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The Third and Fourth Ages

Updated Tuesday 17th December 2013

What does being 'old' really mean? In this debate, we look at the idea that age has nothing to do with how old you are. 

Please note: The views expressed in this debate are all genuine, but in order to encourage open debate they were captured off-camera. The video below features people sharing views randomly assigned to them, which may not reflect their personal beliefs, nor those of The Open University as a whole.

Video

Transcript

JONATHAN

Rebecca, one of the things about sort of ageing and older people, it's seems to be that you were talking about a sort of big range of ages from, perhaps, from just over 50 to, I don't know, 90-95.  Is there any way we can sort of think about sort of different groups within that?  It's a very big group.

REBECCA

Well, an idea that's been quite influential I think is this idea of the third age and the fourth age, and actually I can probably best show this with a little picture.  So, if you think that this is somebody's life, and they're born over here, oops!  And they die over here.  And say they're about 20 here and 40 here and 60 here, and let's say this particular person dies at 95, which is not that uncommon these days.  People tend to think of, as you were saying, of everyone over, sometimes over about 50, sometimes over about 60, perhaps increasingly now over about 70, as old.  This is old people.  Of course if you're over that line yourself you might not, but.

JONATHAN

Yes.  It's a line that shifts as you get older isn't it?

REBECCA

That's right it's a line that moves along as you get old but the fact that you get, generally people expect to be pensioned off at 65 does make 65 or 60 or around there a kind of imaginary line.  And people often think of that as one category of people.  But, as you were saying, you know, if you're fit and healthy and you're doing lots of voluntary work and you're perhaps looking after grandchildren one day a week or something, your life might be really different from the life of someone who has dementia, is in a nursing home is nearly, is very close to dying, this imaginary person at about this point here.  And Peter Laslett, who's the person who came up with this idea, argues that really you need to think of these two stages as completely different kind of stages of life.  So the third age is this bit when you're still really active, you're still enjoying life, you've got a bit, actually you've got a bit of freedom that you didn't have when you had to work really hard at your job or you were really busy keeping a home and bringing up your kids and all that kind of thing.

So this third age is actually, can be a really enjoyable time of life, and then the final usually bit is this bit where, you know, it's all a bit more tough and it's a bit more, you've got a lot less freedom, you're a lot more constrained in what you can do, and this is called the fourth age.  And what Peter Laslett was at pains to say but other people sometimes forget is that actually this is nothing to do with how old you are in terms of when your last birthday way.  So some people will be in their third age, even though they're 95, other people might be in their fourth age in their 60s if they've got really bad health or some other problem.

JONATHAN

And people are making choices for them because of that.

REBECCA

That's right, yes.  You haven't got the autonomy and the freedom.  And I just think, I mean in some ways I think it's a bit problematic because it kind of says that this last fourth age is a bit hopeless and, you know, there's what's to live for, it's very sort of declined towards death, and that's not actually very helpful to people who are in that stage.  And also sometime people dip in and out of that stage.  You know, like someone with cancer might be very seriously ill for a long time and in a period where they can't have self-fulfilment and all those things, but then they might be in remission and sort of pop back to the third age and.  So it's a bit more complicated than that suggests, but I think it's quite helpful for accounting for the fact that older people are really different and experience things really differently.

JONATHAN

It seems it's very much a perspective from somewhere down here -

REBECCA

It does.

JONATHAN

- looking at these people.

REBECCA

Yes.

JONATHAN

Rather than looking at these people from their own perspective.

REBECCA

Yes, so how would you redraw it do you think?

JONATHAN

Well and also I mean just on the fourth stage it sort of, it's sort of, as you say, sort of, it seems to be writing it off and sort of saying it's impossible to have, I don't know, a meaningful life.

REBECCA

A good life, yes, a meaningful life, yes.

JONATHAN

At that stage which seems a huge sort of generalisation for, just based on, well it's not just based on age, I know, but it's based on age sort of, and circumstances.

REBECCA

Yes, yes I mean I think it's useful to have some terminology to say a 60-year-old who's doing all these activities is really in a very different life stage from somebody with dementia in a care home.  But I do take your point it's not very helpful for thinking about this fourth one.

CAROLINE

But people seem to still be able to discriminate against older people if they're in that group or that group, because for instance we've got the greedy baby boomers who've stolen everything from the young people, and then we've got the poor old things who are like -

JONATHAN

Once again it's coming from this perspective isn't it?

CAROLINE

- causing an economic crisis because they need all their care.

JONATHAN

It's the people on this point in the line, saying things about these people.

CAROLINE

Exactly, yes, so, yes exactly.  So there's still this divide and rule based on age, even though we know that this is a continuum right through.  So as people get, as life expectancy increases, Rebecca, do you think they'll be more people living a longer time in the third age, or will they be living a longer time in the fourth age?

REBECCA

I think that's a really question.  I don't know what the answer is.  I mean somebody said, I can't remember who, you know, the ideal is to die in the third age, you know, you don't really want to have a fourth age at all.  I think for some people increasing longevity does mean longer and longer in the third age and then just a short fourth age, but the worry I think is are we extending people's life by meaning that they have 20 or 30 years of the fourth age?  And if so is that something we want to do?

JONATHAN

So this is actually the basis of the sort of phrases that you hear sometimes like demographic time bomb where sort of people are sort of saying well how can the population as a whole support this ever growing number of very dependant old people who are making these huge demands on the health and care services.

REBECCA

Yes.  But actually not all, you know, not everyone over 85 -

JONATHAN

No, quite.

REBECCA

- is making demands on the health and social care services.

CAROLINE

And in fact a lot of those people in that group are contributing to it aren't they?

REBECCA

Yes, indeed.

CAROLINE

By being carers, volunteers.

REBECCA

By being volunteers, by being family carers, yes.

CAROLINE

Still working and all the rest of it, so.

REBECCA

Yes.  Yes one of our colleagues the other day I know was talking to someone who's still employed as a home carer at the age of, I can't remember, 85, 87, you know.  She's surely making a contribution to society but.

JONATHAN

Contribution, yes, yes.

REBECCA

So I think that's another way it's helpful is that kind of breaking down the idea that all older people are a drain on resources and.

JONATHAN

Because a lot of older people care for older people anyway -

REBECCA

Exactly.

JONATHAN

- don't they, on an unpaid, sort of voluntary basis.

REBECCA

Yes, yes especially for family and friends.

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