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Reconstructing Old Age: New Agendas in Social Theory and Practice

Chris Phillipson
Sage Publications: London
0803979894 (pb); 0803979886 (hb)
14.99 (pb); 42.50 (hb)

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Reconstructing Old Age comes sixteen years after Chris Phillipson's influential book Capitalism and the Construction of Old Age (1982) which developed the 'political economy' perspective and highlighted the structural pressures of class, gender and ethnicity on the experience of ageing. In his latest book, this traditional perspective is revisited and developed towards a critical gerontology which recognises as equally important, the humanistic approach through literature, narrative and biography, to the understanding of the meaning and experience of ageing. Thus Phillipson has moved on from not only seeing social structures as humanly structured, but also individual lives as socially constructed. He draws on the writings of American gerontologists and acknowledges their contribution to this development. As a guiding principle, however, he looks to Anthony Giddens (1991) and Ulrich Beck (1992) and their treatise on advanced or high modernity of a 'risk society' characterised by radical changes in industrial life, globalisation and the development of more fluid forms of identity. For a cohort of older people more used to the certainties of the goal of full adult employment and health and welfare care 'from cradle to grave', this perceived instability is disturbing and alienating. Phillipson aims to provide an analysis and offer some explanation as to why this is so.

The book is intended neither as a text on the sociology nor the social policy of old age, which he points out have been done admirably elsewhere. However, he draws extensively on both these disciplines in order to locate debates about ageing within a developing gerontological critique and an interpretation of social change.

The book comprises an introductory chapter, followed by three parts with three chapters in each, and a conclusion. The introduction contextualises the current debates on ageing populations in a climate of heightened public awareness of both individual and collective consequences of growing old in contemporary society. Central to his discussion on the 'crisis of social ageing', is the notion of 'uncertainty' resulting from the rapidly changing nature of welfare and employment ideologies. A major factor in these ideological shifts is the reduced imperative for younger generations to care for older people in advanced welfare states and the question is raised, to what extent a decreasing proportion of people of working age are prepared to support an older generation?

Part I 'Critical Perspectives', chapters 2 - 4 offer an analytical framework in order to better understand trends in the theoretical perspectives developed during the last three decades. Part II, 'Social Change and Social Divisions', chapters 5 - 7 examine in turn, the social construction of retirement, financing old age and intergenerational relations. In Part III, 'New Agendas' in chapters 8 - 10, Phillipson discusses the sociological and historical perspective of old age, policy and practice issues and argues for the development of coherent social and economic policies, notably concerning pensions and educational provision.

The main argument of the book is that older populations are undergoing an 'identity crisis' associated with postmodern society, the policy response to which has been largely inappropriate. The reason for this, he argues, is that we have yet to adequately conceptualise ageing in order to be sensitive and responsive to social structures on the one hand and to older people themselves and their lived reality on the other. A sociologically orientated, critical gerontology, he believes would contribute substantially to this conceptualisation.

In this well written and neatly constructed book, Phillipson manages to put over complex ideas in accessible language and it will appeal to those studying later life at all levels. However, I was disappointed that there was not greater discussion on gender differences in the experiences of 'uncertainty' in later life. What discussion there was, was rooted in the predominantly male experience of employment and economic security - a principal critique of the political economy perspective, rather than the understanding of gender as social process. Perhaps this is a book waiting to be written. Nevertheless, he has offered a compelling argument for rethinking and extending our conceptualisation of ageing populations in the light of the dramatic changes which heralded the 21st century. Chris Phillipson is internationally renowned and highly respected for his contribution to gerontological and social theory over the last two decades and this book can only add to this reputation.

Kate Davidson
University of Surrey


BECK, U. (1992) Risk Society. London: Sage.

GIDDENS, A. (1991) Modernity and Self-Identity. Oxford: Polity Press.

PHILLIPSON, C. (1982) Capitalism and the Construction of Old Age. London: Macmillan.

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