Remembering My Hat

23rd May 2013

The Fourth Age: A collection of resources

Filed under: Uncategorized — rememberingmyhat @ 11:16

Today I’m focussing particularly on critiques of Laslett’s Third Age argument. So far, I can see that they cluster into two main camps. Well, three maybe.

The most straightforward, I think, is people saying that the idea of a Third Age is not a new one. This is a totally standard and predictable academic response and while, as an ex-historian, I always like seeing that things have longer roots than I thought, I don’t think it’s important for my uses here. It might not be totally original, but Laslett is undoubtedly the person who popularised the notion in UK gerontology and that’s enough for my purposes.

(cc) AnyaLogic

A more challenging critique is that his characterisation of the Third Age is inappropriately aspirational. This argument is basically that it’s not always within people’s control whether they get to have a Third Age at all, and that class, birth cohort and generation might all make big 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 I’m a bit worried about whether it will be too difficult for Level 1 students.

The third type of critique is that, crudely put, the notion of the Third Age is horrible to people in the Fourth Age. It positions people who are experiencing frailty and dependence as an Other. It also reifies the stages when, in practice, many people move in and out of frailty (and younger people can be dependent and frail too). This feels more promising to me as a critique that is likely to make sense to Level 1 students.

Here’s I’m collecting together resources that might help me to mediate this argument to students:

New Frontiers in the Future of Aging: From Successful Aging of the Young Old to the Dilemmas of the Fourth Age
Baltes P.B. · Smith J. Gerontology 2003;49:123–135 (DOI: 10.1159/000067946)

Abstract: We review research findings on the oldest old that demonstrate that the fourth age entails a level of biocultural incompleteness, vulnerability and unpredictability that is distinct from the positive views of the third age (young old). The oldest old are at the limits of their functional capacity and science and social policy are constrained in terms of intervention. New theoretical and practical endeavors are required to deal with the challenges of increased numbers of the oldest old and the associated prevalence of frailty and forms of psychological mortality (e.g., loss of identity, psychological autonomy and a sense of control). Investigation of the fourth age is a new and challenging interdisciplinary research territory. Future study and discussion should focus on the critical question of whether the continuing major investments into extending the life span into the fourth age actually reduce the opportunities of an increasing number of people to live and die in dignity.

  • Michael Young and Tom Schuller, Life after Work: the Arrival of the Ageless Society, Harper Collins, London, 1991. esp p. 181 where Laslett himself says they critique on these grounds.
  • Gilleard, C., & Higgs, P. (2011). Ageing abjection and embodiment in the fourth age. Journal of Aging Studies, 25(2), 135-142. (Too hard for students, excellent stuff though).
  • Katz, J., Holland, C., & Peace, S. (2013). Hearing the voices of people with high support needs. Journal of Aging Studies, 27(1), 52-60.
  • Gilleard, C., & Higgs, P. (2011). Frailty, disability and old age: A re-appraisal. Health:, 15(5), 475-490.
  • Jones, I. R., & Higgs, P. F. (2010). The natural, the normal and the normative: Contested terrains in ageing and old age. Social Science & Medicine, 71(8), 1513-1519. Too hard but really interesting.


  1. I’m inclined to critique it simply on the stage issue: for the concept to be useful, there has to be a sense that people can enter it and leave it. Some people may have a clear sense of a point when they retire and in effect leave the second age, but I suspect they are increasingly few. Likewise some people, perhaps following a traumatic health crisis, may recognise that they have become frail and dependent, but I wonder how many think of this as moving from one stage in life to the next. Some would argue perhaps that a sense of entry and departure is not central to the concept, that it is sufficient for people to think of themselves as being in a particular stage. Obviously U3A if nothing else has made this possible: if you are signed up, then it’s hard to dispute that you have an association with the third age. But this shifts the concept away from being a stage in life and simply a badge of association. I’ve always been interested in the fact that the term is numerical; possibly Laslett adopted it as a kind of neutral, non-judgemental label. But what it does is directly imply a sequential position: before you were in the second age and at some time in the future you may be in the fourth. One aspect of his argument which was not particularly consistent with this was that his primary concern was with a generation – born in the first decades of the 20th century – that had been denied opportunities of a good education and U3A was intended to correct this.
    One further thought: the term is simply a device invented for the agenda of academe and the chattering classes. It sounds as though it has a factual, proven basis and that it should be taken seriously …

    Comment by Bill Bytheway — 26th June 2013 @ 13:43 | Reply

    • And fourthly, of course there is the characteristically Bythewayian critique that age categories are necessarily and always socially constructed and relational, and that taxonomies such as these are in danger of reifying what is really only made-up academic nonsense (I oversimplify and caricature your point, of course)

      Thank you! I think the argument ‘it’s not real’ is a particularly important one to convey to Level 1 students, so I particularly appreciate the heads-up on that.

      Comment by rememberingmyhat — 26th June 2013 @ 14:50 | Reply

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