Sunday, 21 April 2013

 The third age: class, cohort
or generation ?

Defining the third age
In Cultures of Ageing, we outlined our case that the structures of welfare
that helped shape later life in the 19th and 20th centuries have begun
to fragment (Gilleard and Higgs 2000). Out of this fragmentation, we
argued, a variety of cultures, or sub-cultures, is emerging within which
later life can be lived. Linked to this fragmentation are processes of
hyper-commodi®cation ± the marketing, selling and distribution of
lifestyle choices ± with which retired American and British people are
increasingly engaging. While we are critical of Laslett's position of
third-age moral individualism, and of consumerist advocates of `do it
yourself' anti-ageing lifestyles, we argue that such positions are
important re¯ections of the social and cultural realities that are ` re-
constructing' later life in the 21st century. What we did not adequately
achieve in Cultures of Ageing, however, was a more precise sociological
theorisation of ` third ageism'. What is the most fruitful way in which
this term can be understood and used ? The aim of this paper is to
consider what seem to us some of the major alternatives.
The class basis of third ageism
Focusing upon social class, the most obvious way to approach the third
age is as a coded form of `well off ageing' (Bury 1995). From this
perspective, third agers are simply those retired people (typically men)
who have greater wealth and larger incomes. There is consistent Downloaded: 31 Jul 2012 IP address:
372 Chris Gilleard and Paul Higgs
evidence that in both Britain and the United States, the gap between
the top and bottom income and wealth quintiles has been increasing
over the last quarter of a century. This is as true for adults aged over
60 as it is for those under 60. Coupled with the demographic rise in the
proportion of the population aged over 60, ` third ageism' can be seen
as the more conspicuous manifestation of wealth in later life that has
arisen from this increase in numbers and the contrasting position of
those pensioners without such assets.

The cohort basis of third ageism
An alternative approach emphasises horizontal rather than vertical
social structures. Norman Ryder ®rst proposed treating `cohort ¼ as a
structural category with the same kind of analytic utility as ¼ social
class' (Ryder 1965: 851), although he speculated, from limited
information, that `in later years cohort identity was blurred'. Matilda
Riley however made cohort analysis a central element in her sociology
of age, with the general proposition that `people in different cohorts
age in different ways' (Riley 1987). From this perspective ± of cohort-
bound forms of ageing ± the emergence of a third age is the ageing of
a particularly lucky generation. Whilst the precise delineation of this
birth cohort might be a matter for dispute, it is epitomised by the baby
boomers, people born in the years following World War II, some of
whom are now taking early retirement. This cohort grew up within a
framework of welfare capitalism, experienced economic growth
through childhood and early adulthood, and played a central role in
the 1960s' cultural revolution. Throughout their lives, they have been
` the biggest cohort on the block'. The demographic, social, political
and economic signi®cance of this cohort marks them out as the true
inheritors of a new ` third age' (Owram 1996: 159).
The generational basis of third ageism
Despite being closely allied to the cohort approach, we argue that a
generational model of third ageism needs to be distinguished. The
difference between `cohort' and ` generation' has been voiced many
times, but it is one that is difficult to sustain in practice. The
signi®cance of the distinction, as well as the difficulties in maintaining
it, are evident in Karl Mannheim's seminal essay on the topic, `The
problem of generation' (Mannheim [1927] 1952). This essay, ®rst
published in English in 1952, is an important but `undervalued legacy' Downloaded: 31 Jul 2012 IP address:
The third age : class, cohort or generation ? 373
for the social sciences (Pilcher 1994). In it, Mannheim sought to
describe three elements making up a generation: a shared temporal
location (i.e. generational site or birth cohort), shared historical
location (i.e. generation as actuality ± exposure to a common period or
era), and ®nally a shared socio-cultural location (i.e. generational
consciousness ± or `entelechy').
The point is that a cohort location is a necessary but not sufficient
condition for a generation to exist. It is the combination of being
exposed to a strati®ed set of experiences [Erlebnisschichtung] coupled
with a consciousness of occupying a distinct generational niche ± what
the German sociologist Heinz Bude has called the wir-schicht of a
generation (Bude 1997) ± that forms the distinct basis for a generational
approach to the third age. The remainder of the paper explores these
three approaches.
Class and the third age
While it would be useful to consider in detail the changing nature of
earnings and employment in Britain and the United States over the last
half-century and their impact upon retirement, income and wealth,
there is not the space to do so here. Instead, we summarise this change
by emphasizing two of its main parameters. The ®rst is the general
increase in average income that has affected those of working age
and ± with delay ± the retired population. The second is increased
intra-generational occupational mobility coupled with, in recent years,
the increased portability of pension schemes."
This change needs to be
set in a longer temporal context. When Seebohm Rowntree published
the results of his inquiry into poverty at the beginning of the 20th
century, he identi®ed low wages and the limited earning potential of
childhood and later life as the main threats to the material wellbeing
of the working population (Rowntree 1902). At the beginning of the
21st century, low wages no longer make the working classes poor nor
does the lack of employment make working class childhood and later
life the times of lack and hardship they once were. Few people ®nd
themselves locked into poorly paid manual jobs without prospect of a
pension, unable to contribute to the income and wealth they will have
in later life.#
One of the more important consequences of these changes is that
later life is no longer the principal site of poverty in the `lifecycle' that
it was for much of the 19th and the early 20th century (see Hatton and Downloaded: 31 Jul 2012 IP address:
374 Chris Gilleard and Paul Higgs
Bailey 1998). Given the overwhelmingly working class character of
British society during this period (1830±1949), the impoverishment of
later life then was the direct consequence of the type of class society that
had formed over the course of the previous century. It was this
impoverishment that meant that the ` aged' were the principal
recipients of the new poor law welfare, and formed the largest group in
its workhouses and in®rmaries (Thane 2000). If the third age is simply
a matter of class, it seems difficult to explain why, despite the much
more archetypical class society of the late 19th and early 20th
centuries, a third age failed to emerge as a class precipitate before the
early 1980s.
Marked differences in wealth and income within the over-60 years
population are not a unique feature of present-day society. Over the
last half-century, there has been a decline in the proportion of retired
people at or below the poverty line. Whilst not wishing to ignore the
reality of income- and wealth-related differences in patterns of
expenditure and social participation, it seems no more credible to treat
the third age as a class-based phenomenon than it would be to view the
cultural revolution of the 1960s in such a light. Rather, it re¯ects a
horizontal restructuring of society that has extended across class
divisions in a similar manner to the earlier transformation in Western
society and its culture that made up ` the sixties'.
Class, in brief, is neither an explanation for, nor the structural
equivalent of the third age. That does not mean that the manifestations
of third-age lifestyles, belief systems, and whatever collective con-
sciousness it possesses, are not systematically related to differences in
income and wealth at retirement. But it is not the transmission of class-
based values into this stage of the lifecourse that is distinctive of the
third age. The third age is a resolutely contemporary phenomenon, a
mark of our times. We cannot use class as its de®ning element. We have
to turn to historically-located cultural changes if we are more adequately
to de®ne and understand it.
Birth cohorts and the emergence of the third age
When the life experiences of the cohort of people born between 1890
and 1899 are compared with those born 50 years later, at the end of
World War II, the differences are profound. Is it the uniqueness of this
latter cohort that determines and de®nes the third age ? Let us ®rst
consider some of the differences between and distinctions of the two
cohorts. In Britain, between 1900 and 1950, average incomes doubled
(Feinstein 1976). The proportion of people employed in manufacturing

industry grew from 28 per cent to 38 per cent, while those employed in
the state sector remained constant at around eight to nine per cent
(Deane and Cole 1962: 257). The average number of hours employees
in industry worked fell from 54 to 47±5 hours per week (Gallie 2000:
306). The proportion of women in paid employment changed very
little, ¯uctuating around 33 per cent for most of that period (Gallie
2000: 292). Three-quarters of working class men born between 1890
and 1920, those retiring in the second half of the last century, continued
to share the same class position as their fathers (Heath and Payne 2000:
During the same period, welfare reform replaced the poor law ± with
the early part of the century witnessing the emergence of social
insurance, old age pensions and social housing. The consequence of this
reform programme was gradually to marginalise the poverty, which, at
the start of the 20th century, had been endemic amongst both
employed and unemployed working class families.
The small increase in `leisure time' that working people gained
during this period (around six or seven hours per week) was
accompanied by an increase in the forms and availability of leisure
activities, such as the cinema, the wireless, the expansion and
professionalisation of spectator sport, developments in motor transport
and the emergence of seaside `holiday resorts' where the working
classes could spend their annual one week summer holiday. Although
for much of this period working life was long and hard, wages improved
considerably. The improvement in working people's incomes was
matched by a gradual decline in the degree of impoverishment amongst
the retired population. As Thane has pointed out:
the state pension [of 1908], low and means tested though it was, gave a regular
and secure income to a higher proportion of old people than the poor relief
system had ever done (2000: 308).
For the ®rst time, signi®cant numbers of men actually retired. Of the
cohort born at the end of the 19th century, when they reached their late
60s in the mid-20th century only 40 per cent were still working
(Johnson 1994). The improvement in working conditions of younger
adults mirrored the improvement in the conditions of older people,
most of whom were from working class backgrounds. But despite the
emerging welfare state, poverty was still very much the fate for a
signi®cant number of pensioners in 1950, just as it had been at the end
of the 19th century. Working class affluence was still some way off. Few
of the working class owned their own homes and fewer than ®ve per
cent of retired working class people received an occupational pension Downloaded: 31 Jul 2012 IP address:
376 Chris Gilleard and Paul Higgs
(Johnson 1994: 121). At the same time, working class political
in¯uence had substantially increased. By the early 1950s, the `middle
class democracy' established after the First World War had been
transformed and the working classes assimilated into the `moral
consensus' of British society (McKibbin 2000: 527±9).
This consensus extended across the generations. The lives of older
men and women in mid-20th century Britain were linked in many ways
to the working lives of younger adults: both age groups had shared the
experiences of two World Wars and the growing incorporation of
working class lives and culture into the mainstream of an increasingly
uni®ed nation. Both age groups were witness to the promise of better
times to come; of the prospect of a leisured society for all. None of these
pre-war adult cohorts however experienced the enormous cultural
transformations that spread throughout society in the second half of the
20th century. It is that post-war cultural transformation which turned
a cohort into a generation ± and which established its generational
The third age : a baby boom generation
The social and cultural transformation that took place in the second
half of the century is of crucial signi®cance in explaining the
fragmentation that has since taken place in the experience and
understanding of later life. Those whose adult lives were formed during
this period have been the ®rst to experience ageing in the context of an
adult consciousness formed within the ` youth culture' of ` the long
sixties' (Marwick 1998). This experience has no precedent ± it is a
social moment whose signi®cance social gerontologists and social
scientists generally have barely grasped.
The cohort of people born in the early decades of the 20th century,
those with direct adult experience of the Second World War and who
came to retirement in the 1960s, was not set apart socially, materially
or culturally from the earlier birth cohorts that they had grown up
with. They had much less in common, however, with the generation
born in the 1940s who reached working age at the time this earlier
generation began to retire.
Instead of the steady emergence and integration of successive birth
cohorts, each sharing in a fundamentally unchanging culture, a mid-
century generation emerged who would set a new and distinct course
through adult life; one marked by change, challenge and trans-
formation. The baby boom generation broke the mould of the modern
lifecourse. Downloaded: 31 Jul 2012 IP address:
The third age : class, cohort or generation ? 377
Between 1950 and 2000, total domestic income in Britain virtually
tripled (Dilnot and Emmerson 2000: 326±7). The proportion of people
employed in manufacturing industry fell by more than half, from 39
per cent to 19 per cent (Gallie 2000: 283±5), while the average number
of hours worked fell from 47 to 44 hours per week.$
By the 1990s, one
in three jobs were part-time (Hewitt 1993: 23). From being little more
than one-quarter of the British labour force in 1951, by 2000, women
represented almost half the workforce (Gallie 2000: 292). Of men born
to working class fathers in Britain between 1940 and 1949, almost half
would no longer share that same class position when they in turn
became adults (Heath and Payne 2000: 264). In 1950, more than 70
per cent of the working population could be described as `working
class'; by 1998, this ®gure had dropped to below 40 per cent (Office for
National Statistics 2000a: Table 3±15).
But there has been more than a straightforward change in work and
income. Equally profound are the developments in the material and
social technologies of production and consumption. Not only have
people's work environments changed because of new technology. The
growing material and cultural resources possessed by successive post-
war cohorts ± in terms of greater education, income, social and
material security%
and free time in and out of work ± have enabled
more and more people to incorporate these new technologies into their
personal lives. Even more than in the sphere of production, the sphere
of consumption has undergone remarkably rapid change.
In 1950, most households had not one of a phone, a car or a TV. In
Britain, shops were closed mid week for a half day and on Sundays.
There were neither supermarkets or out-of-town retail outlets. The
prosaic and rather stuffy middle class department stores that appeared
during the late 19th century still dominated the high streets (Benson
1994: 62). In 1950, computer technology was unknown to the general
population. What electronic information technology did exist was
con®ned to large industrial and military complexes. Most adults had
completed no more than eight or nine years of education, and
tertiary education was the preserve of a small elite. Holidays were
con®ned to ®xed periods of the year and, for the vast majority of the
population, amounted to no more than a week or two spent in guest
houses in a limited number of local seaside resorts. In 1950, people
spent around £100 per year shopping (Benson 1994: 60).
By 2000, annual consumer spending had risen to £2,500. Holiday
entitlements had more than doubled and holidays themselves were
spent in a growing variety of countries and cultures (Gershuny and
Fisher 2000: 632). The car, the telephone, the television, the video Downloaded: 31 Jul 2012 IP address:
378 Chris Gilleard and Paul Higgs
player and the personal computer have become `modal' household
possessions for successive cohorts of adults.&
These consumer goods in
turn have increased people's access to a greater variety of cultural
products. Almost every home has a phone. People spend more than
twice as much of their time going out ± to restaurants, bars and pubs,
cinema and theatres ± and rather less time at home with their family
eating, listening to the radio, watching TV or `entertaining themselves'.
More of life is lived ` out there' in a social space that is neither home nor
work (Gershuny and Fisher 2000: 644±5). This transition from a
society dominated by the juxtaposition of domestic and paid
employment to one increasingly dominated by public consumption
epitomises much of the cultural change of the latter half of the 20th
These changes are beginning to emerge in the post-working lives of
those born just before the 1940s ± the ` older siblings' of the baby-boom
generation amongst whom can be counted the pioneers who established
the cultural revolution of the 1960s.'
Average pensioners' incomes in
most OECD countries now lie within 80±105 per cent of the average
incomes of their working population: more than half of the income of
Britain's new (male) pensioners comes from a combination of private
pensions, investment income and earnings (Office for National Statistics
1999a: Table 5±3). According to the Family Expenditure Survey, their
single largest source of expenditure is `leisure goods and services'
(Office for National Statistics 1999b: Table 2±2): this latter age group
also holds the largest amount of wealth ± both in Britain (Department
of Social Security (2001: Table 5±11) and in the United States (Keister
2000: Table 8±1). In Britain, there are signs of an emerging inter-
generational consensus in attitudes toward personal freedoms, with the
newly retired and those about to retire becoming more `liberal' in their
attitudes and progressively less `culturally distant' from younger `post-
boom' cohorts (Park 2000).
Increases in income, wealth, consumption and leisure, constitute
core elements of the post-war changes that have affected the working,
and latterly the post-working, population. A further element is the
marked reduction in personal security that is experienced by all age
groups. Between 1957 and 1997, recorded home burglaries in England
and Wales rose by 1,489 per cent, violent assaults by 2,189 per cent and
robberies by 5,182 per cent. In 1950, there were around 15,000 people
in England and Wales serving a prison sentence; by 1999, the ®gure
had increased by over 400 per cent to 64,000. The improvements in
material security during this period have as their obverse an equally
real deterioration in the conditions that constitute personal security. Downloaded: 31 Jul 2012 IP address:
The third age : class, cohort or generation ? 379
No devastating wars threatened the homes and lives of the British
population during the second half of the 20th century. Instead, there
has been a constantly rising level of personal insecurity re¯ecting the
increase in crimes against the person and in crimes against personal
property. Although the absolute level of risk remains low, the relative
salience of crime in the last decades of the 20th century has made
personal security a dominant motif in the ambiguities of the post-war
post-industrial era.
This complex mix ± of rising income, increased personal freedom
and increased material wealth, of changing patterns of work, expanding
opportunities for consumption coupled with an increased sense of ` risk'
or `personal insecurity' ± marks a distinct period in western countries.
It amounts to a cultural revolution that has begun to transform the
nature of ageing in the 21st century. That it is a generational
transformation, rather than a `blip' characterising one particular
cohort who are deviating from the pattern exhibited by all other birth
cohorts in the 20th century, seems evident from a number of sources.
The shift ± in income, wealth and values ± experienced by the baby
boomers, shows no signs of being reversed in subsequent cohorts
(Inglehart 1997; Park 2000; Keister 2000: 158±62). The consciousness
of being a generation ± the `wir-schicht' of those who came to adulthood
in the 1960s ± ®rst spread across class and is spreading now across the
lifecourse. Third ageism is part of that generational consciousness ± part
of its entelechy. Subsequent cohorts will not revert to the pensionerhood
of earlier generations.
How does this analysis help shape our thinking about ageing and the
third age ? Generation is not the new class. It is however, a
counterpoint; a signi®cant and under-utilised structure in¯uencing
and shaping the practices and experiences that constitute contemporary
adult lifestyles. It offers a particularly useful structure through which
we can develop our ideas about the third age and what growing older
represents in the 21st century.
Economic difference and the social division of labour, though
important sources of explanation in understanding many aspects of
` third ageism', are insufficient. Birth cohorts will always be potential
` sites' for new forms of generational consciousness, but they remain no
more than possibilities. Every birth cohort group can be distinguished
in its material circumstances from every other birth cohort group. But Downloaded: 31 Jul 2012 IP address:
380 Chris Gilleard and Paul Higgs
without a sense of periodisation and the emergence of some form of
generational entelechy ± the `wir schicht' of a generation ± a phenom-
enon like the third age cannot be fully realised.
The emergence of what Inglehart (1997) has termed `post-
materialist' values, others have subsumed under post-modernist culture
and others have characterised as `lifestyle politics', re¯ects a histori-
cally-situated moment that is being played out across the lifecourse of
a particular birth cohort in complex and still largely unforeseen ways.
The third age represents one of the most signi®cant arenas where this
interplay can and should be examined. Times have changed. Ageing
too is changing. Revisiting Mannheim and the problem of ` generation'
is important in understanding how.

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