Looking back at my work – so far – from an age of non-retirement

In 2012 it will be 65 years ago that I was born. At that moment I will officially be labeled as ‘aged’ and from that moment on, age-related regulations prohibit practically all forms of regular, full time employment. It will become a challenge not to retire but to remain engaged in the issues and problems that have interested me for decades and that will probably continue to fascinate me as long as I will be able. Fortunately, the university has graciously extended a part-time appointment as Professor. Against this background a ‘Non-Retirement Conference’ has been organized to analyze and reflect on the tensions between age related structural policies, such as mandatory retirement, and personal experiences of aging in contemporary societies. It remains difficult to re-appreciate aging in contemporary culture, avoiding such dominant definition of aging as either linear decline or ‘staying young’. From this non-retirement perspective, I will present a short autobiographical note on my work so far.

As I began to teach Sociological Theory, being appointed the age of 23 as Assistant Professor at the Free University in Amsterdam I was convinced that sociological theories and concepts had important implications than could be not clarified in their own terms. Therefore, to support and deepen my teaching, I began to study philosophy alongside my sociological work and did a MA and PH.D. in Philosophy (about the philosophy and theory of society of Adorno and Horkheimer) at the University of Amsterdam. These two intellectual traditions, the social sciences and philosophy, including the tensions between them, have deeply influenced my work.

My main interest, however, does not lie at the theoretical level. I am primarily interested in social or societal issues but regard the social sciences as too limited to address them properly and this is where I draw on philosophical work. To this statement should be added that most philosophical work on social issues takes little notice of the discussions and research efforts of scientific work. So, when I became in 1995 a Professor of Philosophy of the Social Sciences and the Humanities at Tilburg University I encouraged  my philosophy students to pay attention to scientific work and to suspect the idea that the reality they desired to understand could be neatly deducted from philosophical principles. Both perspectives should be fruitfully interrelated.

Ten years before that appointment at a Department of Philosophy, my interest in social issues had already focused on aging, since I became involved around 1985 in teaching sociological theory as part of an academic curriculum of Social Gerontology at the Free University. As I began to read through the major publications on aging I was rather shocked by the ways in which ‘the aged’, ‘the elderly’, or ‘the old’ were portrayed as if they were a strange and utterly problematic species. If they needed care, this usually dominated all interest in them as if they had no other existence, even though delivering care might only take a fragment of their days. And even when they were fully able to care for themselves, they were often seen in terms of statistical probabilities: they would soon become dependent, and in that perspective they were already a potential burden. It became obvious that, again, dominant ideas about what a ‘proper human being’ should look like or what a ‘good life’ would be interacted with societal structures and powerful agendas.

Obviously, prejudice about the abnormality of aging was not only fed by cultural scripts of ‘normality’, but also by huge material interests: if so many people of the aging populations in the Western world would need so much care, this might become a billion €-industry with much gain for (some of) those involved. I began to be critical of the one-sided view on the ‘aging society’ in terms of the costs of care, narrowing aging down to a growing dependency on professional care; especially as this budgetary tunnel vision tended to lead to a growing apparatus for financial control and higher salaries for those at the top but neither to better care where this was needed, nor to a more decent pay for those who delivered care on a daily basis. Another concern was that the agendas of studies on aging and the aged were usually dominated by those that financed them, such as governments at different levels, and that researchers usually failed to develop a critical perspective that would include the role of those who made their research possible.

I encountered strong resistance from the Dutch Society of Gerontology (NVG) and the Editorial Board of its Journal against the initiation of a critical debate about the role of gerontological work in setting the stage for the ‘aging population’ of the next decades. However, this resistance strengthened my conviction that critical voices were badly needed and I began to work on a perspective called ‘critical gerontology’, both within the Netherlands and in international cooperation with inspiring colleagues such as Alan Walker, with whom I organized in September 1988 a symposium on ‘Critical Social Gerontology’ in Sheffield and Dale Dannefer (Rochester University, N.Y.) , with whom I organized in June 1989 a symposium ‘Towards a Critical Gerontology’ during the World Congress of Gerontology in Acapulco, Mexico.

From a marginal position Critical Gerontology has evolved into an important meeting ground of different voices where problems and perspectives that would be preferably neglected or silenced by dominant actors from the scientific ‘community’ and the political arena can be brought forward and discussed. The perspective once more has proved its undiminished strength under conditions of globalization in the 2006 volume Aging, Globalization and Inequality. The New Critical Gerontology which I had the pleasure to co-edit with Dale Dannefer (Case Western University, Cleveland, US) Chris Phillipson (Keele University, UK) and Alan Walker (University of Sheffield, UK).

This work in aging studies led in 2001 to a part time appointment as Professor at the University of Humanistic Studies in Utrecht, to conduct research on Aging in a Life Course Perspective, especially Interpretive Gerontology. This last specification was added to emphasize that this chair was meant to explicate and reflect on the more implicit ideas or convictions behind theoretical and practical approaches to aging and to explore inspiring perspectives for aging in the 21st century.

Whereas Critical Gerontology has drawn mainly on approaches from the social sciences, focusing on a critical analysis of the implications of societal or macro phenomena (such as globalization, social inequality or labor market dynamics) for aging persons, I have also become involved in a range of normatively and, hence, also critically oriented work on aging which has been inspired by the humanities (history, literature, philosophy) and has sometimes been called ‘humanistic aging studies’. Here the fruitful tension and mutual interrogation of the social sciences and philosophy has once more surfaced, interacting with the rich world of reflected experiences that the humanities represent. And, again, different approaches are necessary as structural dynamics or dominant political agendas have important consequences for individuals and their life worlds and many issues of meaning that individuals are dealing with, have important structural and cultural dimensions.


It is clarifying to demonstrate such complex dynamics in specific cases or situations but questions of interrelated dimensions also pose themselves at a more conceptual level. Over the last years I have tried to distinguish different approaches of aging studies, focusing on the ways in which they use concepts of time. After all, aging is basically living in time or living that is seen from a temporal perspective. The first, explorative phase of this endeavor has led to a Dutch book, called books Het nieuwe ouder worden. Paradoxen en perspectiven van leven in de tijd (2006), a co-edited volume on Aging and Time (2007) and to contributions to some major Handbooks in the field of aging studies (2009, 2010 b,c). The second, more developed phase has resulted in Aging and the Art of Living, which will be published in 2012 by Johns Hopkins University Press.

Another more recent line of inquiry involves a search for philosophical texts on aging, raised by astonishment about the neglect of aging in contemporary philosophy, while the issue of ‘death’ has been lively debated ever since the early beginnings of Greek philosophy. With Joseph Dohmen I have unearthed an extensive collection of philosophical texts on aging which has been published in Dutch in 2010: De Kunst van het Ouder Worden. De Grote Filosofen over de Ouderdom. Forthcoming at Johns Hopkins University Press is an English edition of these texts: Jan Baars and Joseph Dohmen (Eds.) Towards an Art of Aging: A Rediscovery of Forgotten Texts.

A selection of recent and forthcoming publications

Jan Baars, Het Nieuwe Ouder Worden. Paradoxen en Perspectieven van Leven in de Tijd. Amsterdam: Humanistic University Press, 2006.

Jan Baars, Dale Dannefer, Chris Phillipson, and Alan Walker, ed Aging, Globalization, and Inequality: The New Critical Gerontology. Amityville, NY: Baywood, 2006

Jan Baars & Henk Visser, eds. Aging and Time: Multidisciplinary Perspectives. Amityville, NY: Baywood, 2007. 

Jan Baars “The Challenge of a Critical Gerontology: The problem of Social Constitution” In Ageing, Vol. 4 Key Debates, ed. by Susan McDaniel,p. 227-62. London: SAGE, 2008.

Jan Baars,‘Problematic Theoretical Foundations: Time, Age and Aging.’ In Handbook of Theories of Aging. Second Edition, ed. by Vern Bengtson, Merril Silverstein, Norella Putney & Daphna Gans, p. 87-100, New York: Springer Publishers, 2009.

Jan Baars,“Ageing as Increasing Vulnerability and Complexity: Towards a Philosophy of the Life Course.” In Successful Ageing, Spirituality, and Meaning, ed. by J. Bouwer, p. 39-52. Leuven: Peeters, 2010 a.

Jan Baars “Philosophy of Aging, Time, and Finitude.” In A Guide to Humanistic Studies in Aging, ed. by T. R. Cole, R. Ray, and R. Kastenbaum, p. 105-20. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press 2010 b.

Jan Baars “Time and Aging: Enduring and Emerging Issues.” In SAGE Handbook of Social Gerontology, ed. by Dale Dannefer and Chris Phillipson, p. 367-76. New York: SAGE, 2010 c.

Joep Dohmen & Jan Baars De Kunst van het Ouder Worden. De Grote Filosofen over de Ouderdom, Amsterdam: Ambo 2010.

Jan Baars, Aging and the Art of Living. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, september 2012.

Jan Baars, Joseph Dohmen, Amanda Grenier, and Chris Phillipson, eds. Ageing, Meaning, and Social Structure: Connecting Critical and Humanistic Gerontology. Bristol: Policy Press, forthcoming: May 15, 2013.

Jan Baars and Joseph Dohmen Towards an Art of Aging: A Rediscovery of Forgotten Texts. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, forthcoming.