The Third Age: A Rationale for Research

By James, Jacquelyn Boone; Wink, Paul | Annual Review of Gerontology & Geriatrics, January 1, 2006 | Go to article overview

The Third Age: A Rationale for Research

James, Jacquelyn Boone, Wink, Paul, Annual Review of Gerontology & Geriatrics

As the Baby Boom generation approaches age 65 (the conventional age for retirement), a new division of the life course appears to be evolving. Referred to as the "Third Age," it has been the topic of conversation and research for over a decade in Britain and France, but has hardly entered the American vocabulary save for a few self-help books (for a notable exception see Weiss & Bass, 2002). What has inspired this new division?

First, the average person retiring today can anticipate living and being in good health at least 15 years beyond retirement. second, society's attitudes toward old age and aging appear to be changing as large numbers of people are defying aging stereotypes. "Old age will not begin until 80" appears to be the view of the newly emerging and large generation that the Baby Boom generation represents (Gergen & Gergen, 2003). Third, it seems that contemporary social institutions have not kept up with the added years of life, a phenomenon described as a "structural lag" (Riley, Kahn, & Foner, 1994). Indeed, some time ago, Kuypers and Bengtson (1973) referred to a similar lag for the elderly as the "social breakdown syndrome," having to do with a "loss of normative guidelines (absence of clear, positive behavioral expectations in old age, presence of negative expectations); shrinkage of roles (many former roles terminate, while few alternative roles are developed); and lack of appropriate reference groups (lack of shared, positive values and attitudes about the aged)" (Ryff & Marshall, 1999, p. 15). Although significant progress has been achieved in these areas for the aged, this structural lag is now most obvious in the early postretirement years (Moen, 1998; Weiss & Bass, 2002). Developmental science has yet to map out the Third Age for current generations. The purpose of this volume then is to provide an empirical overview of how current generations of the young-old are faring during these added years of generally healthy living, whether and how second Age individuals are anticipating the Third Age, what biopsychosocial changes occur over time during the Third Age, and what predicts health, happiness, and well-being in the Third Age.


The phrase originated in France, according to Laslett (1991), and was used in the titles of organizations for the elderly, Les Universites du Troisieme Age. The phrase implies a different conception of stages of life from any one that has previously been suggested. The First Age, according to the theory, is the age of childhood, a time of "dependence, socialization, immaturity, and education" (Laslett, 1991, p. 4). The Second Age involves independence, earning a living, responsibility for the younger generation, and maturity. Thus, the Third Age, according to Laslett, is the age of opportunity for personal fulfillment and is ended only when the Fourth Age begins, that time of life which is marked by "dependence, decrepitude, and death" (Laslett, 1991, p. 4). Because the Third Age is longer and involves greater health and vitality for current generations, who are larger in number than previous generations, the question becomes, what will we as a society do with this great expanse of time? Laslett says we need a "fresh map of life" (Laslett, 1991, p. viii).

The Third Age is said to begin when active career and parenting ends. It is harder to determine when it ends, because the end is generally taken to begin at the onset of illness and terminal decline (Rubenstein, 2002). Because the Third Age is typically thought of as the early retirement years, we could have used retirement status as our delimiter. Retirement, however, is a murky concept as fewer and fewer Americans conceive of retirement in the traditional sense of a career-ending expanse of leisure.

Indeed retirement is a rather recent phenomenon. According to Moen (this volume), it only became a real age-graded transition just prior to the middle of the twentieth century, when the provision of Social Security benefits to older workers, along with employer-provided private pensions, offered the kind of income security that made retirement possible. …

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