vastly over-represented]

Nanny McPhee gets younger and more beautiful as her charges behave better. Christ figure – takes on naughtiness, makes her ugly and old.

Futurama – Matt Groening ‘Mom’ is more grandmother age, but called ‘Mom’. Thinness and overt sexuality as signaling evilness in an older woman

‘Ageing Debate’

Prof Fay Weldon, teaches creative writing at Brunel

Will Self

I’m not going to write this up because it would be too difficult to do briefly. Suffice to say, it was, at various points, entertaining, annoying, thought-provoking and frustrating. But never dull.


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