4 From ‘OAP’ to ‘third age’ citizen? Fractured transitions and uncertain lives
The 1970s marked a period in which the cessation of the ‘normal’ period of full-time employment at 60 or 65 years had become the accepted orthodoxy. The personal lives of older people had thus become constituted outside the domain of paid employment and within the arena of public and private welfare. As we illustrated in the preceding section, pensions, organised around fixed ages of retirement based on chronological measurements of age, played a crucial role in this process. Further, as also noted, the implementation of pension policies reflected and reproduced entrenched patterns of inequality organised not only around age but also around social divisions of class, (dis)ability, ethnicity and gender. Reflecting the legacy of the nineteenth-century Poor Law, the low level of the Basic State Pension (BSP) meant many older, working-class people experienced impoverished personal lives. This feature was compounded for women, as the gendered assumptions underpinning the post-war settlement ‘species of universalism’ continued to constitute their identity in relation to unpaid work.
However, just as this orthodoxy was becoming established, it began to unravel. The mobilisation and agency of older people informed this process. Pensioner movements continued to organise for greater rights and social equality for older people. Likewise, the late twentieth century saw older voices being mobilised around the concept of the ‘third age’ – an age loosely defined as consistent with older age and starting at the conventional age of retirement. This reconceptualisation turns on constructing older age as a period of opportunity and choice, and so challenges dominant and negative images which construct older people as a ‘burden’ or dependent. Potentially freed from the compulsions of paid work, it is suggested that the idea of the ‘third age’ creates space for older people to become more active and fulfilled citizens, through involvement in education, leisure, family, unpaid work and meaningful and satisfying forms of paid work (Laslett, 1989).
Further, 2003 heralded the election of the first pensioner to the Scottish Parliament, purely on a manifesto of promoting greater social equality for older people. However, the agency of older people was not the only factor that informed the unravelling of this orthodoxy. Important structural changes, policy shifts and a complex set of other interests were also involved. In combination, these factors suggest that the personal lives of older people in the twenty-first century are likely to be characterised by increasing levels of risk and uncertainty. This section offers selective insight into some of these features, and the implications they represent for older people.