3 Introducing ‘the Third Age’
Peter Laslett (1915−2001) was an academic with wide-ranging interests including social history, politics and ageing. He was one of the founders of the University of the Third Age (U3A) (and also helped to establish The Open University). In 1989 he published a very influential book called A Fresh Map of Life: The Emergence of the Third Age (Laslett, 1989a), which you will look at in more detail in Activity 3.
Activity 3 A fresh map of life
Reading 1 - (a)
Click on the following link to read Reading 1 A new division of the life course (Laslett, 1989b), which is an extract from Laslett’s 1989 book.
Now, answer the following questions to check your understanding of what Laslett is arguing:
- a.In what ways does Laslett say that our modern ideas about ageing are influenced by what happened to older people in the past?
Laslett argues that in the past most people did not live to be old and we still have not really got used to the idea that people are living much longer nowadays. He says that in the past a greater proportion of older people experienced poor health and frailty and our ideas have not caught up with the fact that many older people now experience good health. This means that we still associate old age with frailty when this is no longer so common.
Reading 1 - (b)
- b.Write in your own words a brief description of the First, Second, Third and Fourth Ages.
You may have come up with something similar to the following:
- First Age – childhood, dependence and education.
- Second Age – younger and middle-aged adulthood, while people are generally working and raising families.
- Third Age – after people have generally stopped working and any children have left home.
- Fourth Age – once people are frail and dependent.
Reading 1 - (c)
- c.If people in the Third Age are healthy and active, how is the Third Age different from the Second Age?
The Second Age is a time when adults generally have lots of responsibilities to earn money and look after their families. In the Third Age they are much freer to pursue activities that they find personally fulfilling.
Reading 1 - (d)
- d.At what age do people generally enter the Fourth Age?
Laslett argues that there is no connection between someone’s chronological age (how old they are) and which stage of life they are in. Some people might enter the Fourth Age in their 60s or 70s, or even earlier, others not until their 90s or older. Or they might die suddenly, for example falling under the proverbial bus, while still in the Third Age.
Reading 1 - (e)
- e.What benefits does Laslett argue come from reconceptualising later life as having two distinct stages, the Third Age and the Fourth Age?
Laslett says that recognising the Third Age as a distinct stage has many benefits: it is a better reflection of most people’s lives in the developed world today; it helps us recognise that most people over retirement age are healthy and active; it is more optimistic for individuals who may be worried about their own ageing; it helps ensure the talents, experience and energies that older people have do not go to waste.
As Laslett himself acknowledges, there have always been some healthy and active people in their 70s, 80s and even older. But Laslett is arguing that this is now so common that we need to rethink our expectations about what is likely to happen over the course of someone’s life. Instead of thinking of life as falling into three main stages – childhood, adulthood and old age – we need to think of four. Rather than seeing healthy, active older people as exceptional, we need to recognise that many people can reasonably anticipate years of fulfilling life after they have finished paid work and any children have left home.