There is nothing new about growing old. To grow old in Western society in the late twentieth century however is not only different, it is unique.
Richard Titmuss, whose contribution to the development of social policy in the sixties set a pattern for all that was to follow, frequently remarked that 'Reality starts with history' - and it is within a historical context that any analysis of current developments in relation to older people must be set.
What the Carnegie Foundation following its recent research has chosen to call 'The Third Age' is a new phenomenon. A period between work and dependency ('The Fourth Age') is now the experience of most people and questions about how this space will be filled and who will pay for it are high on all social policy and political agendas. It is not just the development of official policy however which has an effect upon the quality of life of older people but also the fears and uninformed prejudices of wider society. A flourishing mythology is nurtured by the media as though 'old people' were some kind of homogeneous entity with uniform characteristics, separate from the mainstream of society. The opposite is obviously the case but marginalization, with all its concomitant elements of discrimination and alienation is central to the current debate.
Two principal factors have contributed to the current situation. First, the place of work in social and familial structures has been paramount in Western societies for the past three hundred years. Social and personal identity is still closely tied to how a living is earned. Occupation remains an indicator of the place in society and social worth. As pointed out by J. K. Galbraith, in the first part of the nineteenth century 75 per cent of the male population was employed from the age of 10 to 65 and in 1850 the average working week was 70 hours. This gross domination of life by economic imperative has, fortunately, changed dramatically but the underlying philosophy remains. Only money which is 'earned' is seen as legitimate and those who will not or cannot contribute to the economy will be marginalised with all that this implies in terms of deprivation and stigma. Although the retirement age remains at 65 for men - to be applied to women also by the second decade of the next century - the fact is that for growing numbers of people employment in the traditional sense ends by the mid-fifties. …