Academic journal article Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare

Aging and Family Policy: A Sociological Excursion

Academic journal article Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare

Aging and Family Policy: A Sociological Excursion

Article excerpt

The contemporary focus on family policy and old age has become increasingly important in social discourses on aging both within the discipline of Sociology and social policy practices of welfare institutions that attempt to define later life. Using the United Kingdom as a case study, sheds light on wider current trends associated with aging in United States, Canada, Europe and Australia. Social welfare is a pivotal domain where social discourses on aging have become located. Narratives are 'played out' with regard to the raw material supplied by family policy for identity performance of older people. Therefore, grounding developments in 'narrativity' provides a sociological framework to assess the changing discourses associated with family policy and older people as advanced through different policy positions.

Key words: aging; narrative; family; grandparenting; social policy


A startling continuity across North America, Europe, and Australia, is that different governments recognize that the 'family' is essential for social and economic needs; epitomised famously by former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's view that there is 'no thing such as society only families' (Biggs and Powell, 2000, 46). Families are made up of interpersonal relationships both within and between generations that are subject to both the formal rhetoric of policy discourse, and the self-stories that connect them together. The concept of family is an amalgamation of policy discourse and everyday negotiation.

The rhetoric of social policy and the formal representations of aging and family provide a series of spaces in which identities can be legitimately performed. The 'success' of a family policy can be assessed from the degree to which people live within the narratives of family created by it. Further, the relationship between families and older people has been perpetually re-written in the social policy literature. Each time a different story has been told. It can be argued that the family has become a key site upon which expected norms of intergenerational relations are being built.

The structure of the paper is fourfold. First, we commence by mapping out the emergence of neo-liberal family policy and its relationship to 'family obligation', state surveillance and 'active citizenship'. Second, we can highlight both the ideological tenets of the subsequent social democratic turn and effects on older people and the family. Third, research studies are drawn on to highlight how 'grandparenting' has been recognised by governments in recent years, as a particular way of 'storying' the relationship between old age and family life. Finally, we explore ramifications for researching family policy and old age by pointing out that narratives of inclusion and exclusion co-exist if a sense of familial continuity is to be maintained.

   The 'Master Narratives' of Aging and Family
   Policy: Neo-Liberalism and Social Democracy

Political and social debate since the Reagan/Thatcher years in US/UK, has been dominated by neo-liberalism, which claims the existence of autonomous individuals who must be liberated from 'big government' and state interference (Gray, 1995). Indeed, Walker and Naeghele (1999) claim a startling continuity across Europe is the way 'the family' has been positioned by governments as these ideas have spread across France, Italy, Spain and Denmark.

Wider economic priorities, to 'roll back the state' and release resources for individualism and free enterprise, had become translated into a family discourse about caring obligations and the need to enforce them. Further, it appeared that familial caring was actually moving away from relationships based on obligation and toward ones based on negotiation (Finch & Mason, 1993). Family commitment has, for example, been shown by Pike and Bengtson (1996), to vary depending upon the characteristic caregiving patterns within particular families. …

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