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Social class in later lifePower, identity and lifestyle$

Marvin Formosa and Paul Higgs

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9781447300588

Published to Policy Press Scholarship Online: January 2014

DOI: 10.1332/policypress/9781447300588.001.0001

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The changing significance of social class in later life

The changing significance of social class in later life

(p.169) Ten The changing significance of social class in later life
Social class in later life

Paul Higgs

Marvin Formosa

Policy Press

Abstract and Keywords

The view that social class in old age was an epiphenomenon of earlier points in the life course has become less tenable as an explanation of class relationships in the retired population. The connections between consumption, lifestyle and class identity that have made simple inferences of class membership more difficult to assert are multiplied in later life. It could be argued that the nature of post-working life lifestyles and consumption are more defining of the statuses of retired people than their class identities. Although participation in leisure may be more structured by previous opportunities which reflect more closely occupational class, it is still difficult to see how this constitutes a separate dimension of class rather than resources and dispositions. Much more significant to the discussion of class is that retirement from paid employment has become increasingly contingent in terms of when (or how) it occurs and how it is to be financed. This is not to argue that retirement is free of the influences of the past but rather to accept that notions of early retirement have impacted on when post-working life begins and how much participation in the cultural arena of the third age is possible.

Keywords:   social class, later life, third age, critical gerontology, inequality, sociology of class, retirement

The theme around which this volume has been organised is the continuing utility of the idea of social class for the understanding of contemporary later life. Within the chapters published in this book, we have seen many different ways in which social class continues to be a valuable concept for researchers, as well as constituting a critical aspect of old age. Elizangela Storelli and John B. Williamson's chapter on the global implications of changes to pensions policy both in the US and abroad not only demonstrates that pension policies create or maintain class differences in later life, but that different models based upon different contributory principles can have different implications for providing financial security in later years. That these alternatives are not pursued is seen as one of the consequences of the salience of social class and of the interests implicated in its existence. The chapter on social work among older people in the UK by Trish Hafford-Letchfield also points out that evidence of widening inequalities is emerging as a result of changes to social policy, such as the introduction of direct payments, and that this is affecting those who have the poorest health and the lowest capacity to take advantage of formal and informal sources of support. Christina Victor's chapter extends our understanding of how the formal and informal care sectors, in terms of both providers as well as recipients, are connected to social class, as well as being affected by gender and ethnicity. These chapters provide valuable analysis regarding the connections between social class and old age that are ever-present in contemporary social policy directed towards later life. They demonstrate that the issues faced by the oldest sections of the population are not just issues of age and dependency, but also structured by many of the same forces that influence younger sections of the population. This point is made more directly in Chris Phillipson's chapter, which addresses the topic of globalisation and its effects on both later life and social class. Starting from a position that accepts that class has both been neglected in social gerontology and also has a major impact on the lives of older people, Phillipson also acknowledges that social changes (p.170) brought about in the wake of globalisation are changing some of the coordinates of old age and not just around changes in pension policy. These he sees as connecting to processes of ‘individualisation’, which have disaggregated the sphere of community from the sphere of work, with a concomitant decline in assumptions of social inclusivity. It is in this context that growing class inequalities now find their expression in much more individualised circumstances. For Phillipson, these changes present a new challenge for researchers utilising class as an explanatory mechanism for understanding the structuring of later life in contemporary circumstances.

It is therefore not surprising that one theme that has run through many of the chapters in this book has been that our theorisation of social class has not developed sufficiently to keep up with the task of understanding the linkage between old age and social class in the modern world. We would argue that there are two reasons for this. The first reason is that contemporary sociological enquiry into the operationalisation of social class has generally concentrated on people of working age or younger. So, as Wendy Bottero's chapter in this volume shows, while there have been many attempts to understand how social and cultural changes have made the delineation of social class more difficult, these preoccupations have overlooked the way that social class operates in old age. The second reason for this lack of development has been the reluctance of many researchers to situate possible linkages between old age and social class in changes to the nature of later life in North America and Western Europe. Alexandra Lopes, in her chapter, points out that while there is support for the argument that social class has a direct effect on financial resources in later life, such causality could not be seen in relation to social relations and networks. Similar difficulties in extending social class to issues such as class identity in later life can be seen in the chapter by Martin Hyde and Ian Rees Jones, where they demonstrate that the evidence for such identities is limited. These difficulties are often compounded by many writers who use class interchangeably with inequality (Walker, 2009). For many such researchers, life after retirement is still a residual category created by social and health policies (Gilleard and Higgs, 2000). We would argue that it is important to acknowledge the need for rethinking social class under new conditions, because without it, research about later life and retirement will become less and less convincing as to the role of social class in older people's lives.

(p.171) Old age and social class

Bringing all of this together, we feel that it is appropriate to offer more than just an overview of the book that we have just edited. It is also necessary to offer our own assessment of the direction of approaches to social class and later life and suggest some solutions to the issues raised. This is not done in order to create a magisterial assessment of the field, but rather to suggest a way out of some of the impasses that contemporary social changes have placed in the way of using the category of class effectively. Some of what we write might seem too critical of the concept, while others may argue that we have not gone far enough; however, we feel that over the course of a number of interventions around social class (Higgs and Gilleard, 2006; Formosa, 2009), we have been constantly trying to address the issues in a realistic way.

A starting point for our intervention is the acknowledgement that the position of older people in the class structure has always been a problematic issue in sociology. Not only have the ‘founding fathers’ of sociology – Marx, Durkheim and Weber – had little to say on the topic, but few theorists of note have had much to say on the nature of old age as a separate dimension of social structuring. There are, of course, some exceptions to this rule. Both Talcott Parsons (1942) and Matilda White Riley (1971), as leading American sociologists of their time, tried to understand the effect of ageing on social structures but made little explicit connection to approaches based on social class. As we noted in Chapter One, both the ‘structured dependency’ and ‘political economy’ approaches to old age did make direct links to social class, but, in general, they saw old age as determined by the class position occupied by individuals during their working lives rather than being connected to current circumstances. While such a position was relatively unproblematic in the period between 1950 and 1980 in the UK, where occupation, wealth and retirement income were closely related, such a connection was not so easy to demonstrate in later decades or, indeed, in other nations (see Lopes, Chapter Four, this volume), where the unique formulation of ‘flat-rate universalism’ was not the chosen model for social policies around old age. Where attempts were made to establish a Marxist (or Marxisant) sociology of old age, the model that resulted was often one that still defined the retired population as victims of social policy instead of seeing them as individuals occupying a distinct position in the class structure. Class analysis was far from alone in treating old age as a residual status. Other areas of sociological enquiry that could have been expected to have a more nuanced approach, such (p.172) as research into health, consumption and politics, also failed to locate older people in categories that did not reduce them to their pasts. It could be argued that there were very good theoretical reasons for this residual status. After all, this conclusion reflected the fact that from the emergence of modern retirement in the early 20th century through to the last few decades of that century, there was very little dynamism in the social activities of the retired other than the continuation of past practices in more straightened circumstances. Moreover, while some parts of US sociology tried to understand this state of affairs in terms of cohort and age stratification, more attention was given to the impact of younger generations on social structure than to how older ones were also transforming society. Ironically, it was the cultural impact of these younger cohorts making up the youth culture of the 1960s who first polarised the status of ‘the old’ as an impediment to social change and then later created the opportunities for newer cohorts of older people to get away from these definitions of later life as a residual category.

Consequently, another reason for the inadequacy of conventional accounts of the linkages between old age and social class was that there has been a reluctance to situate older people in processes of social change that affect wider society. The cultural and social changes that occurred in the 1960s had, and still continue to have, effects on the way that societies and individuals function in ways that sociologists are still coming to terms with (Chaney, 2002). The focus on consumption and identity is just one aspect of this change, but less noticed has been the way that in its rejection of old age in favour of youth, it also helped create a new social space for later life, one not primarily defined by dependency and exclusion. Part of how this occurred is connected with how social institutions became redefined around consumption rather than production, and how this, in turn, was structured by, as well as structuring, social class itself (Sassatelli, 2007). As many researchers (particularly those influenced by Pierre Bourdieu's [1984] work on distinction) came to assert, relationships between the economy and consumer society are also class relationships, with all of its concomitant complexity. Having access to participation in the culture of consumption became a larger and larger part of the social interactions and distinction common to an understanding of social stratification. Obviously, while there have been many debates and positions taken about the nature and extent of the changes that have occurred, as well as disputes about nomenclature, there is now widespread acceptance that the social and cultural terrain on which social class is now operating has greatly changed from the classical period of modernity in which many approaches were situated. Consequently, our understanding of (p.173) class needs to match contemporary circumstances and provide us with useful explanatory accounts of the social world. These accounts may differ considerably from earlier, more familiar, ones, where social class was a condensate of occupation, lifestyle and resources.

Returning to the subject of old age, the view that social class in old age was an epiphenomenon of earlier points in the life course has become less and less tenable as an explanation of class relationships in the retired population. Post-working life has been subject to many of the changes that have occurred for people of working age, without necessarily being reducible to them. The connections between consumption, lifestyle and class identity, which have made simple inferences of class membership more difficult to assert, are multiplied in later life. It could be argued that the nature of post-working life lifestyles and consumption are more defining of the statuses of retired people than their class identities. Although participation in leisure may be more structured by previous opportunities, which reflect more closely occupational class (Scherger et al, 2011), it is still difficult to see how this constitutes a separate dimension of class rather than resources and dispositions. Much more significant to the discussion of class is that retirement from paid employment has become increasingly contingent in terms of when (or how) it occurs and how it is to be financed. Again, this is not to argue that retirement is free of the influences of the past, but rather to accept that in countries such as the UK, notions of early retirement have impacted on when post-working life begins and how much participation in the cultural arena of the third age is possible.

Class, generation and lifestyle

Shifting our focus to participation in the cultural field of the third age serves to problematise further the conventional connections between social class and later life, given that under these circumstances older people are subject to a multiplicity of sources through which they are expected to construct their lives in retirement. Phillipson, in his chapter, cautions against seeing the issues as ones principally of choice, but as the upcoming members of the baby boom cohort move into retirement, their generational habitus, as Gilleard and Higgs (2005) point out, implicitly valorises leisure and choice rather than being wedded to a potentially dependent relationship with the welfare state. Again, whether this is an elective affinity or an imposition of neoliberal individualisation is a matter of considerable debate (Polivka, 2011). It still remains that the cultural transformations that are brought about in its wake not only help to undermine class identities, but also bring into (p.174) prominence the idea of the citizen-consumer as the true description of the various relationships that now situate contemporary social policy. Such a formulation, with its emphasis on consumption, could be seen as providing a better fit for the interests of some older people than approaches that give priority to achieving the status of being a citizen, senior or otherwise. However, this is not to underplay the extent to which the cultural space of the third age, by being dependent on consumerism, may construct or exacerbate forms of structural inequality resulting from the intertwining of ageism, globalisation and the processes of individualisation.

Consequently, an inevitable criticism of any approach based upon individualisation is that it allows little role for social class (Atkinson, 2010). Rising to the accusation, Ulrich Beck (2007: 686) argues: ‘individualisation uncouples class culture from class position’ and, as a result, ‘status, consumption and social security choices … become progressively independent of income’. Beck argues that the stability of social class and its linked inequalities, as well as collective responses to inequalities, are features of a ‘First Modernity’ in which social processes are bounded by a nation-state. He points out that it is the ‘irony and paradox of the welfare state’ that it is the collective success of class struggle that has not only institutionalised individualisation, but also dissolved class culture through its campaign to eradicate inequalities. In a ‘Second Modernity’, not only are these processes individualised and dominated by contingency, but so too is class conflict. As he writes, ‘many individuals may still be in the same position. But there is no common and unifying explanation for their suffering, even more: they have to blame themselves’ (Beck, 2007: 686).

As we have seen in the chapter by Ian Rees Jones and Paul Higgs in this volume, from such a perspective, class can only come back into the equation through the medium of ‘individualised’ class struggle. This is an arena where social inequalities become more obvious but do not seem to reflect the operation of easily identified processes. An important feature of this change is the way that labour force participation loses its pivotal role in the ordering of society. Not only is consumption therefore less stratified by age or status, but the complex entitlements of welfare policy create opportunities for de-commodified lives in ways that were previously not possible and very possibly were not intended. In relation to the welfare state, it is no longer acceptable to assume the superiority of the nuclear family or the gendered division of labour. The issue of de-commodification, which has been at the heart of social policy debate for many decades, has now become a reality, with its own attendant problems.

(p.175) For Beck and colleagues (2003), it is no accident that lifestyle has become a major focus of both personal and social activity in what he terms ‘Second Modernity’. The institutional boundaries of the life course that dominated the First Modernity of the early and mid-20th century were ones that connected the ascribed statuses of social class with both work and gender, and therefore provided stable bases for identity. In a Second Modernity, the individual can no longer be posited as a stable and unchanging subject. Instead, he or she is forced to become a ‘quasi-subject’, the result as well as the producer of his or her own networks, situation, location and form. Lifestyle – which might seem to be an anodyne term to have so much importance thrust upon it – therefore becomes an important facet of negotiating Second Modernity.

This negotiation lies at the heart of Gilleard and Higgs' (2005) arguments about the nature of contemporary ageing. They argue that the Third Age is a cultural field that needs to be understood as an expression of the generational habitus of those cohorts who came of age in the 1960s and after, for whom consumption and lifestyle, rather than work and class identity, were inextricably linked together. Significantly, for Gilleard and Higgs, the dispositions of these post-Second World War cohorts went hand in hand with a reluctance to accept the ascriptive social locations of the past, whether these were of gender, race or even class. As we have seen, this led to what Beck and his colleagues have described as the ‘revolution through side effects’, creating a situation where ascription in terms of identity has been replaced by a greater reflexivity on the part of individuals as to who they are and how they want to be seen by others.

Social class as a ‘zombie category’ in later life

Does this therefore mean that we have to adapt another of Beck's formulations, that class in later life is a ‘zombie category’ (Beck and Beck-Gernsheim, 2002)? Certainly, as many writers in this volume and others have pointed out, the constant injunction to include class in our understanding of later life has not been matched by its rigorous application. Are we therefore compelled to see the connection between social class and old age as a rhetorical device rather than as a part of an analysis of the structures that influence later life? One way of avoiding this conclusion is to utilise some of the rethinking that has being going on in connection with cultural studies of class. Here, we return to the work of Pierre Bourdieu and his notions of distinction, reproduction and habitus, which have been frequently called upon in attempts to (p.176) understand the newer cultural processes of social class. In particular, Bourdieu's work has been used to think about how dispositions emerge out of social distinctions and help reproduce them. This is particularly true of the practices of consumption and how they may play a powerful role in reproducing social divisions.

Recent work utilising his insights has therefore repositioned social class in terms of individual identity or in terms of personal trajectories, rather than seeing people existing within an all-embracing class culture (eg Savage, 2000; Bottero, 2004). The significance of class for these writers is manifested in the importance of hierarchy and social position in individual narratives. An important aspect of this is the notion of ‘ordinariness’ or authenticity regarding the class identity that people use in their everyday life. Some commentators, such as Beverley Skeggs (1997), see these narratives as leading not only to individualisation, but also to the maintenance and reproduction of inequalities. However, as Méndez (2008) points out, most applications of Bourdieu's work have been focused on the distinctions between the middle class and the working class, and relatively less work has been done examining horizontal differentiation and the symbolic boundaries that are used in everyday life by members of the same class. This is particularly important in relation to processes of consumption, where intersubjective assessments and judgements are made using notions of authenticity, and where Méndez points out that individuals are ‘compelled to be themselves’.

Taking up and adapting these arguments can do much to counter the idea that social class is a zombie category in relation to later life. As many writers have pointed out, there has been considerable debate about the utility of Bordieusian approaches for groups that do not easily fit into his schema, such as women. As a result, this has led to a renewed emphasis on how gender interrelates with distinction and habitus, as well as with reproduction. A similar shift of focus can be applied in relation to later life, where older people do not share in an undifferentiated old age mediated by social and health policy, and neither do they simply live out their retirements determined by the constructs of a pervasive social class. This may have been the case for much of the 20th century, but the arguments about the influence of the culture of the Third Age and the role of the post-war cohorts outlined earlier make this position relatively untenable. Equally, it must be emphasised that the cultural dynamics of the Third Age should not be considered another form of social stratification whereby the middle classes are able to engage in ‘a Third Age’ while the working classes are condemned to fall into a situation of structured dependency. Such formulations fail to understand (p.177) the important dynamics unleashed in contemporary society in the form of individualisation and the transformation of post-working life as a cultural field. As Gilleard and Higgs (2000) point out, the change is about the capacity to participate in a social and cultural world where such participation in the construction of lifestyles is both expected and used as a form of distinction. The distinction between a Third and a Fourth Age does not lie in the possession of resources, but rather in the capacity to choose how to use them. For those whose physical and mental capacities have been used up and for whom social or nursing care is needed, entry into a fourth age is not alleviated by class or by the resources associated with it; rather, it is the capacity to actively construct and maintain a lifestyle that demarcates the Third and the Fourth Age (Gilleard and Higgs, 2011). However, as Jones and Higgs (2010) underline, there is now an expectation that normal ageing contains an invocation not only to ‘age well’, but also to have ‘a will to health’ in later life. This can be seen to set up ‘projects of the self’ that extend from middle age through retirement into old age. Distinctions between individuals whose ageing ‘fitness’ is to be applauded and those whose perceived lack of ‘engagement’ with these activities is bemoaned abound in the health promotion literature. Such engagements are, according to Zygmunt Bauman, part of the culture of ‘fitness’ that underlies modern consumerism, and partially account for its focus on the body (Higgs, 2012). The capacity to maintain health and fitness in later life is one of the key areas where distinction and access to positions of cultural and social hierarchy can be maintained. When this wanes and entry into the Fourth Age seems possible, many of the assets associated with this form of capital also seem to dissipate. Consequently, the connection to social class can be maintained, but within different circumstances and under different articulating principles.

Social class in later life as a normative structure

These circumstances have, as we have seen, transformed the nature of what class can mean in wider society. However, as a number of writers have been at pains to argue, class still has a resonance, which relates to its normative significance. As Andrew Sayer writes:

Sociology may not have given up on class altogether, but it often tracks and represents class in ways that miss its normative significance. We will understand class better if we stop reducing people to occupants of positions, or bearers or performers of class, etc., and attend also to their normative (p.178) dispositions and beliefs, even though these only contingently affect the reproduction of class. Lay normativity is not reducible to habit or the pursuit of self-interest and power, but has a crucial moral dimension, relating … to a feel for how actions, events and circumstances affect well-being. (Sayer, 2005: 225)

Social class in later life probably exemplifies this dimension better than any other aspect of class society because it relates to the relative inequality that the old have felt in many societies when their capacity to secure their existence has become dependent upon either their own resources or the benevolence of others. From the early modern period in Europe, the issue of the aged poor has been at the centre of social policy concerns. Indeed, it can be argued that the introduction of universal pensions has been as much the foundation of modern welfare states as has any other programme. The connection between social class and pensions is one that has been made in this volume as well as elsewhere, but in current circumstances, it is the controversies surrounding current arrangements that reconnect the moral dimension of class and later life. In a globalised world dominated by financial institutions, are the retired no longer deserving of their benefits negotiated in decades past? Should there be a retrenchment of the idea of a retirement pension? All of these questions problematise the implicit moral argument concerning the status of older people. They may be posed in new guises, but the fundamental argument is that the contingencies being experienced by other sections of the population render unfair the arrangements that exist for the older population (Higgs and Gilleard, 2010). It is hardly surprising that there have been many negative responses to the idea that reform is necessary and, indeed, they have often been positioned as unfair, if not reactionary, in nature. The moral argument around social class in relation to later life is one that accepts that many people in what would have once been deemed the working class have seen that their entitlements to a secure old age are both fair and militate against the potential inequalities created by growing older. Under present circumstances, these insecurities seem to be growing larger. While it is the case that many retirees have benefited from the structures and stability of a standardised life course, their current circumstances are much more contingent on Beck and colleagues' notion of ‘side effects’ (Beck et al, 2003), where decisions that affect them are often the consequences of decisions and structures placed well outside nation-state boundaries. Nowhere has this been truer than in the financing of retirement, where shifts in the global (p.179) economy have had dramatic effects on the values of stocks and shares that underpin the profitability of pension funds, as well as reducing the rates of return on savings, which many older people rely upon for important parts of their retirement income. It is not only at the level of the private pension that these effects are felt. The retirement pensions underwritten by nation-states have been problematised for a number of decades by bodies such as the World Bank as they have sought more market-oriented reforms. For many years, most European Union nations have worried about the long-term viability of their own schemes in the context of demographic decline and the need to reduce public expenditure. Different solutions or compromises have emerged, but the general conclusion has been that even current arrangements and levels of support need to be reformed and ideally reduced. This has been further exacerbated by the financial crisis that has beset the world economy since 2008. All of this creates a line of antagonism that affects nearly all in retirement, whether they have done well out of previous arrangements or wish for better times.

It is under such changing social circumstances that opposition and resistance become more important, but unlike in the past, such resistance takes on more individualised forms. The idea that the social institutions of the labour movement or social-democratic parties can comprehensively undertake this task has declined along with the demise of corporatist social policies such as the ‘social wage’. Consequently, in an era of austerity, resistance is now more particularised and seemingly more concerned with the maintenance of historic arrangements than it is with the advancement of a more egalitarian agenda. However, Bourdieu's (1998) later work, which was concerned with these changes, pointed out that these forms of resistance were often about opposition to capitalist social relations and the disregard for the individuals who make up society. In Acts of resistance, Bourdieu (1998) went beyond the analysis of distinction and the reproduction of power to examine how it was possible to resist the imposition of system requirements on ordinary individuals, particularly in the realm of social rights. Nowhere are these rights more obvious than in relation to those resources for sustaining an engagement with the Third Age. The behaviour of the global economy and of the financial institutions within it, which play an increasingly directive role, creates a normative demand for stability that places many people at odds with the unregulated ‘freedom’ of an unfettered capitalism (as well as possibly those who markedly benefit from this state of affairs). This suggests that resistance is not random or arbitrary; rather, it is conditioned by a wider and more volatile set of processes that have made understanding contemporary capitalism (p.180) more difficult. The relationships of individuals to the economic system in terms of interests may, therefore, have become more complex (and sometimes more contradictory) than they were in the past (Higgs and Gilleard, 2006), but it is also the case that as the structuring processes of social class have become more individualised, later life and its cultures have become more and more a part of these structures. The tension created by these different forces leads to a variety of outcomes and increases the range of inequalities that can, in turn, be compounded by the role of health and disability or the role of social support. The danger of focusing on these differences, however, is that the power of the idea of social class is lost in the attempts to operationalise it. If, however, we think of class in terms of its moral significance instead of its positioning of individuals into a class schema, we can concentrate our attention on the combined political, moral and cultural issues that have always been at the centre of the idea of class. Adopting this approach will not only open up promising avenues for research and thinking about old age, but also help to ensure that the concept of social class keeps its place in the sociological lexicon.


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