1 The experience of‘old age’
Extract 1 Mrs Pullen
I don't think I mind being old, I try very hard to accept that I am old, but what makes it harder is that people think that old age is a write-off … The reason it's brought home to you with such a jolt is because you give up work. You have to give up work – suddenly … You see, I've spent many, many years in a job … As I came up to retirement [at 60] I decided I really wanted to stay on for a couple more years and spend some time organizing my retirement. In fact it didn't work out … so I decided I had to retire … first I was anxious about whether I would be going the right way about acquiring a pension … I am not managing on the [state] pension … But I was also worried about the lack of companionship. No, not really that, more the daily social round. There were people there at work to talk to, to grumble to; they talk to you, you've had that for years and taken it for granted … The thing about life at work is that it has to run along these rails, so you feel safe inside the rails. When you've given up work there's no timing, no guidelines, nothing. I was absolutely bewildered. As I came up to leaving work I was bitter, cynical and very cross that I couldn't stay at work at least one more year … [W]hen I was at work free time often got taken up with getting ready for work. … I did [look forward to having more time to myself when I retired], of course I did. I thought that was lovely and I liked the idea of not having to jump when somebody said … I felt all these things at the same time. I really believe that it's the most difficult thing I have done in my life.
Age and ageing are clearly part of our personal lives. Many experiences we hold to be private, intimate or unique in our own biographies are likely to be defined or anchored by age. Yet, ‘aged’ experience, such as being a young person, is powerfully shaped by the social policy context within which it is located (Thomson, 2004; Goldson, 2004). In this course we explore the way in which older age has been socially constructed, and focus particularly on how the identity of being an ‘old age pensioner’ (OAP) developed during the twentieth century. Examining the role that different social policies played in shaping this social construction, we look at the implications this had for the way older people experienced their personal lives during the period. Finally, we consider how the identity of being an OAP began to unravel at the turn of the twentieth century: a period in which the life course of older people became more fragmented and uncertain.
Extract 1 offers insights into one person's experience of being an OAP. Mrs Pullen had been retired for two years when interviewed in the mid 1980s, and her account gives insights into what this experience meant to her. It also allows us to see how aspects of the social are implicated in giving shape to the personal life she describes.
Take a moment to think back over Extract 1. How, and in what ways, is the social implicated in shaping the experience Mrs Pullen describes?
Work – defined in terms of paid employment – or, more specifically, being excluded from work, perhaps represents the most prominent way the social is evoked within Extract 1. The experience Mrs Pullen describes seems predicated on the assumption that waged work is something that she, as an older person, is excluded from. This becomes evident if we reflect on the language she uses. While retirement is clearly something she looked forward to, her actual experience of this nonetheless reflects strong feelings of compulsion. So, for example, she says ‘you have to give up work … I had to retire’. As we move further through the extract, she reports feeling ‘bitter’ and ‘cynical’ about the compulsion she experienced. The second way the social is evoked involves her reference to the state pension. This firmly connects her personal life to the public domain of the welfare state. She reports feeling ‘anxious’ about obtaining the pension and indicates that she is not ‘managing’ on the income it furnishes. The overall impression generated by the extract is that this feature, combined with her exclusion from work, constituted her experience of retirement as one characterised by difficulty as she struggled to ‘manage’ both her immediate ‘transition’ out of paid work, and its aftermath. It further evidences how Mrs Pullen's experience of ageing, and becoming older, was constructed through the interplay of work and welfare, and that this constituted a key life transition.
The interplay between the different aspects of the social Mrs Pullen describes – between paid work and state welfare – are clearly implicated in shaping the personal life she outlines. Indeed it seems to represent a defining or critical moment in the context of her biography: marking a point where her identity as a ‘worker’, and the various contemporary meanings which attach to it (Mooney, 2004), becomes eclipsed by that of being ‘retired’. The feelings she gives voice to are profoundly individual in the sense that they are grounded in her own biography. However, the association she describes between chronological age, retiring at 60 (or 65 if she had been a man in the same period), and being defined as ‘old’, can be seen as exemplifying the experience of many older people in the UK in the latter part of the twentieth and early part of the twenty-first century. As we will see below, by the 1960s and 1970s the accepted orthodoxy was that the ‘normal’ period of full-time employment ceased at 60 or 65 years: ages that also became conventionally defined as the point at which ‘old age’ started (Harper and Thane, 1989).
Yet, just as this orthodoxy was becoming cemented, fault-lines emerged. The ‘right’ or ‘entitlement’ of people to retire at 60 or 65 years, or to take early retirement in their fifties, was increasingly scrutinised towards the end of the twentieth century. So much so that during the early part of the twenty-first century it seems that we are bombarded on an almost daily basis with media reports forecasting some form of ‘crisis’ mapped around being or becoming older. For example, warnings of a ‘pension gap’ and ‘pension shortfalls’ are routinely wielded, along with prescriptions that we will need to work longer, save more, or do both if we are to realise anything more than a relatively impoverished, if longer-lived, older age. At the same time, companies like B & Q, Nationwide, and Marks and Spencer are highlighted and praised for their commitment to recruit and retain older workers. While at national government level, New Labour in response to European Union (EU) directives was, at the time of writing (2004), drafting anti-age discrimination legislation. This was scheduled to be introduced by 2006. The Employment Equality (Age) Regulations 2006 now make it illegal to discriminate against people on the basis of their age, in areas like paid employment, and health and social care services.
Anthony Giddens, a prominent sociologist, has added to these debates by calling for a fundamental re-think of the way the welfare state constitutes the identity and experience of older age in the post-war period. Thus, at the end of the 1990s he asserted:
The concept of the pension that begins at retirement age, and the label ‘pensioner’, were inventions of the welfare state. But not only do these not conform to the new realities of ageing, they are as clear a case of welfare dependency as one can find … We should move towards abolishing the fixed age of retirement, and we should regard old people as a resource rather than a problem.
(quoted in Blackburn, 2002, p. 24)
Irrespective of whether being older constitutes part of our present or future personal identity, two things are clear. First, the way it is constituted is changing. Second, shifting intersections of work and welfare are likely to play a crucial role in shaping this process of change in the future, just as they did in the past.