Intellectual Perspectives on Aging

This is the fourth in a series of book reviews that I have prepared for The Gerontologist regarding recent conceptual developments in gerontology. The readings have influenced my own thinking about social gerontology and the essays I have written have provided an opportunity for me to express some of my own emerging ideas, as well as shape them for future publications. I believe the books I have reviewed reflect important academic contributions revealing a pattern of significant intellectual discourse that is highly relevant for current and future scholars interested in gerontology.

I am grateful to the former book review editor, Bob Binstock, for providing me with a steady diet of thoughtful works to read and critique over the past 6 years. For the most part, these books have pushed beyond what has gone before and have opened new vistas for subsequent writings in the field. Not only has Bob afforded me the opportunity, he has carefully selected books that match my own inquisitive nature about the field and its intellectual direction.

Two of the books from previous reviews have been edited volumes with chapters contributed primarily by those who associate with the critical school of gerontological thought. They are: The Need for Theory: Critical Approaches to Social Gerontology edited by Simon Biggs, Ariela Lowenstein, and Jon Hendricks, and Aging Globalization and Inequality: The New Critical Gerontology edited by Jan Baars, Dale Dannefer, Chris Phillipson, and Alan Walker. Two other coauthored books by Chris Gilleard and Paul Higgs are excellent representations of postmodern social gerontological thought. They are: Cultures of Ageing: Self, Citizen and the Body, and Context of Ageing: Class, Cohort and Community by Chris Gilleard and Paul Higgs. The other books previously reviewed are Social Theory and Aging by Jason L. Powell, and Aging and the Welfare-State Crisis by Anne-Marie Guillemard.

For this review I have been asked to examine Aging and Time: Multidisciplinary Perspectives, edited by Jan Baars and Henk Visser, and The Futures of Old Age, edited by John A. Vincent, Chris R. Phillipson and Murna Downs. Some of the authors contributing to these edited volumes reviewed previously appear in these compilations. However, the chapters in these two newly reviewed volumes are entirely original. It should be noted that many of the authors in the all the volumes cited above are Europeans. While authors from other parts of the world are also making major contributions to concepts in social gerontology, with several included in these books, the tradition of European social science preparation, with an emphasis on theoretical and philosophical underpinnings, has resulted in a high level of scholarship in the interdisciplinary field of gerontology. Not only has the quality of contributions been significant, but so has the quantity.

Social gerontologists, primarily from North America and Europe, are creating a body of literature about society, culture, politics, and aging that is rich and deep. It is a body of literature in which authors are drawing upon each others work, sometimes in stark disagreement, in a synergistic and fast paced manner which is providing a foundation of understanding that simply did not exist prior to the turn of the millennium. For the new student of social gerontology, this is an opportune time to study, for the field is filled with fresh perspectives and original insights. For the veteran gerontologist, it is a momentous time where ideas are crystallizing in a way that might have been inconceivable in the recent past. I strongly encourage my colleagues to read these works and, for the theoretically minded gerontologist, to go to the keyboard and join in the international dialogue and debate.

Multidisciplinary Perspectives on Time

Jan Baars is Professor of Interpretive Gerontology at the University of Humanist Studies in Utrecht and Professor of Philosophy of the Social Sciences and the Humanities at the Tilburg University in the Netherlands and Henk Visser is Emeritus Professor at the University Maastricht. They are the editors of Aging and Time: Multidisciplinary Perspectives.

The title of this book reminded me of an earlier volume Aging and the Meaning of Time edited by Susan H. McFadden and Robert Atchley (2001), but the actual content is quite different. The earlier edited volume by McFadden and Atchley focuses on the way older individuals understand and interpret the meaning of their lives over time. In one of the chapters in that book, Kennedy, Fung, and Carstensen (2001), draw upon a quote by existentialist Viktor Frankl where he writes:

Passing time is therefore not only a thief, but a trustee … the person who takes life [optimistically] is like a man who removes each successive leaf from his calendar and files it neatly and carefully away with its predecessors — after first having jotted down a few diary notes on the back. He can reflect with pride and joy on the richness set down in these notes, on all the life he has already lived in full … What reasons has he to envy a young person? [This man says to himself] “Instead of possibilities, I have realities in my past — not only the reality of work done and of love loved, but of suffering suffered. These are the things of which I am most proud — though these are things which cannot inspire envy.” (Frankl 1986, p. 33, as cited in Kennedy, Fung and Carstensen, 2001, p. 51).

Aging and Time is a very different sort of volume and is focused on our understanding of time as approached from various disciplinary perspectives. Rather than an interdisciplinary work, it is a collection of chapters written by authors reflecting insights about time from different academic disciplines — hence as the title notes, “multidisciplinary perspectives.” This is a thoughtful book composed primarily of authors from the EU (the only author from another continent is K. Warner Schaie) and is not intended for the casual reader. The authors write for a sophisticated audience interested in reading what different scholars trained in philosophy, sociology, psychology, physics, biology, and physiology have to say about our understanding of human aging and time.

Editors Baars and Visser have prepared chapters that serve as bookends for the eight other chapters. Baars’ opening chapter (as well as Chapter 2) deals with chronological time and human aging and Visser, closing the book, discusses the problems of integrating the different disciplinary perspectives identified and the book and the challenge for theory development.

Baars’ introductory chapter seeks to distinguish chronological time from the way individuals experience aging. Although someone may have lived to a certain number of years, we know there is great variability among individuals of the same age in the way their bodies have aged and the experiences they may have encountered. While chronological age is a useful indicator, it is insufficient alone to make generalizations. Baars writes,

Because human beings with the same chronological age can show, even from a mere biological point of view, very different aging characteristics, we can no longer assume that aging processes develop in synchrony with chronological time. As organisms age at different rates and even different tissues, organs, and organ systems within an organism may age at different rates, chronological age turns out to be even a poor predictor of remaining life expectancy …. (p. 3).

In the second chapter, Baars further discusses chronological time in the context of meaning to the individual, either past, present, or in anticipation of the future. In doing so he explores the contributions of different philosophers starting with Aristotle and including more contemporary philosophers and their consideration of time and existence. He concludes that there are three ways that human beings interpret time: natural rhythms of the physical systems and the basis of chronological time; personal experiences or perspectives on time — an hour feels much longer in a situation that is of little interest than where one’s attention is captivated; sociocultural contexts and the way different individuals and cultures consider their own existence and time. The latter can be best understood through the personal narrative and explanation of self. With the understanding of the multiple ways in which time is integrated into life, Baars argues that an “overemphasis on one of these three temporal perspectives can be evaded” (p. 37).

The next three chapters reflect contributions from psychologists. They dwell upon the way we perceive time. A body of literature exists concerning memory, interpretation of time duration, order of events, subject experience and interpretation of events and anticipation of future, and the consequences of aging on the ability to recall events and the way time is assessed. Elke van der Meer provides an overview and insight to this body of literature and concludes that while there are deleterious effects of normal aging upon portions of the human brain, older people can make use of alternative strategies of reorganization and compensation that “can help overcome a regional dysfunction.” Further, influences of environmental circumstances can influence cognitive performance and it is argued that “decline in cognitive performances with chronological age is not irreversible” (p. 74).

Freya Dittmann-Kohli continues the discussion of the difference between objective measures of time and the subjective experience of time passage. In this chapter she touches on the existential experience of time and meaning that is explored in the earlier volume by McFadden & Atchley (2001) and the individual interpretation of finitude. Through exploration of self-reports, human narratives, qualitative insight, and individual expression are we to better understand the way the self finds personal meaning and understanding to the scope of time. The perspective of one’s existence is deeper and more complex than simply the “concept of past and future” (p. 113) … with “a long and detailed life history is the most important part of identity” (p. 114). Dittman-Kohli argues at the conclusion of her chapter for greater research in empirical studies on aging and existential meaning of time.

In the next chapter, K. Warner Schaie summarizes previous research on what he refers to as event time. In 1986, Schaie identified five classes of events that are cited as critical factors in determining the meaning of an event. This concept of event time serves as a relevant marker of the occurrence and reaches beyond the date or time of the incident. The five classes of events that Schaie identified are: substantive type of event, impact of the event, duration of the event, event density, and perceptions of the event. He states at the conclusion of the chapter,

“… I have argued that calendar time is a rather unsatisfactory scale in the behavioral and social sciences. Just as chronological age simply indexes position in the life span, so does calendar time index the point of occurrence or duration of an event. Neither have explanatory meaning in their own right. I have therefore suggested that it may be desirable to substitute the concept of event time ….” (p. 132).

While the previous chapters are each thorough and thoughtful, the next three chapters, in this reviewer’s opinion, are the book’s most significant contributions. The editors asked Jos Uffink, a physicist, to reflect on the subject of time and aging. His chapter is then commented upon by F. Eugene Yates, a biologist, and then responded to by Uffink. Uffink provides a painstakingly systematic review of how physicists think about time and its implications for gerontologists. This has been a subject that has fascinated me and I am sure many others. Is time continuous, without end, in a linear form? How can we conceive of the scale of time experienced as we study the cosmos? What about time prior to the big bang? Does time exist and what does it mean? Would time occur, as we know it, within the forces of a black hole? Physicists have developed a notion of Plank time. When examining two-minute time periods, as the two time points come closer and closer together is there an instant where that moment longer exists? As physicists consider string theory, might time be some other shape than linear? Does time always flow forward and can it be traversed? Is time different as we theorize about new dimensions beyond our own?

It was Einstein who challenged our interpretation of the timing of events and the notions of Newton about absolute time and space. Time, Einstein proved, was dependent upon the state of motion as to the frame of reference of the observed and the observer. Uffink writes,

“Consider two clocks, which are constructed in an identical fashion; and assume they are moving uniformly with respect to each other. That is, their relative motion is at constant speed and in a constant direction. For simplicity, let’s adopt a frame of reference in which one of them, say A,is at rest. The theory of relativity predicts that, judged from this frame of reference, the moving clock B will run slower compared to the rate of the resting clock A. This is the famous time dilation effect” (p. 144).

Imagine twin sisters, one traveling in space nearly at the speed of light, and one remaining on earth. Upon returning to earth after 50 Earth years, the terrestrial sister would have aged, but the space sister would have aged much more gradually. This phenomenon became known as the Twin Paradox — so contrary to intuition, but so true to the theory of relativity.

Uffink is precise, using carefully selected words to explain many of the theories and laws that contribute to our understanding of the physical world. His chapter is elegantly presented in a clear and measured manner. He also, explores some of the concepts of the aging individuals within the scope of what we know about physics. After 22 pages of fascinating detail of which the reader is sure to expect novel insights, Uffink concludes with the frank but disappointing statement, “Generally speaking, one can say that there is little here that should arouse the attention of gerontology” (p. 158). Stated from a scientist who knows the limits of the data, Uffink takes the reader on a fascinating ride of insight and understanding, but concludes that, unfortunately, physicists have too little to offer to the understanding of human aging.

But the surprise continues in the next chapter where F. Eugene Yates writes about time from a biologist’s perspective. Yates only provides five pages of narrative and in these five pages he speaks from a biologist’s perspective. But, he also decides to critique physics, physicists, and to a certain extent Uffick’s prior chapter. His rationale includes the notion that living organisms are highly complex with histories imbedded in genetic codes, with active interiors, and existences that can be goal oriented. Such properties are simply too interactive, dynamic, and multifaceted to be understood from the discipline of physics. He concludes by stating, “As physics abandons time to our illusions, it disqualifies itself as a basis for a hoped-for strategic physical biology, and so guarantees its continuing incompleteness, revealing that even at its best, physics is nongeneric” (p. 166).

Wisely, the editors devote six more pages of text to a response by Uffink. Uffink carefully, and just as artfully as his fully developed chapter on physics, responds to each of Yates criticisms. Some of his rejoinders are particularly insightful. For example, he notes:

“With all due respect for the immense progress that biology has achieved in the last century and a half, it seems fair to say that we have no clue whether even the most celebrated results of biology (e.g., the theory of evolution or the determination of the genetic code) have any validity outside of the planet Earth. For all we know, biology depends essentially on highly contingent and very special conditions of our local cosmic environment. To claim that biology is generic and physics is not is to mock the meaning of the word” (p. 171).

It is a pleasure to read such well argued points as in Uffink’s brief essay. It is scholarship at its best.

There are two more chapters, another by Yates, but his is more theoretical about biological dynamics examining the complexity of biological time and senescence. It is a brief chapter in its own right and not a further response to Uffink, although there are still some comments about physics. And, as mentioned earlier, Visser writes the concluding chapter examining the problem of developing an integrative theoretical framework across the disciplines.

An Excellent Primer

Of all the books mentioned, a place to start reading is The Futures of Old Age. In this carefully edited volume, John A. Vincent, Chris Phillipson, and Murna Downs have created an easily read collection which provides a quick summary of a number of salient issues as we look to a future as societies with many more older people. John Vincent is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Sociology at the University of Exeter; Chris Phillipson is a Professor of Applied Social Studies and Social Gerontology at Keele University; and Murna Downs is Professor of Dementia Studies and Head of the Bradford Dementia Group, The Division of Dementia Studies at the University of Bradford. Commissioned by the British Society of Gerontology, The Futures of Old Age is an effort to capture insights to the future of aging from a broad set of disciplinary perspectives, primarily drawn from the social and behavioral sciences, but inclusive of the humanities.

Anyone who has edited a book will appreciate what these three editors have accomplished. This volume, after its opening foreword and introduction, follows an outline of seven topics, each with three articles. Each section is introduced by a brief, but thoughtful essay by the editors. After the topical introduction to the section by the editors, each of the following three chapters succinctly addresses the topic of their essay and are generally within 10 pages or less. Each chapter utilizes a series of subheadings as an organizational format, and them summarizes the chapter with a concluding section. Every chapter follows the exact same format and structure. It is refreshing that the editors were able to build so much organizational and stylistic consistency throughout the book making access to the volume’s content as easy as possible. For those early in their studies in gerontology, this is an excellent primer.

Because of this care in organization and the succinctness of the contributions, the book would work well for an introductory graduate gerontology course and possibly a higher level undergraduate course as well. With talented authors providing material readily available to a broad audience, the book is an inviting piece for the interested reader. Based on these introductory essays, the reader can pursue the subject of interest in greater depth by exploring the references identified in the chapters, or the instructor may provide additional reading. The seven sections or parts of the book are briefly summarized below.

Part one: The future of the life course

These first three chapters explore the changing life course experience, one in which is chronological age is a less of a marker of conditions, potential, and capacity than it might have been in previous generations. Andrew Blaikie points out in the first chapter that retirement has been described by more of what it is not than what it is, and this absence of affirmation will need to be fleshed out in the years to come. Further, the ideas about engagement in later life may be different for the emerging cohorts of young people than for the Baby Boom generation. Vern Bengston and Norella Putney discuss in the second chapter the possibilities of future conflicts across generations as larger economic trends and migration may actually increase current inequalities. Dale Dannefer and Casey Miklowski in the third chapter highlight the implications of the nature of the “trajectories of inequality” that can play out over the life course (p. 33).

Part two: The future of social differentiation

This section deals with issues of social class (Alan Walker and Liam Foster), gender (Sara Arber), and ethnicity (James Nazroo), with waves of immigrants to the U.K. originating from the Caribbean, India, Pakistan, South Asia, East Africa, Bangladesh, China, and Africa. Common across the chapters is a presentation of demographic data followed with implications for the future.

Part three: The future of retirement and pensions

Debra Price and Jay Ginn explore the implications of the shifting of later life income support from the state to private pensions, creating increased inequality in retirement income (Debora Price and Jay Ginn). In looking toward the future, Maria Evandrou and Jane Falkingham consider the implications of the changing retirement schemes for the Baby Boom generation. They state:

“… there is no doubt that many of the 1960s baby-boomers will be better off in retirement than their parents’ generation. There has been real economic growth over time, which the baby-boomers as a whole have benefited from. However, there is evidence that the poorest baby-boomers have benefited relatively less from this growth than has the cohort on average, reflecting a widening inequality within the cohort” (p. 97).

Finally, this section concludes with an analysis of pensions based on stock market investments in the European Union, Latin America, and the Middle East. The chapter takes a critical appraisal of the West’s encouragement of developing nations to follow the EU’s “modern approach” to private pension funds (Richard Minns). Minns writes: “Reforms’ have been and are under way in most regions of the world. But the reformers have failed to prove that there is any real economic, as opposed to political or marketing, reason for reducing the role of the state or for introducing or extending risk of privately financed insecurity in old age” (p. 103).

Part four: The future for “self” in old age

The three chapters in this section explore aging and intergenerational solidarity (Simon Biggs), ways to conceptualize one’s own biography (Jaber Gubrium and James Holstein), and aging, spirituality, and individual belief systems (Peter Coleman, Marie Mills, and Peter Speck).

Part five: The future for health and well-being in old age

The first of this three-chapter set examines patters of morbidity and the question of the health of the future older population (Christina Victor). A chapter by Murna Downs and Errollyn Bruce wrestles with the issue of the future status of individuals and families coping with dementia. And the last chapter in this section considers the quality of life among older people now and in the future (John Bond and Lynne Cormer).

Part six: The future of family and living arrangements for older people

In this section Sarah Harper explores the extension of life; consequences of the delay of marriage, childbirth, and the implications of a long life together for couples among the EU nations. Kate Davidson considers implications of long life for those who had been married and are now widowed or divorced and the growing trend of older widowed/divorced couples who become romantically involved but do not opt to marry. These couples often maintain separate residences, also known as, “living apart together” (LAT). The final chapter in this trio, by Sheila Piece, examines housing alternatives and future living arrangements for the aged.

Part seven: Globalization and future of old age

This grouping deals with macro-level trends that are emerging and their impact the future. John Vincent examines the ability of science to delay or relieve the effects of biological aging and the impact worldwide of the medical model of aging. The topic of the next chapter is one that Chris Phillipson has previously written about so eloquently, that is, the increasing influence institutions that cut across nation states have over economic policies affecting older people. He notes, “Globalization, however, transfers citizenship issues to a transnational stage, this is driven by a combination of the power of intergovernmental structures, the influence of multinational corporations, and the pressures of population movement and migration” (p. 202). These independent structures and organizations may in Phillipson’s words, “generate new forms of insecurity” among older people and their families. Finally, the last chapter of this section and the last chapter in the book briefly explores the migration of individuals and the fluidity of relocation over the life course (Tony Warnes).

It is hard to find fault with this book in that it successfully accomplishes what it sets out to do for its intended audience. Nevertheless, its strength in its crispness and brevity could also be viewed as a weakness for the reader interested in more detail from a single volume. The editors’ design and intent serves the purpose of introducing the subject to be followed up by additional readings, however, it is up to the reader to pursue the subject in greater detail. The only criticism I would like to raise at this time is not with the volume’s concept, content, editing or authorship, but with the publisher’s selection of book binding. The binding used makes it difficult to keep the book open to the page being read. It would not easily crease to stay open to pages being read and it regularly sought to close up — very frustrating.

Although the volume is focused on the United Kingdom and the European nations for its examples and data about the aging society, its underlying points are applicable to most if not all developed nations. Frequent references are made to the United States, as well, in the book. In addition, there is a growing literature pointing to the importance of understanding the world-wide implications of an aging society, not those of just the developed nations. The volume is sensitive to the Western-centric perspective that dominates the gerontology literature.

In sum, we have two excellent edited volumes, one, The Futures of Old Age, is designed for a wide audience and can be used in the classroom as an introductory gerontology work backed with supplemental readings. It is carefully edited and organized from beginning to end. Aging and Time, however, is a very different sort of volume. It is written by leading intellectuals and scientists about our concept of time and for a rather sophisticated audience. The book provides a brief summary of the state-of-the-art from different disciplinary perspectives. It is impressive to see how much we thought we know and much more we seek to know about time and the aging individual. Aging and Time is a much more deliberate read for the well educated gerontologist interested in a better insight to this important frame of reference.

Scott A. Bass, Ph.D. Vice President for Research and Dean of the Graduate School Distinguished Professor of Sociology and Public Policy University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) Baltimore, Maryland.

Aging and Time: Multidisciplinary Perspectives, edited by Jan Baars and Henk Visser. Baywood Publishing Company, Amityville, NY, 2007, 216 pp., $47.95 (cloth).

The Futures of Old Age, edited by John A. Vincent, Chris R. Phillipson, and Murna Downs. Sage Publications, London, UK, 2006, 255 pp., $39.95 (paper).


  • Bass, S., (2002). The resurgence of gerontological scholarship. The Gerontologist, 42, 127-131.
  • Bass, S., (2006). Gerontological theory: The search for the holy grail. The Gerontologist, 46, 139-144.
  • Bass, S., (2007). The emergence of the golden age of social gerontology? The Gerontologist, 47, 408-412.
  • Frankl, V. E., (1986). The doctor and the soul. (Winston, R. & Winston, C., Trans.). New York: Vintage.
  • Kennedy, Q., Fung, H. H., & Carstensen, L. L., (2001). Aging, time estimation, and emotion. In S. H. McFadden & R. C. Atchley, (Eds.), Aging and the meaning of time, pp. 51-73. New York: Springer Publishing Company.
  • McFadden, S. H., & Atchley, R. C., (Eds.) (2001). Aging and the meaning of time. New York, Springer Publishing Company.