Chris Phillipson: re-thinking ageing populations

by Professor Chris Phillipson

23 May 2014

Ageing populations now exert a major influence on all aspects of social and economic life. Concerns about the best way of providing for such populations, their impact on standards of living, and relations between age groups and generations, feature prominently in public debate and discussion. The twenty-first century will without question be a time when all societies take stock of the long-term impact of demographic change and the implications for managing and organising a major area of social and economic activity. Thus far, discussions have been tentative at best, discriminatory at worst, focusing on the apparent ‘cost’ and ‘burden’ associated with population change. Doubts about the value and purpose of ageing seem, if anything, to have become more, not less, strident in the present century.

A different approach, however, would separate out the issue of individual ageing – where some element of decline and eventual death is inevitable; and population ageing – where the idea of a new type of life course is beginning to emerge. The discussion about ageing as a social and cultural phenomenon often seems simply to project ageing at an individual level onto the fate of institutions themselves. This is to miss the point that institutions of all kinds – family, work, education, leisure-related – can benefit from new opportunities arising from the development of ageing populations.

Ageing is about more people living a decent span of life – that is the simple bit; more difficult is re-designing the cultural and social institutions through which people build their lives. The present crisis of ageing is less about demographics, more about the decline of arrangements for supporting older people, notably retirement and the welfare state. Both of these gave meaning – for better or worse – to growing old in the second half of the 20th century. Their replacements – later retirement ages and the expansion of private arrangements for pensions and health and social care – are set to create a more unequal old age. Extending working will be fine for those in good health with access to good quality work; private provision works for those who have accumulated wealth throughout their lives. But millions of people will lose out with these developments, facing a more insecure and uncertain old age as a result.

Responding to the idea of (for the Global North at least) of the 21st Century as one where living in one’s 80s, 90s and beyond becomes a routine experience, means taking into account at least three things: first, the variability (and inequalities) among ageing populations will be enormous – we have yet to invent a language to express the range of experiences and situations that are likely to emerge, hence the need for creativity and invention. Second, ‘mainstream’ institutions need to be dragged into the public discussion about ageing – universities, to take one example, could play a key role in helping society adapt to demographic change, whether through encouraging new types of adult learning or exploring ways of encouraging creativity throughout the life course. Third, ageing societies will involve identifying new forms of solidarity, entailing a move from families and generations to friendship and community-based ties. At present, this shift is being expressed in an unhelpful debate about so-called ‘generational conflict’. This is almost certainly a transitional phase as society finds new ways of expressing support and assistance across age-related boundaries.

One further observation: ‘Ageing’ is viewed as a ‘problem’ because it seems to work against the grain of what is needed for a ‘growing’ and ‘productive society’. Yet the reverse point can also be made: ageing and continued gains in longevity raise the possibility for renewing and re-engaging with activities and institutions that were abandoned in the period of dysfunctional economic expansion which characterized the 1980s through to the early 2000s. Ageing populations may not restore balance to the highly unequal societies which developed in this period. They do, however, offer new ways of thinking about social life, offering in the process radical solutions to supporting hard-pressed social institutions.

Chris Phillipson is Professor of Sociology and Social Gerontology at the University of Manchester, where he directs the Manchester Institute for Collaborative Research on Ageing (MICRA). His book 'Ageing' was published by Polity Press in 2013. Here, he provides his perspective in response to the recent British Academy Debates on ageing.

Professor Phillipson is one of the authors of the recently published British Academy report “If you could do one thing…” Nine local actions to reduce health inequalities.

Find out more about the British Academy Debates here: The Best Years of our Lives? Body, Brain and Well-Being.

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