Skip to main content Accessibility help

Ageing, corporeality and social divisions in later life



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.


Corresponding author

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:


Hide All
Adams, P., Hurd, M. D., McFadden, D., Merrill, A., and Ribeiro, T. 2003. Healthy, wealthy, and wise? Tests for direct causal paths between health and socioeconomic status. Journal of Econometrics, 112, 1, 356.
Alcock, P. 2008. Poverty and social exclusion, in Ridge, T. and Wright, S. (eds), Understanding Inequality, Poverty and Wealth: policies and prospects, Policy Press, Bristol, 3760.
Atkinson, A. B., Cantillon, B., Marlier, E. and Nolan, B. 2002. Social Indicators: The EU and Social Inclusion. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Atkinson, A. B. 2009. The EU and social inclusion: Facing the challenges. Policy Press, Bristol.
Barnes, M., Blom, A., Cox, K., Lessof, C. and Walker, A. 2006. The Social Exclusion of Older People: Evidence from the First Wave of the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing: Final Report. National Centre for Social Research, University of Sheffield, Sheffield, UK. Available online at [Accessed 1 June 2015].
Beck, U., Bonss, W. and Lau, C. 2003. The theory of reflexive modernisation: problematic, hypotheses and research programme. Theory, Culture and Society, 20, 2, 133.
Bennett, T., Savage, M., Silva, E. B., Warde, A., Gayo-Cal, M. & Wright, D. 2009. Culture, Class, Distinction. Routledge, London.
Berlau, D. J., Corrada, M. M. and Kawas, C. 2009. The prevalence of disability in the oldest-old is high and continues to increase with age: findings from the 90+ Study. International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, 24, 11, 1217–25.
Blane, D. 1999. The life course, the social gradient, and health. In Marmot, M. and Wilkinson, R. G. (eds), Social Determinants of Health. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 6480.
Booth, C. 1887. The inhabitants of Tower Hamlets (School Board Division), their conditions and occupations. Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, 50, 2, 326401.
Braithwaite, J. and Mont, D. 2008. Disability and poverty: a survey of World Bank poverty assessments and implications. SP Discussion Paper 0805, World Bank, Washington DC.
Brault, M. W. 2012. Americans with disabilities: 2010. Current Population Reports, P70–131, US Census Bureau, Washington DC.
Brayne, C., Ince, P. G., Keage, H. A., McKeith, I. G., Matthews, F. E., Polvikoski, T. and Sulkava, R. 2010. Education, the brain and dementia: neuroprotection or compensation? Brain, 133, 8, 2210–6.
Brown, R. L. and Prus, S. G. 2006. Income inequality over the later-life course: a comparative analysis of seven OECD countries. Annals of Actuarial Science, 102, 307–17.
Byrne, D. 2005. Social Exclusion. Second edition, Open University Press, Maidenhead, UK.
Cantegreil-Kallen, I. and Pin, S. 2012. Fear of Alzheimer's disease in the French population: impact of age and proximity to the disease. International Psychogeriatrics, 24, 1, 108116.
Chatterji, S., Byles, J., Cutler, D., Seeman, T. and Verdes, E. 2015. Health, functioning, and disability in older adults – present status and future implications. The Lancet, 385, 9967, 563–75.
Costa, D. L. 2000. Understanding the twentieth-century decline in chronic conditions among older men. Demography, 37, 1, 5372.
Cronin, A. 2005. Sexuality in Gerontology: A heteronormative presence, a queer absence, in Daatland, S. O. and Biggs, S. (eds) Ageing and Diversity : Multiple pathways and cultural migrations, Policy Press, Bristol, 107122.
Crystal, S. and Shea, D. 1990. Cumulative advantage, cumulative disadvantage, and inequality among elderly people. The Gerontologist, 30, 4, 437–43.
Cullinan, J., Gannon, B. and O'Shea, E. 2013. The welfare implications of disability for older people in Ireland. European Journal of Health Economics, 14, 2, 171–83.
Cutler, D. 2005. Commentary on ‘Consequences and predictors of new health events’. In Wise, D. (ed.), Analyses in the Economics of Aging. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 237–40.
Devine, F., Savage, M., Scott, J., and Crompton, R. 2005. Rethinking Class: Cultures, Identities and Lifestyles. Palgrave Macmillan, London.
Estes, C. 1999. Critical gerontology and the new political economy of aging. In Minkler, M. and Estes, C. (eds), Critical Gerontology: Perspectives from Political and Moral Economy. Baywood, Amityville, New York, 1735.
Ethgen, O., Gillain, D., Gillet, P., Gosset, C., Jousten, A., and Reginster, J. Y. 2004. Age-and sex-stratified prevalence of physical disabilities and handicap in the general population. Aging Clinical and Experimental Research, 16, 5, 389397.
Eurostat (2015) People at risk of poverty or social exclusion by age and sex. European Commission, Brussels (; accessed 7th June 2015 and again 5th May 2016).
Fairfield, L. 1943. Care of the chronic sick. The Lancet, ii, 455–7.
Finkelstein, A., Luttmer, E. F. and Notowidigdo, M. J. 2013. What good is wealth without health? The effect of health on the marginal utility of consumption. Journal of the European Economic Association, 11, 1, 221–58.
Formosa, M. and Higgs, P. 2015. Introduction. In Formosa, M. and Higgs, P. (eds), Social Class in Later Life, Policy Press, Bristol, UK, 114.
Fried, L. P., Ferrucci, L., Darer, J., Williamson, J. D., & Anderson, G. 2004. Untangling the concepts of disability, frailty, and comorbidity: implications for improved targeting and care. The Journals of Gerontology Series A: Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences, 59, 3, M255M263.
Furman, F. K. 1997. Facing the Mirror: Older Women and Beauty Shop Culture. Routledge, London.
Geronimus, A. T, Hicken, M., Keene, D. and Bound, J. 2006. ‘Weathering’ and age patterns of allostatic load scores. American Journal of Public Health, 96, 5, 826–33.
Gilleard, C. and Higgs, P. 2005. Contexts of Ageing: Class, Cohort and Community. Polity, Cambridge.
Gilleard, C. and Higgs, P. 2011 a. Aging, abjection and embodiment in the Fourth Age. Journal of Aging Studies, 25, 2, 135–42.
Gilleard, C. and Higgs, P. 2011 b. Frailty, disability and old age: a re-appraisal. Health 15, 5, 475–90.
Gilleard, C. and Higgs, P. 2013. Ageing, Corporeality and Embodiment. Anthem Press, London.
Ginn, J. 2008. Poverty and financial inequality in later life. In Ridge, T. and Wright, S. (eds), Understanding Inequality, Poverty and Wealth: Policies and Prospects. Policy Press, Bristol, UK, 205–34.
Goudswaard, K., van Vliet, O., Been, J. and Caminada, K. 2012. Pensions and income inequality in old age. DICE Report, 104, 21.
Hearn, J. and Wray, S. 2015. Gender: implications of a contested area. In Twigg, J. and Martin, W. (eds), Routledge Handbook of Cultural Gerontology. Routledge, London, 201–9.
Higgs, P. and Gilleard, C. 2015. Rethinking Old Age: Theorising the fourth age. Palgrave Macmillan, London.
Hokayem, C. and Heggeness, M. L. 2014. Living in near poverty in the United States: 1966–2012. Current Population Reports, P60-248, US Census Bureau, Washington DC.
Hörder, H., Frändin, K. and Larsson, M. 2013. Self-respect through ability to keep fear of frailty at a distance: successful ageing from the perspective of community-dwelling older people. International Journal of Qualitative Studies on Health and Well-Being, 8: 20194 -
House of Commons Parliamentary Papers 1900 Cd. 292. Twenty-ninth Annual Report of the Local Government Board, 1899–1900. Available online at [Accessed 10 April 2015].
Hurd Clarke, L. 2011. Facing Age. Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham, Maryland.
Jehoel-Gijsbers, G. and Vrooman, C. 2008. Social Exclusion of the Elderly: A Comparative Study of EU Member States. ENEPRI (European Network of Economic Policy Research Institutes) Research Report 57, Centre for European Policy Studies, Brussels. Available online at [Accessed 25 May 2015].
Jones, I. R. and Higgs, P. 2015. Class and health inequalities in later life. In Formosa, M. and Higgs, P. (eds), Social Class in Later Life: Power, Identity and Lifestyle. Policy Press, Bristol, UK.
Jones, I. R., Hyde, M., Victor, C., Wiggins, D., Gilleard, C. and Higgs, P. 2008. Ageing in a Consumer Society: From Passive to Active Consumption in Britain. Policy Press, Bristol, UK.
Keating, N. and Scharf, T. 2012. Revisiting social exclusion of older adults. In Scharf, T. and Keating, N. (eds), From Exclusion to Inclusion in Old Age: A Global Challenge. Policy Press, Bristol, UK, 163–70.
Kennedy, J. and Minkler, M. 1999. Disability theory and public policy: implications for critical gerontology. In Minkler, M. and Estes, C. L. (eds), Critical Gerontology: Perspectives from Political and Moral Economy. Baywood, Amityville, New York, 91108.
Kessler, E. M., Tempel, J. and Wahl, H. W. 2014. Concerns about one's aging: The role of work context and psychological distress. GeroPsych: The Journal of Gerontopsychology and Geriatric Psychiatry, 27, 2, 81.
Knowles, S. and Owen, P. D. 1995. Health capital and cross-country variation in income per capita in the Mankiw-Romer-Weil model. Economics Letters, 48, 1, 99106.
Leicester, A., O'Dea, C. and Oldfield, Z. 2009. The expenditure experience of older households. Commentary C111, Institute for Fiscal Studies, London.
Levitas, R. 1996. The concept of social exclusion and the new ‘Durkheimian’ hegemony. Critical Social Policy, 46, 520.
Levitas, R. 2005. The Inclusive Society? Social Exclusion and New Labour. Second edition, Palgrave Macmillan, London.
Mackenbach, J. P. 2012. The persistence of health inequalities in modern welfare states: the explanation of a paradox. Social Science & Medicine, 75, 4, 761–9.
Matthews, K., Demakakos, P., Nazroo, J. and Shankar, A. 2014. The evolution of lifestyles in older age in England. In Banks, J., Nazroo, J. and Steptoe, A. (eds), The Dynamics of Ageing: Evidence from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing, 2002–2012 (Wave 6). Institute for Fiscal Studies, London, 5193, p. 83.
McDonald, S. and Roberts, J. 2002. Growth and multiple forms of human capital in an augmented Solow model: a panel data investigation. Economics Letters, 74, 2, 271–6.
McKee, K. J. and Gott, M. 2002. Shame and the ageing body. In Gilbert, P. and Miles, J. (eds), Body Shame: Conceptualisation, Research, and Treatment. Routledge, London, 7589.
McNeil, J. M. 2001. Americans with disabilities. Household Economic Studies, P-70 73, US Department of Commerce and Bureau of Census, Washington DC.
Meer, J., Miller, D. L. and Rosen, H. S. 2003. Exploring the health–wealth nexus. Journal of Health Economics, 22, 5, 713–30.
Meyer, B. D. and Sullivan, J. X. 2007. Consumption and income poverty for those 65 and over. Harris School Working Paper Series 07.21, Harris School of Public Policy Studies, University of Chicago, Chicago.
Minkler, M., Fuller-Thomson, E. and Guralnik, J. M. 2006. Gradient of disability across the socioeconomic spectrum in the United States. New England Journal of Medicine, 355, 7, 695703.
Mirowsky, J. and Ross, C. E. 2008. Education and self-rated health: cumulative advantage and its rising importance. Research on Aging, 30, 1, 93122.
Montez, J. K., Hummer, R. A., Hayward, M. D., Woo, H. and Rogers, R. G. 2011. Trends in the educational gradient of US adult mortality from 1986 through 2006 by race, gender, and age group. Research on Aging, 33, 2, 145–71.
O'Rand, A. M. 1995. The cumulative stratification the life course. In Binstock, R. and George, L. K. (eds), Handbook of Aging and the Social Sciences. Fourth edition, Academic Press, San Diego, California, 188207.
Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) 2007. Pensions at a Glance. OECD, Paris.
Palmer, M. 2011. Disability and poverty: a conceptual review. Journal of Disability Policy Studies, 21, 4, 210–8.
Peeters, H., Debels, A. and Verpoorten, R. 2013. Excluding institutionalized elderly from surveys: consequences for income and poverty statistics. Social Indicators Research, 110, 2, 751–69.
Phillipson, C. 1982. Capitalism and the Construction of Old Age. Macmillan, London.
Phillipson, C. 2011. Towards a new sociology of ageing: from structured dependency to critical gerontology. In Walker, A., Sinfield, A. and Walker, C. (eds), Fighting Poverty, Inequality and Injustice: A Manifesto Inspired by Peter Townsend. Policy Press, Bristol, UK, 193222.
Proctor, B. D. and Dalaker, J. 2002. Poverty in the United States: 2001. Current Population Reports P60-219, Government Printing Office, Washington DC.
Prus, S. G. 2007. Age, SES, and health: a population level analysis of health inequalities over the lifecourse. Sociology of Health & Illness, 29, 2, 275–96.
Puts, M. T. E., Shekary, N., Widdershoven, G., Heldens, J. and Deeg, D. J. H. 2009. The meaning of frailty according to Dutch older frail and non-frail persons. Journal of Aging Studies, 23, 4, 258–66.
Rank, M. R. and Hirschl, T. A. 2001. Rags or riches? Estimating the probabilities of poverty and affluence across the adult American life span. Social Science Quarterly, 82, 4, 651–69.
Read, S., Grundy, E. and Foverskova, E. 2016. Socio-economic position and subjective health and well-being among older people in Europe: a systematic narrative review. Aging & Mental Health, 20, 5, 529–42.
Robertson, T., Batty, G. D., Der, G., Fenton, C., Shiels, P. G. and Benzeval, M. 2012. Is socioeconomic status associated with biological aging as measured by telomere length? Epidemiologic Reviews, 35, 1, 98111.
Roebuck, J. 1979. When does ‘old age’ begin? The evolution of the English definition. Journal of Social History, 12, 3, 416–28.
Rowntree, B. S. 1901. Poverty: A Study in Town Life. Longmans, London.
Schafer, M. H. 2016. Health as status? Network relations and social structure in an American retirement community. Ageing & Society, 36, 1, 79105.
Scharf, T. 2015. Between inclusion and exclusion in later life. In Walsh, K., Carney, G. and Ní Léime, Á. (eds), Ageing Through Austerity: Critical Perspectives from Ireland. Policy Press, Bristol, UK, 113–29.
Scherger, S., Nazroo, J. and Higgs, P. 2011. Leisure activities and retirement: do structures of inequality change during old age? Ageing & Society, 31, 1, 146–72.
Sen, A. 1983. Poor, relatively speaking, Oxford Economic Papers, 35, 2, 153–69.
Silver, H. 1994. Social exclusion and social solidarity: three paradigms. International Labour Review, 133, 5/6, 531–78.
Smeeding, T. M., Torrey, B. B. and Rein, M. 1987. Patterns of Income and Poverty: The Economic Status of the Young and the Old in Eight Countries. CEPS/INSTEAD, Luxembourg.
Smith, J. 2005. Consequences and predictors of new health events. In Wise, J. (ed.), Analyses in the Economics of Aging. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 213–40.
Smith, J. P. and Kington, R. 1997. Demographic and economic correlates of health in old age. Demography, 34, 1, 159–70.
Taylor-Gooby, P. 2002. The silver age of the welfare state: perspectives on resilience. Journal of Social Policy, 31, 4, 597621.
Townsend, P. 1979. Poverty in the United Kingdom. Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, UK.
Townsend, P. 1981. The structured dependency of the elderly: a creation of social policy in the twentieth century. Ageing & Society, 1, 1, 528.
Walker, A. 1981. Towards a political economy of old age. Ageing and Society, 1, 1, 7394.
Walker, A. 2009. Why is ageing so unequal? In Cann, P. and Dean, M. (eds), Unequal Ageing: The Untold Story of Exclusion in Old Age. Policy Press, Bristol, UK, 141–58.
Warburton, J., Ng, S. H. and Shardlow, S. M. 2013. Social inclusion in an ageing world: introduction to the special issue. Ageing & Society, 33, 1, 115.
Warmoth, K., Lang, I. A., Phoenix, C., Abraham, C., Andrew, M. K., Hubbard, R. E. and Tarrant, M. 2015. ‘Thinking you're old and frail’: a qualitative study of frailty in older adults. Ageing & Society. Published online: 09 June 2015, doi: 10.1017/S0144686X1500046X.
Wentworth, S. G. and Pattison, D. 2001–2. Income growth and future poverty rates of the aged. Social Security Bulletin, 64, 3, 2337.
Zaidi, A. and Burchardt, T. 2005. Comparing incomes when needs differ: equivalization for the extra costs of disability. Review of Income and Wealth, 51, 89114.


Ageing, corporeality and social divisions in later life



Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed