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Ageing, corporeality and social divisions in later life

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 June 2016

Faculty of Brain Sciences, University College London, UK.
Faculty of Brain Sciences, University College London, UK.
Address for correspondence: Paul Higgs, Division of Psychiatry, Faculty of Brain Sciences, UCL, Maple House, 149 Tottenham Court Road, London W1T 7NF, UK E-mail:


This paper concerns the social divisions of later life. Although research in this field has focused on class, gender and, more recently, sexuality as sources of division in later life, the division between the fit and the frail has tended to be ignored or viewed as an outcome of these other divisions. This paper challenges this assumption, arguing that corporeality constitutes a major social division in later life. This in many ways prefigures a return to the 19th-century categorisation of those ‘impotent through age’, whose position was among the most abject in society. Their ‘impotence’ was framed by an inability to engage in paid labour. Improved living standards during and after working life saw age's impotence fade in significance and in the immediate post-war era, social concern turned towards the relative poverty of pensioners. Subsequent demographic ageing and the expanding cultures of the third age have undermined the homogeneity of retirement. Frailty has become a major source of social division, separating those who are merely older from those who are too old. This division excludes the ‘unsuccessfully’ aged from utilising the widening range of material and social goods that characterise the third age. It is this social divide rather than those of past occupation or income that is becoming a more salient line of fracture in later life.

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