There’s more than prejudice behind ageism

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Age now is a commercial arena. The profitable part is connected to lifestyle, the not profitable part is connected with care

Paul Higgs, Professor of Sociology of Aging at the University College of London and co-author of the new paper “The Ideology of Ageism versus the Social Imaginary of the Fourth Age: two Differing Approaches to the Negative Contexts of Old Age”


Professor of Sociology of Aging at the University College of London (UCL), Paul Higgs intrigued me for his work on some of the less explored aspects of aging outside of academic circles. He is the co-author of books like “Aging, Corporeality and Embodiment,” in which he explores the complex relationship between the body and aging in the social context. He also contributed to “Rethinking Old Age: Theorizing the Fourth Age,” in which he introduces the concept of fourth age about which we’re going to talk about in this article. Last month, he published a new paper: “The Ideology of Ageism versus the Social Imaginary of the Fourth Age: two Differing Approaches to the Negative Contexts of Old Age.” 

I have to admit that in the hour-long conversation we had, sometimes I scrambled to put together the cutting-edge pieces of knowledge he threw at me. But it’s this almost philosophical approach to the subject that invites one to broaden the perspective. It’s a little bit like when you climb a steep mountain, you get a bird’s eye view and if you’re really close to the cliff, you can’t help but feel a sense of vertigo. So, even if it seems abstract at times, bear with me: there are some insights worth reflection.

What sparked your interest in aging?

I’m a sociologist. I have a Ph.D. in Social Policy and experience in geriatric, medical hospitals where I had the chance to witness the diversity of conditions of the patients and how the majority of them didn’t want to be defined by geriatric medicine.

Why did you theorize the existence of the fourth age?

Chris Gilleard (Honorary Associate Professor in Psychiatry at UCL) and I started to point out that aging doesn’t exist in only one category. Once you retire you loose your status in society, but contemporary retirees are the same people who created the youth movements of the Sixties and Seventies, a time when new forms of self-care and self-representation began to emerge. Their generation is experiencing a longer life expectancy and is well determined to enjoy it to the fullest, thanks to better health and the existence of state pensions. An advertising campaign comes to mind that equated retirement to “the longest holiday of your life.” They are very different, therefore, from older people in nursing homes.

Why is this definition important?

The concept of third age was popularized by Peter Laslett, a history professor at Cambridge, who noticed that at the end of 20th century, people began to live longer than the retirement age. But what do we do with people who loose their independence? There is no good status associated with poverty and dependency. This cohort of people is potentially a problem, but the point is that they have always been seen (and treated) as a category of policy and not of life. We wanted to bring attention to this difference.

How does the definition of fourth age impact on the debate on aging?

It is important on both sides of the the third and fourth age divide. Older people today do things they didn’t do in the past, they can travel, they can retire in a foreign country where their money goes further. Later life has more fluidity than it used to do. At the same time, we wanted to talk about the things that are overshadowed, like the lives of the frail people in the nursing homes. Instead of being free to do things, these people become unable to do things, something the third age doesn’t want to be associated with. There’s a deep fear of frailty, of cognitive impairment, of unbecoming. The third age is a cultural field, whereas the fourth age is a social imaginary. It’s not a matter of ageist culture as we are used to thinking.

You’re calling the concept of ageism into question: can you tell us about it?

Using the term ageism as one category, the same way we do with racism and sexism doesn’t help. Ageism is too broad. Those in the third age are ageist with respect to those in a frailer condition, but are they really so? With our paper, we wanted to describe why it is important to acknowledge the fear of the fourth age. Aging people need recognition to differentiate themselves from a frailer group of people, but in this sense, ageism doesn’t serve the purpose, because it is a contradictory term. We need to recognize the needs of both social forms, hence the concept of the fourth age.

Having two different definitions for the third and fourth age also benefits also the people seen to be in decline and whose needs can be better addressed. Is it also a way to promote a debate on their rights?

If you look at the choices made in a nursing home, they are choices made by someone else. The attribution of aging is removed. If the needs of the fourth age are the needs of care then social intervention should be prioritized and because care needs to be provided by people, it is a process that demands to acknowledge the humanity of those in need. But if you think about it, there’s not a list of rights of the person in need, they are simply organized around deontological ethics. And even in terms of the social imaginary, these people are invisible. In the advertising for nursing homes, the existence of this group is ignored; its members do not participate.

Let’s say we acknowledge our fear of a dependent condition and adopt the concept of the fourth age. What could change?

Old age is an example of a challenge with too many assumptions articulated by the social imaginary. Ageism has been used by researchers not to think things through thoroughly. It has often been used to describe an attitude towards older people, the consequent economic and social marginality. But this is not how it operates in real life. The universal categories of aging have collapsed and age now is a commercial arena. The profitable part is connected to lifestyle, the not profitable part is connected with care. The way we use ageism now doesn’t serve this complexity well, but if we extrapolate the fear and the inter-generational contradictions, the term, as in the case of sexism or racism, would indicate the prejudice only.