The fourth age

Authored by: Liz Lloyd

Routledge Handbook of Cultural Gerontology

Print publication date:  June  2015
Online publication date:  June  2015

Print ISBN: 9780415631143
eBook ISBN: 9780203097090
Adobe ISBN: 9781136221033


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The fourth age is a troublesome concept, an inevitable outcome of the emergence of the third age as a period of personal growth and active engagement. The philosopher Helen Small (2007) comments that what matters most about old age is the human being’s heightened exposure to contingent harms related to serious ill health. The ambivalence with which ageing is considered is evident in the way that as we grow older we spend increasing amounts of time thinking about this fact, while at the same time trying not to think about it and what it implies. Small’s observations are reflected in the concept of the ‘social imaginary’, developed by Gilleard and Higgs (2010), which depicts the fourth age as a black hole from which there is no return and which, like a black hole in space, cannot be fully understood. In cultural studies there has been a heavy emphasis on theorising the third age, with its opportunities for personal growth and development. Arguably, the lack of attention paid to the fourth age has contributed to the continuation of objectifying discourses concerning this stage of the life course.

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