Studying the Fourth Age
Activity 8 is based on a study of people in the Fourth Age where the researchers found that the reality of people’s lives was much more complex than the rather stereotyped view of this stage in life that you encountered in the Laslett reading.
Activity 8 Living in the Fourth Age
Click on 'SIGN IN to enrol' to get started.You can find out more about registering and OpenLearn in our FAQs.
Reading 2 in Activity 8 shows that, while being more frail and dependent usually reduces people’s scope to do things that they find fulfilling and to contribute to society, it does not do so absolutely. Clearly the people in Katz et al.’s 2013 study are living very different lives from Monty Meth, but it is not a simple story of decline and despair, as Laslett’s version of the Fourth Age might seem to suggest.
Neither is the boundary between being ‘Third Age’ and ‘Fourth Age’ as clear and as impermeable as it might sound. People may move in and out of the Fourth Age (Midwinter, 2005), for example if they are in remission from cancer. Some gerontologists have suggested that the trouble with Laslett’s idea of the Fourth Age is that he was not really interested in it – his focus was on making the case that people should recognise the existence and significance of the Third Age. This means that the Fourth Age works as a kind of black hole (Gilleard and Higgs, 2010). People fear it and focus on the Third Age and what it might mean to age well when you are healthy and independent. The Fourth Age then becomes a kind of residual space that sucks in everything that people do not want to think about. This means that people who are categorised, usually by other people, as in the Fourth Age can be seen as completely different and ‘other’ from most people and this can mean that they are treated less well (Grenier, 2012).
Part of the definition of ageism at the beginning of this learning guide was ‘Ageism allows the younger generation to see older people as different from themselves, thus they subtly cease to identify with their elders as human beings’ (Butler and Lewis, 1973, p. 35). You could argue, then, that Laslett’s theory of the Fourth Age contributes to ageist attitudes towards some older people, even though the theory of the Third Age helps to break down ageist attitudes towards others.
As Molly Davies and Reading 2 suggest, people who might be categorised as living in the Fourth Age remain recognisably the same as younger, healthier people. They may have greater needs for support than other people but they continue to be complex individuals with different histories, personalities, needs and preferences.