Introducing ageing
Introducing ageing

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

Free course

Introducing ageing

Apocalyptic demography?

The article you just read could be seen as an example of what some gerontologists have termed ‘apocalyptic demography’ – that is, treating people living longer solely as a problem and burden to societies with terrible long term effects (Bytheway and Johnson, 2010). Rather than celebrating the fact that many people are living longer, and recognising the benefits that having more older people in the population might bring, apocalyptic demography focuses only on the negatives. An ageing population undoubtedly changes society and creates new challenges but it is both over-simplistic and ageist to frame this only as a problem. You may remember that part of Butler’s original definition of ageism was that it involved ‘systematic stereotyping’. As one commentator says:

The apocalyptic picture of the future is indeed ageist, because it objectifies people who are ageing and treats them as though they are all alike. They are not people anymore; they are ‘the burden’. From this negative point of view, these older people are not capable of contributing creative solutions to meeting their own needs. They have no agency. They are inert, the burden. The sky is falling, and it is falling because there are too many older people. That sounds ageist to me.

(Longino, 2005, p. 79)

One of the ways ‘isms’ like racism, sexism and, here, ageism, work is by over-generalising and stereotyping, as if everyone who can be categorised in a particular way is the same as everyone else in that category. Laslett’s concept of the Third Age can help to resist apocalyptic demography by making it clear that ageing is not simply about decline, dependency and difficulty.

Laslett’s argument about the growth of the Third Age is an example of an academic theory. Theories take a complex social phenomenon (in this case, ageing) and attempt to understand it more clearly by carrying out research and by developing explanations, categories and concepts. Theories can make things look simpler and more tidy than they actually are. Reality is usually messy and very complex, so no theory is perfect and explains everything. However, a useful theory takes you beyond what you already think you know and helps you to see things that you otherwise might not. That is why developing and refining theories is a key part of academic work.

One of the ways in which theories are developed is by other people reading and responding to the original theory. Laslett’s theory of the growth of the Third Age has been very influential and many people have developed and also criticised his ideas. While there is broad agreement that more people are living longer, healthier lives, some gerontologists have argued that Laslett’s emphasis on self-fulfilment in later life is unhelpful because it puts too much emphasis on personal achievement (Gilleard and Higgs, 2002). This can make it seem that, if people do not experience a Third Age, it is somehow their fault when, actually, their socio-economic circumstances or a combination of unlucky events are the main cause. Another common criticism is that the idea of the Third and Fourth Ages is rather unhelpful when thinking about people who are more dependent and frail. It is this issue that the next section focuses on.


Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has 50 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to University-level study, we offer two introductory routes to our qualifications. You could either choose to start with an Access module, or a module which allows you to count your previous learning towards an Open University qualification. Read our guide on Where to take your learning next for more information.

Not ready for formal University study? Then browse over 1000 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus371