You might disagree, but I think we categorise people as young, middle aged, or old. We simplify the life span into these groups.
And the groups are not based solely on age. Rather, we tend to slot people into one of those three groups depending on our own age.
Increasingly, I am finding that the world is full of young people, including my doctor and dentist. However, age is much more complex than this.
We think about our age in a variety of ways. Sometimes we take a chronological perspective. We identify with our chronological age and simply state our age in years. But sometimes we identify with our subjective age.
This is the age you feel yourself to be irrespective of your chronological age. I often hear people saying, “I feel my age today” and “you are only as old as you feel”.
Thirdly, we have a functional age.
This is related to physical and cognitive capacity to do what you want to do. I think that functional age often determines subjective age.
Laslett in the 1980s categorised age as the first age, the second age, the third age and the fourth age. It was not quite revolutionary to break up ages this way. And probably the first, second and third ages correlate with our young, middle aged and old categories.
Unsurprisingly, the first age is considered to be the age of preparation for the world. It involves education, socialisation, growing up in readiness for adult roles.
The second age is the time of productivity, work and family creation.
The third age starts in retirement. Laslett moved the third age from being an all-encompassing class of old people to being a more optimistically framed group.
Rather than focusing on ageing problems, Laslett believed that the third age is a period of freedom with the time and health to enjoy it. I believe he was thinking about first world populations.
Laslett added in the concept of a fourth age. We all know that those considered elderly (especially by young journalists) are a diverse group.
Some people are simply elderly/older. Others have serious cognitive and physical impairments. Laslett made the distinction between the third age and fourth age based on this difference, not on age.
The fourth age is marked by dependence on others, decrepitude and death.
I think the value in Laslett’s simple addition of a fourth age is to remove the negativity that seeps through into ageing.
Many older people seem to see themselves on a slippery slide into dependence and decrepitude even when they are still actively in the third age.
And many younger people seem to have only one category for older people. The category of the fourth age gives us language to acknowledge difference.
To say someone is in the fourth age provides both information and a simple and respectful distinction.
I wish you a very long third age and a very short fourth age.
Judy Rafferty is the author of Retirement Your Way, A Practical Guide to Knowing What You Want and How to Get It, at all good bookshops and online.