Guest Blog by Charlotte Hamilton
A recent article by Simon Biggs and Helen Kimberley in the journal, ‘Social Policy and Society’ that has got me thinking – are we entering a new phase of ageism?
Ageism is traditionally associated with treating the older population separately from the rest of the population. This includes denying older people the same level of choice expected at other stages of life. An example of this was the approach taken to work and retirement; having a compulsory retirement age didn’t allow older people flexibility and choice over their working lives. Efforts in recent years have begun to address this phase of ageism alongside an increasing focus on population ageing.
For countries with ageing populations and concerns of the ‘burden’ this will have on the taxpayer, governments seem to have taken a two-pronged approach to their social policies. 1) Older people who are in need of care and support should receive this in the community and, for the most part, are paying for this themselves. 2) Older people who are active should be involved in work, or work-like (such as volunteering), activities. Both of these approaches are ways to reduce the taxpayer’s bill and the authors focus on the issues around the second.
Governments are introducing policies to encourage people to work for longer (such as rising minimum retirement ages and abolishing a compulsory retirement age) and advocate volunteering or work in older age. In doing so they are reshaping the notion of retirement. The authors argue that work and volunteering activities are now linked to being valued in society in older age and are concerned that there is a lack of debate around the assumption that work in later life is a good thing for all.
By linking work to ‘success’ in later life, governments are failing to acknowledge differences across the adult life course. There is evidence to suggest that attitudes, values and priorities change with ageing, yet social policies are not allowing people to have both different and valued social roles across the adult life course. Equally, advocating one way of being valued in older age does not adequately account for the diversity amongst older people, in terms of possible contributions, individual values and capabilities.
Are we entering a new phase of ageism?
The authors raise key questions in relation to this in order to critique current governments’ approaches to an ageing population. Governments are developing policies that are making work crucial to being a valued member of society across all adults, regardless of age. Working into older age will suit some older people, and policies should be in place to enable older people to work if they so choose. However not all older people will want to work and policies should recognise this too.
Crucially, it appears that governments’ eagerness to encourage work in later life is ignoring differences across the life course and diversity amongst older people. Is it ageist to ignore differences where there is evidence to suggest that differences exist? This one-size-fits-all approach is stifling the potential for older people to make different, and equally valued, contributions to society.
Previously, ageism was limiting what older people were allowed to do compared to the rest of the adult population. The authors raise the question of
whether we are now risking entering a new phase of ageism through heavily emphasising continuity across the adult life course. Current policy approaches are failing to embrace the positive differences that come with ageing, the diversity amongst older people and the different ways that people can contribute to society. Whereas traditional ageism denied older people choice over extending their working lives, we may now be risking a new phase of ageism by denying older people the choice of doing anything else.
If policies to encourage work in older age are inappropriate for all older people, where can social policies go from here? The authors suggest three
key areas for development. 1) Embrace difference across the life course and diversity. 2) View the contributions of older people with a life course approach; it shouldn’t just be about what older people are doing now but what they have contributed over their adult life. 3) Crucially, governments should recognise that an ageing population is a new challenge for social policy and, rather than focus on one strategy, be open to new solutions as they arise.
Biggs and Kimberley’s article presents careful arguments for broadening the range of social policies put in place in response to an ageing population. The article encourages debate and I hope I have too, for me the key question is – do the social policies focusing on work in older age risk us entering a new phase of ageism?
*This blog post is based on the ideas raised in the following journal article: Biggs, S. and Kimberley, H. (2013) Adult Ageing and Social Policy: New Risks to Identity. Social Policy and Society, 12 (2): 287-297
PhD Student, Social Policy Research Unit,University of York.