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Gerontology in the UK has struggled to find a place in mainstream academic education. Our next BSG Special Interest Group for Educational Gerontology addresses this question of ‘gerontological education’. Three colleagues with great experience of teaching, presenters Andrew Dunning and Debbie Price and discussant Anne Jamieson, will reflect on their work and consider whether gerontological education is ‘a step too far for undergraduates’. Underlying this question, which touches on everything from the nature of the discipline to the structure and funding of higher education, are some larger questions about the direction of gerontology itself.

From a 1980s book box

            On June 14th 1979 the National Pensioners Convention was set up under the auspices of the TUC to maintain the pressure on government to radically increase the state pension – Age Concern and Help the Aged sat briefly at the same table alongside delegates from the pensioners’ movement. I had started my life in community work with older people as a volunteer organiser in Hackney the prvious July. I joined the first intake of the University of London Extra-Mural Studies diploma ‘The Processes and Dynamics of Ageing’ in 1984 and went on to undertake the MSc. in Gerontology at King’s College, London, graduating in June 1990. During those six years I studied alongside nurses, social workers, home-care workers and care-home managers, a couple of GPs, a sex therapist and the former head of a local authority adult education institute. I was taught by biologists, psychologists, sociologists, geographers and demographers; by politics and social policy academics, and by consultant geriatricians and psycho-geriatricians. During the nineties I taught on the diploma course foundation year and contributed to the Masters in life-course studies at Birkbeck directed by Anne Jamieson. It would have been easy to assume, twenty years ago, with age-related studies well-established at centres in Keele and at King’s, prominent within the Open University, and with programmes emerging at Southampton, Swansea, Surrey, Brunel, Oxford and Stirling, that gerontology had a secure and sustainable future. Instead, what we appear to have now is an ever-expanding field of research, with inter-disciplinary networks replacing ‘centres of gerontology’, a huge proliferation of themes, a diversification of methods and a global ambition. But there has been a marked decline in opportunities to study ageing comprehensively as I was able to do. And no UK university has developed an undergraduate course nor identified meaningful career paths to encourage one.  

            William Davies has recently argued that ‘modernity’ spanned roughly the century from 1870 to the 1970s when ‘the bureaucratic nation-state appeared to have been secured as the building block of geopolitical power, and the welfare state became essential to the pursuit of social justice’. Following the economic, political and cultural shocks of 1968, this compact began to unravel. The transformation proved a challenging backdrop against which to develop the cluster of disciplines that make up gerontology. As my cohort broadly understood it our task was to extend the benefits of ‘modernity’ to older people through the welfare state and introduce elements of the ‘freedom’ movements of the 60s, particularly in engaging with older women. Later developments proposed a mild restructuring of the nation-state to reflect the imperative of a diverse and ageing population. The take up of adult education peaked in 2001* while in 1997 and 2001 older citizens recorded their highest-ever votes for left and centrist parties. For a decade or so under the governments of Blair and Brown there appeared to be enough common ground between researchers, policy-makers, practitioners and a generation of older activists to make something of this. As late as 2012 the Coalition introduced the Triple Lock, a measure which sought to consolidate the modest gains in pensioner income since 1978.

            That moment – and ‘modernity’ itself, according to Davies – is over. The landscape confronting us is very different from the 1970s. The situation of many older people may have improved materially but the choices and entitlements encouraged by the state have become  individualised through consumerism and a largely market-defined model of rights. A significant minority of us, largely defined by the geography of property values, have become part of a rentier interest. And a small majority of older people, reflecting ‘the emergence of a political generation that prioritised cultural differences over collective needs’, contributed energetically to the extraordinary political coup behind the 2016 Referendum. Gerontology has been uncomfortable with both these phenomena, responding more to the emergence of new age stereotypes than turning to examine the social developments indicated by such changes. At recent elections older voters have moved decisively to the right, perhaps seeking – beneath a lather of nostalgia and prejudice – what John Gray has referred to as a ‘left conservatism’.  

            Does this contingency present gerontology with a recruitment problem? If modernity – with its emphasis on prosperity leading to a redistribution of income – is over then, as Davies argues, inheritance and the forms of expropriation which enabled it will become ever more significant. With rising inequality and diminishing social mobility generational identities become of greater significance. Davies quotes Mike Savage who argues that, rather than extending modernity ‘we are instead marked by a cyclical process of return as the weight of the past increases’. The most rational political and socioeconomic objective – the progressive taxation of wealth – will demand a deep change of attitude, including a surrendering of privilege among a tranche of older voters for whom assets now represent a permanent security blanket.

            The counter-argument, responding to what became abundantly evident during the pandemic, has been that the crisis of the welfare state makes the politicisation and resocialisation of ‘care’ an imperative. The deaths of so many care-home residents – their situation in part a function of the failure to reform and invest in adult social care – shows that whatever our material security and supposed power at the ballot-box, old age can still become a site of abandonment and erasure. In his interview with Bernard, Ray and Reynolds, Paul Higgs argued that the key question for gerontology remains (as in the 1950s) ‘what is old age for?’ However we organise the study of ageing in future gerontology will be inter-disciplinary. Some bridges with the humanities, the arts, design, information technology and big data may be in place but we will need much closer engagement with anthropologists, historians, philosophers, economists and political scientists. If we can make ‘care’ in this decade what ‘freedom’ was to the seventies we may overcome some of that deep reluctance to face (and fight for) old age. As Mim, Mo and Jackie had it: ‘what is preventing a forward-looking institution from… adjusting its undergraduate criteria to introduce gerontological ideas and a (critical) gerontological perspective?’ Perhaps with our panel on the 23rd we can take a first step towards mapping out a response.

The next Special Interest Group for Education and Gerontology takes place online at 5pm on June 23rd. Joining instructions from jillwales77@gmail.com or johnmiles68@yahoo.co.uk


Main references are to

Bernard et al. Policy Press 2020 The Evolution of British Gerontology (passages quoted are on pp 229-230 and p 233) and to ‘Destination unknown’ (London Review of Books 44; 11; 9/06/2020) where William Davies reviews Mike Savage, Thomas Piketty and Bhambra/Holmwood. I make no attempt here to deal with the argument he develops about the imperial origins of inherited wealth. But decolonising the gerontology curriculum in the UK must go hand in hand with socialising inherited wealth.

*It’s worth noting that the decline in adult learning amongst people over 65 has reversed quite dramatically since 2019. Older people’s take up of learning online during the pandemic appears to have been significant enough to question much received wisdom on the issue.