This is the fourth instalment in a short series on aging following on directly from the third, ‘Growing Old with the Welfare State’ (the first two posts are here and here). Having discussed both the ‘Fiction and the Cultural Mediation of Ageing Project (FCMAP) described in my brief introduction to this series, and the follow-on project to produce Growing Old with the Welfare State, eds Hubble, Taylor & Tew (Bloomsbury Academic, 2019), I want to reflect on what I learnt from that process before finishing with a fifth and final post thinking about ageing in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic.
In my previous post in the series, I discussed the response of two mass-observers (‘Dick’ and ‘Beryl’) to the postwar decades and suggested it is the apparent contradictions thrown up by studying individual lives in detail that reveals deficiencies of the received historical cultural frameworks that we assume to be operating. Not only do we need to rethink how we understand contemporary history but we also need to consider that the dissatisfaction which is sometimes felt with contemporary Britain by some older people (in this case, to use media labels, one that might be termed more ‘socially conservative’ and one that might be termed more ‘liberal’) is not simply nostalgia for bygone ages but a disappointment that the world of their youth has not changed into the transformed future that they sought to achieve during their life.
It seems to me that anyone arguing Dick does not want to change the world of his youth but return to it is failing to grasp the complexity of these mass-observer lives by categorising them as though they can be assigned easily as binary-gendered responses. In Seven Lives from Mass Observation (which also discusses ‘Dick’ and ‘Beryl’ but he calls them ‘Len’ and ‘Stella’), James Hinton accounts for this apparent division by arguing that while ‘for most men of this [interwar] generation, gender was an unproblematic given’, women were dependent on ‘more complicated processes [to construct] their sense of themselves’ (165). The differences in responses to the past are not therefore essentialist but a result of women being more likely to have to undertake a particular process of self-discovery than men because they wanted more from their lives than the subordinate roles they were offered in the 1940s and 1950s. There was nothing preventing men from following a similar path other than the fact that they already appeared to have clearly-defined active high-status social roles – as breadwinner, husband and father – openly available to them. In fact, we might see those men who did participate in MO as on some level seeking such a path of self-discovery as followed by many women. As Hinton argues, by describing himself as an ‘old reactionary’, Dick ‘could be seen as a man who had internalised a narrow and life-denying subaltern consciousness’ but, on the other hand, as ‘an MO correspondent’ he found a way to nonetheless explore much wider horizons (108).
Therefore, if we reject gender as the prime determinant of self-discovery in the name of a wider social transformation, how else might we broadly classify this lifelong process of self-reflexively considering our own experience in the world even as the social context constantly changes? One term that covers this process in the context of this research is ‘growing old’. Arguably, the acceptance of various mass observers that they are old (as discussed in the second and third instalments in this series of blogposts) is both an unavoidable product of their self-reflexive practice and an acknowledgment that ‘life has meaning because it ends but its end is not its meaning’ and thus an acceptance and statement of their recognition that they are the authors of their own lives (Hubble and Tew 2013: 205). As Lynne Segal observes in Out of Time: The Pleasures and Perils of Ageing (2013): ‘To the extent that we can manage it, awareness of mortality can enhance our sense of our bonds with others and our embrace of the moment’ (170). Anne Karpf (2014) makes a similar point about the need to ‘incorporate [our mortality] into our daily lives’ (109) but also insists that ‘we never need to lose our earlier selves only add to them’ (55). This understanding was central to the research undertaken for Growing Old with the Welfare State and arguably it is the reflexive awareness of their past earlier selves that enables these MO diaries to expose the complex, multi-layered composition of the contemporary present we inhabit. On such a reading, ‘growing old’ isn’t just something that happens to us but a process which requires complex self-reflexion. In Ageing, Narrative and Identity, we provided histories and analyses of MO and the University of the Third Age (U3A) which suggested why these two organisations are particularly good in encouraging this process to take place, but the simplest explanation is that both embrace ageing as a lifelong process. As Karpf argues, this attitude will not stop us eventually declining and dying but it will help us in the more difficult task of actually living.
This research into ageing began more than ten years ago while I was still in my mid 40s. I explained why I chose to use MO in the first post of this series but one of the reasons why I quickly warmed to MO and the U3A was the insistence of their members that they weren’t necessarily old when they were in their 60s and 70s but only, as discussed in the second post, at a point when they came to define themselves in this manner: a process which should be seen as a function of self-reflexion rather than bodily decline. At that time, I didn’t particularly think of myself as middle-aged which I would now if it wasn’t for the fact that I don’t think it is a particularly useful term. Looking back, I still don’t think I was middle-aged then because if the term means anything at all then it must mark some sort of stage between being young and old and I certainly didn’t consider myself as poised between youth and age at that time (with a youngest child age 3). More to the point, I was hostile to the suggestions I remember reading that people should start preparing for retirement from the age of 50 and perhaps have an afternoon a week to take classes and start preparing (I can’t now remember where this was but I will look it up and add a reference at some point if possible). This idea seemed entirely inconsistent with the ongoing process to extend retirement ages and, furthermore, I was anticipating at least another 20 years of what I thought was turning into a successful career. I saw this ‘classes from 50’ idea as part of an ‘active’ or ‘successful’ ageing agenda in which we all remain super fit until into our 80s and then quickly die at no cost to the state; an approach I found repugnant. I’m not just an academic, I’ve read books and written about them ever since I can remember (I did this at home for fun while I was still at primary school age): therefore I was drawn to defining my life in terms of reading, writing, and self-reflexion. So in terms of my motivation to do it, the research was partly driven by how I see myself and the things I’m drawn to.
A decade later and I can see the point about thinking about retirement in your 50s (in fact, I try hard not to think wishfully about it all the time!) This is because as my own subjectivity has caught up with my research, I have come to fully understand what I wrote about retirement not being about a pipe and slippers but actually moving into a new phase of life working on new projects and ways of living. In my mid 40s I couldn’t see what I would do when I retired other than carry on doing academic stuff (but without the more boring admin load and the need to keep regular hours), preferably with some sort of eminent emeritus status (when indulging in idle fantasy moments) but not dependent on that (when thinking in more pragmatic mode). But now I can see all sorts of things that I would like to be doing which involve reading, writing research and self-reflexion but which my full-time career is actually constraining the opportunities for. I have come to understand, as the founders of the University of the Third Age did, that ‘retirement’ is not a stage of ageing but more of an ideological rejection of the model of professional career for life and the embrace of a more fulfilling way of living. However, I also understand that the financial model and the whole basis of the Welfare State which supported this ideological shift several decades ago no longer exists in the same way that it did. My response to this shift is not to think that we should pour all our resources into desperately rebuilding or shoring up the welfare state and pensions and the whole structure (although we do clearly need to adopt sustainable models for these functions), but that we need to focus more energy on self-reflexion, different ways of living and getting away from the model of professional career for life (e.g. people shouldn’t have to need to do this for 20, 30, 40 years before realising there should be more to life).
So what has happened here other than I have got a bit older? I think this project has (along with other stuff in my life and work) changed my attitude to academia. When I wrote that we considered our MO and U3A volunteers to be co-researchers this was sincerely meant but a statement of the obvious that I didn’t necessarily think through the full implications of (or at least I thought them through intellectually but not fully in terms of my own practice). I don’t like the hierarchical model of academic life but rather than seek to overthrow it, I’ve done my best to climb high enough up so that I don’t have to worry about it. But there is only so far you can go without running into the limitations, internalisations and structural distortions of these kind of hierarchical structures (which not only inherently privilege bourgeois white male subjectivity but to some extent generate it). These consequences of the system affect everything including research. This is not to say that good work is impossible but just to acknowledge that the system itself is another constraint alongside time, budget, resources etc. In order to try and break out of these systemic constraints, I have slowly inched towards a more reflexive stance in various ways such as using the first person more in academic writing, setting up this blog, and writing for MO (see here). These are all ways of easing both the binary divisions between academics and non-academics and the hierarchical divisions within academia (although it is of course possible for academics to write like angels while behaving dictatorially as managers). What I’m trying to say is that this process of undoing binaries and hierachies is like that of ‘growing old’ (understood as a lifelong process) in that it entails giving up status, which is always defined through binaries or hierarchies, in order to better manage the task of actually living. In the final post in this series I will consider some of the things that are happening to our understanding of ‘ageing’ as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and then situate the pandemic in relation to social change within the twenty-first century in order to argue why we all need to grow up by growing older.
Hinton, James (2016). Seven Lives from Mass Observation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hubble, Nick and Philip Tew (2013). Ageing, Narrative and Identity: New Qualitative Social Research. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Hubble, Nick, Jennie Taylor and Philip Tew (eds) (2019). Growing Old with the Welfare State: Eight British Lives. London: Bloomsbury Academic.
Karpf, Anne (2014). How to Age. Basingstoke: Macmillan.
Segal, Lynne (2013). Out of Time: The Pleasures and Perils of Ageing. London: Verso.