Key Issues in Identity

A critical exploration of the double denial of old identity

Essay, 2012
13 Pages, Grade: 76 %



This essay will focus on changing representations and new identities of third agers in the context of British social policy.

Recently, the perception and representation of later life have undergone important changes. Issues around age and oldness are characterized by asynchronities, ambiguities and contradictions. Thus, on a scale of extremes, we can observe a paradigmatic shift to frame the later life as Golden Age. characterized by incentives for participation and inclusion that coexists with a widespread social ignorance of the old, perpetuating the deeply rooted disgust against the frailness of the Dark Age.

The so called ‘old' are in the cross-fire of cultural debates, welfare policies and consumption strategies. Their growing demographic and political pressure continues to force authorities of public life to deal with the question who they - ‘the old’ — actually are. A ‘creative amalgamation" (Holstein&Minkler, in Bernard&Scharf, 2007:24) of knowledge and experience is needed in order to understand and take abreast of new meanings and identities in later life.


This essay’s point of departure is the assumption of an under- and misrepresentation of ‘old' people particularly in Britain but also in Western societies in general - a state that should be subjected to critical examination. Thus, the first part will outline the traditional understanding of age as vieillesse ingrate (Hummel. 1998), discuss negative ageist representations and exemplify the process of a sociopolitical mechanism of becoming invisible by means of labour market expulsion. After that, an analysis of three overlapping processes that inform and orchestrate age identities will follow: changes in British welfare services and social policy, consumerism as a forni of interaction and means of inclusion and the social imperative to comply with the idea(l) of a postmodern, agentic subject. This should illustrate how essentialist and biased perceptions of old people as homogeneous group begin to fall apart in favour of a more dynamic and diverse notion of the third age.

However, the concepts of ‘accomplished ageing’, ‘positive ageing strategy’ and ‘ageing well’ cannot be embraced uncritically as the new ‘troth’ about age, for they run the risk to become just another form of ageism. The third part therefore aims to distil a middle ground of third age representations which avoids the impasse of the double denial of ageing as either golden or dark. I shall argue for a realistic compromise of age imagery, which neither romanticises nor pathologises third agers; a picture that critically evaluates the interplay dynamics of the analysed processes and which reflects the difficulties of choice, participation and constraint in identities of old age. This essay will conclude on possibilities of integration of not solely academic but also third agers personal knowledge into public opinion and social policy.

Defining Age and Ageism

It is the peculiar triumph of society - and its loss - that is able to convince those people to whom it has given inferior status of the reality of this decree; so that the allegedly inferior are actually made so. (Baldwin, 1965 in: Arber&Ginn 1991:33)

The term ‘third age' was coined and defined by an inquiry of the Carnegie UK Trust which targeted its age range between 50-74 years as ‘as a time when people have finished their main job or career, bringing up their children, or both, but who still have many years of healthy and active life ahead of them' (Tinker, 1994:177). Its key institution is retirement which impacts upon later life in form of a social structure, a symbolic meaning and (as expectation of) a specific lifestyle. Despite being conceptualised with the perspective of a ‘healthy and active life’, the third age is charged with ageist stereotypes.

The definition of ageism, as the process of systematic stereotyping of and discrimination against people because they are old’ (Lewis&Butler, 1972 in: Arber&Ginn. 1991: 34) remains somewhat redundant if its manifold ramifications on (and between) the institutional and interactional level are not taken into account. Classic gerontology has elaborated three keywords to characterize daily old life - ‘dependency, decline and deficit’ (Featherstone& Wernick, 1995: in Patterson et al., 2009:433). Despite the fact that the fields of ‘new and ‘critical gerontology’ (Minichiello&Coulson.2005:xiii) have introduced a paradigmatic shift contradicting the stereotype of passivity and loss, public policy and mainstream conceptions of age seem not to have changed proportionately. Neither has the demographic change making later life a normal expectation in the industrialised West challenged age as ‘strangely secret as well as much misunderstood world’ (Thompson, 1992: 26). Actually, a quite undifferentiated category of ‘old’ seems to include everyone between the age span of retirement and death. These preconceptions about old age generate a reductive vision of seniors because ‘not only do they diminish singularities, but they also serve to dc-dialecticise, reify and depersonalise their actual existence by creating an ‘essentialist perception’ of the ageing process' (Quéniart&Charpentier, 2011:20).

Thence, the three classic stereotypes remain manifest in prejudice against old people concerning their physical, mental and social abilities and comprise discriminations on potentially all levels of society: Their bodies are problematic, their lives empty.

At this point it seems appropriate to reify the reciprocal significance between representation and identity as a relationship that enables ‘the formulation of a gratifying (...) personal identity’ (ibid. 2011: 3) intelligible to its social, political and cultural etc. contexts, /.«-(ageist, sexist, racist etc.) stereotypes confine the relations of possibilities to enact an autonomous and positive identity through their constant reference to a set of negative codes, which aie deeply entrenched in (iconic, philosophical, scientific) principles of Western cultures. We can observe this continuity from ‘the unflattering picture of second childhood, helpless dependence, and degeneration from Shakespeare’s traditional cycle of the stages of life’ (Thompson, 1992: 43) that resurfaces in today's popular imagery. Be it as victim of crime, consumer of care, or public obstacle: ‘the standard warning-sign for old people crossing the road thus is of a grotesquely hunched old couple leaning on a stick, evidently both suffering from osteoporosis, ill as much as old’ (ibid.:44).

Unsurprisingly, much of the research carried out recently reports a refusal of the label ‘old’, for its degrading and stereotyping function. For instance, Quéniart and Charpentier in their survey on older women's representations indicate that, ‘For them, the expression old woman referred to something they had not yet become (...). (...) ‘being an older woman’ is synonymous with slowing down, inactivity, boredom and isolation. It also evokes illness, or rather, drugs and institutionalisation’ (Quincart&Charpcnticr, 2011 :10).

The Disappearing Granny Trick

As this essay analyses third age representation primarily through the lens of social policy, it should now take a closer look on the equation retired = old.

The significance of work has seen a permanent increase in the course of the past century, changing from a means to live to a meaning in life. Profession has become attached to or congruent with ideas of personal fulfilment, vocation and life-sense; this becomes particularly salient in German language where ‘Beruf- means profession ( the more or less instrumental carrying out of a job) and Berufung’, that entails an ontoformative dimension where the individual acquires sense and meaning through its professional activity.

Yet, whether one makes his or her living with a dream job or not, work, and in particular paid work, holds a crucial place in Western biographies. The lifecycle, basically, is structured around it. Although the individual attachment of significance may vary, it is undeniable that specific routines of work organise, structure and stabilise life, for they provide ‘a plurality of functions and rewards, including purposeful activity, sociability, status and material gain' (Barnes&Perry,2004 :218) so that, relatedly, ‘dominant cultural values (...) attribute to it a central role in identity formation’ (ibid.). Thus, unsurprisingly, the ending of a working life equates with the loss of a role or identity, as they, ‘come under increased scrutiny and pressure, and are likely to undergo substantial change in response to new constellations of resources, such as time, money, personal space, health status and social networks' (ibid.:213/214).

Therefore, post-working life is shaped in a multifaceted and complex way by the experiences beforehand. The move into retirement is not universal; it can be a relief and consolidation or a crisis and rupture. Moreover, it is perceived through individual prisms of class, race, geography, gender etc.

For instance, the double standard of ageing (Itzin, 1990) substantiates how gender based differences in working life extend into and impact upon retirement scenarios:

The often problematic transition into retirement relates to productive and reproductive functions, which are not on a par with each other. The abstract exchange value of paid work is superior to the immediate and concrete value of emotional and domestic work. Capitalist societies heavily rely on reproductive activities, but the social construction of a public vs. a private sphere is highly gendered and discriminates against women.


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Key Issues in Identity
A critical exploration of the double denial of old identity
University of Hull  (Social Sciences)
Identity Politics
76 %
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
3660 KB
issues, identity
Quote paper
Zuzanna Szutenberg (Author), 2012, Key Issues in Identity, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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