Archives For Elderly

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.

Image: The Times

Image: The Times

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.

Where next?

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

 Charlotte Hamilton 

PhD Student, Social Policy Research Unit,University of York.


My granny is 91. She was born in Wakefield, West Yorkshire and knew my grandad from the age of 4. When they were 13, he said he’d marry her one day. He joined the army and worked his way up to Sergeant Major. She stayed in Wakefield where she worked from being 14. When they eventually did get married, my granny went everywhere he was posted during his time. In her long life she’s lived in Germany, Edinburgh and Ireland, as well as various army bases around England. She now lives in Wakefield again and has done since the death of my grandad in 1976.

Antonia and her nan, Irene

Antonia and her nan, Irene

When she was 14 she got her first job, she says she worked “in every mill in Wakefield and more.” She even worked in a factory during the war packing gunpowder, where she got blown off her chair (don’t worry, she can laugh about it now). I spoke to her yesterday and she told me she’d ‘never not worked’ and at one point, even worked from 5am to 11pm, 6 days a week. In all the places she’s lived, she’s worked; ushering at theatres, working behind bars as a waitress, working in mills. She was never content with doing nothing all day, and still isn’t. At 91, she’s still active and rides an exercise bike almost every day.

My granny’s houses have varied. She’s lived in massive houses with more rooms than she could fill during her time as an army wife, and moved to a 3 bedroom semi-detached council house after grandad retired. She loved that house, but as she got older, the bills got bigger and rooms were becoming unused. She moved 6 years ago to a small council flat round the corner, to save herself some money and generally downsize.

The flat she lives in has a small front room, separate kitchen, small bathroom, and a bedroom with a spare room. Every month she gets £404 in Pension & £500 in Army Pension, giving her a total of £904 in the bank. She pays out £390 in rent, a maximum of £280 in bills, leaving her with £234 to live on.

£58.50 a week.

That’s before new glasses when she’s accidentally sat on them for the 5th time this year, and before new teeth (same reason), but most importantly that’s before food & clothing. She had some savings but she bought a new washing machine 3 years ago, and has been dipping in to it to pay bills every month. She has about £1000 left. Some weeks she can’t afford to go shopping more than once. Not to mention the fact she has 12 grandchildren, all of which have birthdays, and there’s Christmas, and her coffee mornings (which she never goes to any more).

All this maths doesn’t quite add up to £58.50 a week, every week. Her pensions come in at different times, sometimes her bills are less, sometimes they are more. Sometimes she can treat herself to Marks and Spencers cheese, sometimes she can’t. Either way, she’s worrying constantly about how much money she hasn’t got.



I read her the article ‘Iain Duncan Smith urges wealthy elderly to ‘hand back’ benefits.’ She said she agrees with helping people on a low wage, but why take it off the people that have worked hard all their lives? She branded it a ‘stupid idea’ and said a few swear words. Luckily she is unaffected by the bedroom tax, as she’s too old. She’s also lucky enough to get two pensions. If she didn’t have the army pension, she probably wouldn’t be around to swear when I tell her about Iain Duncan Smith and his grand ideas, because she’d be living off -£266 a month. Although she’d probably get housing benefit, which she isn’t entitled to at the moment, but it would still leave her at a pretty low figure.

“Hand it back? If I had more than a tenner left I might stand a chance.” she says. The really sad thing is, she’s right, she doesn’t stand a chance.


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