Gender and the social imaginary of the fourth age
The development of a distinct field of what could be called ‘fourth age’ studies throws new light on the reconfigurations of later life. This chapter argues that these reconfigurations operate within two different but interconnected discourses. The ‘third age’ has come to be seen as a cultural field valorising agency and lifestyle while the ‘fourth age’ is represented by a feared ‘social imaginary’ of ‘frailed/unsuccessful’ ageing. Two contrasting themes seem to underpin much of this contemporary thinking, one based upon ageing as the loss of labour power, the other based on ageing as cultural marginality. This chapter argues that the concerns of both markets and states have been directed toward the former (in the sense of enabling an economically viable ‘third age’) while the abjection of deep old age has been consigned to the margins of social care and social policy. Post-war pension and social security policy addressing the ‘impotence’ of age helped create the conditions for a viable third age of retirement for the majority of people over 60, freed from the constraints of work and family. That enterprise has been largely successful. By contrast, the marginality and vulnerability of deep old age has been not so much reconfigured as rendered bleaker. Though attention has been drawn to the importance of cognitive and physical frailty in constituting the social imaginary of the fourth age, less recognition has been given to its gendering. This chapter argues that recognising the gendered nature of the fourth age provides further understanding of the limited representations of and resources devoted to ‘deep’ old age.