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The Emergence of the Third Age

  • Peter Laslett (a1)


This article is based upon a chapter in a book to be called Britain! Be Your Age! It begins with a discussion of schemes for dividing the life-course, describes the fresh division to which the title the Third Age belongs and refers briefly to a general theory of the Third Age. It is claimed that the Third Age as thus defined did not emerge in Britain and other Western countries until the 1950s, nor did it become a settled feature of their social structures until the 1980s. Expectation of life in a number of countries, developed and developing, is contrasted, and a comparison is undertaken between life expectation in the contemporary Third World and that in England in the historical past, that is since the early 16th century. It is concluded that contemporary developing societies have much longer life expectation than that in the English past, but markedly fewer elderly people. The implications of this for the modernisation theory in relation to ageing are drawn out, and the concept of modernisation shown to be unacceptable to historical sociologists. A Third Age Indicator (3AI) is then suggested, expressing the probability of a person of 25 years attaining 70 years. The Third Age is defined demographically in a two-fold way, as a condition of a population in which the general expectation of living from 25 to 70 is 0.5 or over for men, and so more for women, and of 10% or more of the whole population being over age 65. 3AIs for a number of contemporary countries are then presented, along with those for England since the 1540s. A list of countries demographically qualified on the two counts is then drawn up, along with the appropriate dates of their attaining that status.



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1 This discussion of the Third Age is necessarily brief and inadequate in the present context. A chapter of Britain! Be Your Age! is given up to The Theory of the Third Age

2 For a scholarly survey of these terms and divisions in medieval and early modern times, see Burrow, J. A., The Ages of Man, Oxford, 1986. I know of no inclusive discussion of later usages and practices.

3 Most recently the one implied by the phrase ‘the third quarter of life’, suggested by Alan Pifer, not unattractive but unfortunate because it seems to leave us 25 years to die. See Ageing and Society, 6, 3 (1986), 419.

4 In Britain! Be Your Age! these four kinds of age of an individual are distinguished, along with a fifth, a subjective age which is eventful but time irrelevant.

5 Athletes and all those who succeed pre-eminently in lines where youth is an absolutely required condition, are instances of those who have two life plans joined end on. Such persons have to plan a second Third Age, so to speak, one which will be lived after the Second Age is over. See The Image of the Elderly on TV (University of the Third Age in Cambridge, research report no. I, 1984, 8a Castle St., Cambridge), for the exemption of the very successful and powerful from the process of social ageing.

6 The possibility that jobs will become intermittent over the life-course rather than occupying a continuous stretch of time complicates the issue but does not affect the principle.

7 In many places in Britain! Be Your Age! it is insisted that our new situation as to ageing has yet to be recognised, that there is persistent lag.

8 For the secular shift in ageing, see Laslett in the Special Issue on History and Ageing, Ageing and Society, 4, 4 (December 1984), ‘The significance of the past in the study of ageing’. Data are presented there to show that between the 1890s and the 1980's there was a shift from a lower ageing plateau in England, a plateau stretching indefinitely backwards from the 1890s, to a higher plateau stretching indefinitely forwards from the 1980s. During this shift proportions of the elderly trebled and expectation of life rose by two and a half. The argument is further developed in Britain! Be your Age!

9 That is the most recent available figures for period expectation of life at birth for both sexes: cohort figures would be preferable but cannot be calculated for the period of interest. Expectation of active life is clearly relevant to the Third Age, and has now been calculated for the French population where it was 88% of the general expectation at birth for men and 85% for women (see Robine, J.-M., Colvez, A. and others in Population, 6, (1986), ‘L'espérance de vie sans incapacité en France en 1982’, table 3). Life in the Third Age is not confined to the mobile and active, however, even if general good health is required, a point discussed in Britain! Be your Age!

10 See Dinkel, R. H., ‘The seeming paradox of increasing mortality in a highly industrialised nation; the example of the Soviet Union’, with its extensive references, Population Studies, 39 (1985), 8797. Brunon Synak, a sociologist from Gdansk, noting the decline of some months in expectation of life at birth and at 60 years for both genders between 1980 and 1984 in Poland, comments that the reasons are: the fact that it is the war generation which has now reached the later ages, increasing pollution of the atmosphere, deterioration of hygiene and medical care, difficulties of everyday life and greater stresses. See Ageing and Society, 7, 1 (March 1987).

11 The fallacy in supposing that higher expectation of life is a necessary and sufficient cause, and usually the only cause, of higher proportions of elderly persons in the population, rather than falling fertility, seems to be due to a neglect of elementary demography. See Laslett, Peter, ‘The centrality of demographic experience’ in Roberts, D. F. and Chester, C., Changing Patterns of Conception and Fertility, 1981. In general it can be said that the faster a population grows, the fewer its elderly people, whatever the expectation of life.

12 Expectation of life at birth for Sweden 1816–1840, 39.5 years for men, 43.6 years for women (Sundbärg, Gustav, Bevölkerungsstatistik Schwedens, 1750–1900 (1970), 152–3. The figures Sundbärg prints (p. 156) for the 11 most favoured European countries before 1900 show only Sweden and Norway with an expectation of life at birth of over 50 for men, and that in the 1890s.)

13 See Wrigley, E. A., ‘The process of modernization and the industrial revolution in England’, Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 3, (1972), 225–59, and the essays appearing in People, Cities, Wealth, Oxford Blackwell, 1987. Compare Laslett in Binstock, and Shanas, (eds), Handbook of Aging and the Social Sciences, van Nostrand, Reinhold, New York and Edition, 1985, for the difference between England and other European countries in the relationships between the secular shift in ageing and industrial change.

14 Criteria listed in Cowgill, D. O. and Holmes, L. D., Aging and Modernisation, New York, 1975. The advances in historical sociology on which the statements in the text are made are set out in the Special Issue on the History of Ageing of this Journal (see above footnotes), pp. 388–389, and all the articles in that issue are relevant to them. Most of the research was done as part of the programme of the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure, but see Quadagno, Jill, Aging in Early Industrial Society, Academic Press, 1982, especially pp. 312, 2225, and the contributions to The World We Have Gained, edited by Bonfield, Lloyd, Smith, R. M., Wrightson, K., Blackwell, Oxford, 1986, notably those of L. Poos, D. Thomson and R. M. Smith.

15 For further discussion of the disadvantages of the term and concept modernisation in relation to ageing, see Laslett, , ‘The character of family history and the duties of the historian of the family’, Journal of Family History (12, 1, 1987), and a study of ‘Social structural time’ to appear in a volume on the sociology of time, edited by Michael Young and Tom Schuller. In the analysis of attitudinal evidence on ageing, the dangers are even greater. A recent study of status over the life course suggests that a ‘modernised’ society like that of the USA attributes the highest status to early middle age, in contrast to many societies not yet ‘modernised’. But St Augustine was attributing the highest status to early middle age in the 5th century A.D., and the notion has been part of the European world view ever since, and no doubt before the time of Augustine too.

16 In that interlude of depression it will be seen that life expectation for men declined by between 4 and 8% at every decade of life after 50 and by between I and 4% for women. It is a singular fact that the periods during which the two great national wars occurred were marked by conspicuous rises in life expectation at all ages. The aftermaths of both conflicts are included, of course, and the rush of welfare legislation in the late 1940s must be connected with the fact that the greatest improvements of the century occurred in that ten-year interval.

17 Interim figures kindly supplied by the Government Actuary's Department. The life table is the major instrument used by demographers for the analysis of mortality, with columns for probabilities of dying at every age, for numbers of survivors, for expectation of life, etc. It is described in every text on the subject, and particularly well in Pressat, R., Demographic Analysis, 1972, chapter 6.

18 For the failure of the British working classes to make any provision whatever for late life out of their meagre resources other than pay out a few pence a week for burial services, see the work of Paul Johnson, e.g. ‘Did the workers save for old age in Victorian and Edwardian Britain?’, paper presented at the meeting of the Social Science History Association, St Louis, Oct. 1986. Dr Johnson tells me that the mass English working class of Victorian times and probably up to the inter-war years, perhaps after, certainly exhibited the attitude described in the text, of discounting the possibility of becoming old, a possibility quite distinct of course from the certainty of dying.

19 This issue could be settled of course by reference to the records of the countries concerned, a task which remains to be done. But it seems quite unlikely that the conclusion would be otherwise than in the text.

20 Social Trends, 1986, table 4.3.

21 Figures for GNP are notoriously volatile and uncertain. These estimates (taken to the nearest $500) are for various recent dates and have been supplied by Population Reference Bureau, Washington D.C., USA.

22 In what follows it is not intended to imply that wealth is anything like equitably distributed amongst elderly people (or among all people) in the United Kingdom or in any of the countries named. In fact it could well be said that for the poor elderly in all of them, perhaps especially in our own, the Third Age is something of a mockery. They lack the resources to participate and the resources they do have are scarcely adequate for more pressing needs. This point is discussed in Britain! Be your Age!

23 Iceland, population 200,000, GNP $10,000 has been omitted as too small as has been done with Luxembourg ($11,500, population 400,000). In a population of this order the retired seem likely to be too caught up with their fellows to live in a separately identified Third Age.

24 Thane, Pat, Ageing and the Economy, Historical Issues, Centre for Economic Policy, discussion paper 16 (1984), p. 5.

25 Sir William Osier, Bart., MD, FRS, Regius Professor of Medicine in the University of Oxford, Aequanamitas, With Other Addresses … reprint of third edition, 1939, p. 362, coming in address entitled, ‘The fixed period’, which was also the title of Trollope's novel, published in 1882, in which, after a year of meditation, those attaining 61 were extinguished. Osler apologised in the preface to the volume and protested at being taken seriously on the killing off of 61 -year-olds. But he repeated his assertion that ‘the real work of life is done before the fortieth year’ and that it would be best for themselves and the world if men were retired at 60. He has evidently been taken too literally on the annihilation of sexagenarians (see Graebner, W., A History of Retirement, 1977, pp. 810) but even his defenders in the subsequent controversy insisted that the public interest required retirement at 60. The issue is discussed with due solemnity by Gruman, G. T. in ‘Cultural origins of present-day ageism’, in Spiker, G. E. et al. (eds), Aging and the Elderly, Atlantic Heights, NJ, 1980.

26 Or so the doctors vigorously protest. The epidemiology of ageing, they insist, refers simply to its distribution as a condition with no implication of its being a disease. But it is hard to see how it makes sense to examine the distribution of ageing with a view to identifying its causes. Epidemiology means illness in every other context and in non-medical usage. If the medical profession wishes to disassociate illness from disease, this terminology will have to be abandoned.

27 See Conrad, Christoph, ‘La “senilité” comme problème social; cause de deces, d'invalidité et de la pauvreté (exemples allemands du XVIIIe au XXe siècles)’. Annales de Démographie Historique, 1985.

28 Graebner (see footnote 25) and others diagnose retirement as characteristic of a phase in the later development of capitalism, reinforced by a determination to increase national competitiveness, including military competitiveness. Retirement has several uses for employers, of course, especially as a control of the labour force. The social construction of old age for interested reasons is being analysed for the 1980s by Alan Walker, Chris Phillipson, Carole Estes, Anne-Marie Guillemard and others; see a number of studies published in Ageing and Society.

29 For this concept, see Laslett, , ‘Gregory King, Robert Malthus and the origins of English social realism’. Population Studies, 38 (1981), 351362.

30 The debate over what is called the rectangularization of the survival curve and the compression of morbidity (see Fries, J. F. and Crapo, L. M., Vitality and Ageing, San Francisco, 1981) is analysed in another chapter of Britain! Be your Age!

This paper is a somewhat modified form of a chapter of a book by Peter Laslett in course of composition to be called Britain! Be Your Age! to be published in 1987 or 1988.

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The Emergence of the Third Age

  • Peter Laslett (a1)


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