Contemporary Sociology reviews ‘Aging, Globalization and Inequality’

Review of Aging, Globalization and Inequality: The New Critical Gerontology by Jan Baars; Dale Dannefer; Chris Phillipson; Alan Walker
by Sara Arber (University of Surrey, Guildford) in Contemporary Sociology, Vol. 36, No. 2 (Mar., 2007), pp. 186-188

Too many books about aging focus on “apocalyptic demography” trumpeting the dire social consequences of the growing older population, or emphasising “successful aging” and how we can (or should) all expect to live healthy and fulfilling lives into our nineties. Aging, Globalization and Inequality represents an excellent counter, providing a sustained and theoretically informed critique of existing literature about aging.

The editors are foremost social theorists of aging from the U.S. and Europe, and have carefully crafted an edited volume with nine other significant thinkers. The chapters are united by a critical approach to aging, making a strong case for age as a social construction. They emphasize the importance of aging for understanding how processes of globalization impact key dimensions of division linked to gender, class, and ethnicity. Their analysis of global actors and institutions shows how the experience of aging is imbued with different collective and individual meanings, and drives inequalities in the lives of diverse groups of older people. Thus, the salience of a macro-structural perspective to understanding aging forms an underlying thread running through these essays.

The division of the book into three sections works well. The first outlines dimensions of critical gerontology, underpinned by an analysis of how power, ideology, and stratification are linked to global forces that impact on the lives of older people across diverse social contexts. It is timely for sociologists to consider the impact of globalization on older people, particularly the changing role of the nation-state, migration, and the rise of transnational organizations and agencies. Phillipson’s essay argues cogently that the locus of power with respect to welfare of older people has shifted from local and national arenas to global ones. A key concern of Walker and others is the need to adapt the hitherto dominant political economy perspective to take greater account of forces of globalization.

The second section addresses the socially constructed nature of later life, from both the standpoint of political economy and that of bio-medicalization, providing a powerful critique of contemporary dominant paradigms. Douthit’s essay on medicalization and de mentia examines the role of the late-modern dominance of biopsychiatry in defining psychological distress, which bolsters use of pharmacological and behavioral interventions. These biologizing trends in dementia care deny the social lives and humanity of older people with dementia, demonstrating the implications of the hegemony of the medical model. Her essay provides a far reaching critique of the continuing “quest for biological solutions” that neglect a consideration of social factors associated with aetiology, prevention, and treatment, as well as the growing corporatization of mental health.

A key thread is to critically examine the industrial and commercial interests in market economies that underpin the anti-aging movement. King and Calasanti focus on how the rise of consumer capitalism has increased the scope of the medical industry and led to an “anti-aging industry.” The individualistic approaches of the anti-aging industry increase inequality, and are profoundly linked to power relations associated with age, gender, class, and race, as well as leading to greater inequalities between the wealthy Global North and poverty in the South. Although we may subscribe to the goal of empowerment for older people, this should not be confused with the rhetoric of empowerment inherent within the anti-aging industry.

The final section examines how forces of globalization are increasing inequality among older populations both within and between countries. These essays are united by a concern to demonstrate how neoliberalism and privatization of public pensions and other forms of welfare are exacerbating existing in equalities. Polivka and Longino’s essay ad dresses how the “neoliberal cultures of aging thesis” portray most older people as now affluent. This and other chapters examine the cumulative advantage/disadvantage model, showing how a lifetime of poverty impacts on a range of social, psychological, and economic domains with profound physical and mental health consequences in middle and later life. Crystal’s chapter emphasizes the importance of interactions between economic resources and health, with these reciprocal relationships over the life course producing increased inequality in later life.

For a book on inequality, globalization, and aging, there is less attention to gender and ethnic inequalities than expected. Estes’s essay provides a welcome critical feminist perspective on women’s vulnerability and dependency through the life course, linking this to the rise of neoliberal, market-based policies, which have greater adverse impacts on social and health policies critical for the well-being of older women. One might have expected greater discussion of gender in oth er chapters, such as Vincent’s otherwise excellent chapter on demographic change and the growing power and importance of pension-fund capitalism. Similarly, Torres examines globalization and international migration, linking this to aging among migrant communities, but other chapters largely neglect ethnic inequalities.

Aging itself is often ghettoised within sociology, with little cross-fertilization of theoretical ideas to the broader mainstream of sociology. This outstanding edited collection provides a mechanism for demonstrating to the wider sociological community, the ways in which a critical gerontological approach has important implications for broader sociological debates on globalization and inequality.