Daniel Holman and Alan Walker

It is axiomatic that the life course perspective is fundamental to understanding unequal ageing. People move through various life stages as they age, experiencing different social roles and relationships with others, who are each doing the same. Social and cultural processes and policy encounters provide the context for these experiences, shaping what is possible, and the attendant life chances. Life course researchers have shown that ageing is unequal with respect to a number of key axes of dis/advantage such as social class, gender, and ethnicity – but what about the ways in which these axes of dis/advantage overlap and interact with each other? This is the topic of a new paper we have published in the European Journal of Ageing.

Intersectionality has seen an explosion of interest, especially in the last 5-10 years. It has two essential ingredients. The first is social heterogeneity, or in other words, population diversity. Each of us have multiple characteristics – a gender, an age, an ethnicity, a socioeconomic position, and so on – which together shape (though of course do not determine) who we are and our position in society. The second ingredient is social discrimination – sexism, ageism, racism, classism, and so on – which people are subject to in different ways depending on their own intersectional identity. As noted by various scholars, Covid-19 provides a glaring example of the need to take an intersectional perspective given the socioeconomic, ethnic and age-based inequalities that have been highlighted by and have emerged during the pandemic. Despite numerous calls for intersectional research on Covid-19, including in the BMJ, we so far know virtually nothing about how these factors might be overlapping and interacting with each other to shape pandemic-related outcomes.

This 3-minute explainer video we produced on the topic of intersectionality and health offers a general overview:

[Embed explainer video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rwqnC1fy_zc]

Life course and intersectionality perspectives each comprise a number of key concepts that can be synthesised to provide a richer, fuller account of unequal ageing. The life course has proved an incredibly rich framework for gerontology and focuses on social roles, life stages, transitions, age/cohort differences, cumulative dis/advantage and trajectories, whilst intersectionality centres intersectional subgroups, discrimination, categorisation and individual hetereogeneity. Each set of concepts has much to gain by synthesising the other; the opportunities for mutual enrichment are substantial. In the table below, which presents a simplified version of that in the paper, we have summarised five key areas of synergy with example applications:

Area of synergyExample applications
People change intersectional subgroups over the life cycle and could therefore be said to follow an ‘intersectional trajectory’.Examine how people navigate role transitions and intersectional patterning in this.Analyse ethnicity by gender outcomes depending on time spent in certain SEPs (duration) at what age (timing/critical periods), how the order of SEP statuses might influence health (sequential effects), or how certain SEP transitions might constitute a big life change (turning points).High prestige careers are mainly only accessible for Black men if they are in stable relationships with a maximum of one child (Aisenbrey and Fasang, 2018)Retirement might have little meaning among low income African Americans (Dressel et al., 1997).
People employ agency to resist discrimination and shape their own identities across the life cycle, within given constraints.Women disadvantaged according to SEP and ethnicity were less able to mitigate the damaging effects of increases to the women’s state pension (Holman et al. (2018).Walker and Naegele (1999) showed the variations in political participation between different groups of older people, based on SEP, in different EU countries.
Intersectional patterning and its significance for unequal ageing varies by historical time and spatial context.Examine time/place differences in intersectional diversity.Conduct MAIHDA analysis to examine within and between intersectional variation in different historical times and spatial locations.Examine the ageing of different cohorts of disabled people and people with intellectual disabilities.Compare relevance of area deprivation versus individual SEP in explaining health inequalities, and how this varies by age, gender and other axes of inequality.Conduct intersectional analyses on a local or regional scale to generate place-specific evidence.Informal care role of older adults may change in neighbourhoods with high unemployment (Dressel et al 1997).
People are affected by multiple forms of discrimination over the life cycle and according to historical time and spatial context.Analyse inequalities in life expectancy and healthy life expectancy according to age, cohort, gender, race and ethnicity.Examine differences in reported interpersonal discrimination across time/place.Examine how individuals experience multiple forms of discrimination across different contexts e.g. ageism in one policy and sexism in another.Policy contexts can be used to interpret individual outcomes or directly linked to micro data; cross-national panel data can be used for comparative research.Bécares and Zhang (2018) found that accumulated interpersonal discrimination has a negative impact on the mental health of older ethnic minority women.Dressel and Barnhill (1994) found that for African American grandmothers age was not seen as a key social identity given lifelong poverty, racism and sexism.
Ageism, sexism, racism, and other forms of discrimination and their interconnections (the ‘matrix of domination’) vary by historical time and spatial context.Policy analysis of how policies discriminate based on both single and multiple axes of inequality at a time e.g. ageism and stereotypes of older men vs. women.The transformation from ‘worn out’ older workers of the early twentieth century to the ‘productive ageing’ of the early twenty-first century (Macnicol, 2006).Shifts in the visual stereotypes of older women over time (Warren, 2018).The cultural turn in ageist stereotypes from physical limitations to cosmetic appearance, with a particularly severe impact on older women (Twigg, 2013).

What does this mean in practice, and why is it important? The core of our argument can be distilled into the following claim: the life course perspective needs to acknowledge the way in which axes of inequality – both at the level of population subgroups and systems of social discrimination – overlap and interact with each other; intersectionality needs to acknowledge the dynamic, reciprocal and temporal nature of social categories and attendant discrimination. A serious attempt to engage with an intersectional life course perspective would help to ensure that the most vulnerable do not fall down through the cracks, to use Kimberlé Crenshaw’s terminology. It would generate knowledge on whether we should aim for social policies which aim to tackle multiple forms of discrimination simultaneously, and at which ‘turning points’ in the life course this is most likely to be effective. It might also suggest whether, and how, interventions or policies can be targeted at different intersectional subgroups, the identity-based factors associated with these subgroups that could help with targeting and tailoring interventions and policies, and the structural constraints that might inhibit the success of such interventions.

In sum, there is a strong case for moving towards the integration of intersectional and life course perspectives, which holds exciting opportunities to bring new insights to unequal ageing and how to tackle it. Recent events have made this task more pressing than ever.

The full article on this which this blog is based can be found here. The project website this paper emerged on can be found here.

Dan Holman is based in the Department of Sociological Studies at the University of Sheffield and is a Faculty Research Fellow for the Healthy Lifespan Institute.

Alan Walker is based in the Department of Sociological Studies at the University of Sheffield and is Professor of Social Policy and Social Gerontology and Co-director of the Healthy Lifespan Institute.