Unmasking Age: The Significance Of Age For Social Research [Bill Bytheway]
Let me start by saying in this Review that I’d urge absolutely everyone who has a professional concern for ageing to read this book. It offers fresh perspectives on and a very significant contribution to our understanding of difficult matters. Not only researchers (whether social or, e.g., medical) but also policy makers, practitioners, clinicians, journalists and many others will find their insights into this complex issue enriched by what Bill Bytheway, a social gerontologist and policy commentator of many years’ standing, has to tell us.
That said, the sheer richness of the seams Bytheway explores does not always make it easy for us to see where we’re being taken. To get my caveats over before we go to the plaudits, I am bemused by the ‘Questions’ at the end of each chapter – a practice often used in distance learning (Bytheway is a visiting Open University Research Fellow); for me these Questions somehow detract from the directness of the preceding text. I would rather each chapter had concluded, as some begin to do, with a few formal notes about what we have learnt, perhaps even with standard headings such as factors considered, implications and future directions for research on ageing, implications for policy about and provision for older people, and understanding the lived experience of ageing?
For it is the emphasis on real people’s ever-evolving, lived experience of ageing which marks this book out as in some ways quite remarkable. It is not always that an author tries to get into the skin of his or her subject by relating quite openly that writer’s own professional journey of discovery, whilst also using the outcomes of their research to make this a story about real people in all their fascinating detail and diversity.
Diversity, not homogeneity
And, perhaps to be picky, it’s on the subject of diversity that my other reservation hinges. Bytheway of course, as a professional statistician, points up very persuasively the evidence that older people, like those of great age, are not a homogenous group. They may (or may not) find with the advancing years that their networks are more constrained than before, but whilst the reality of ageing is universal, we all come from different places socially speaking. I’m therefore a little surprised that there is not more focus on the difficult question of what a person’s ‘community’ might be, not only (as is discussed) in socio-economic and urban-rural terms, but also in cultural respects.
The material in this book is taken from real research in parts of the UK, but for the future there will I’d think need to be more acknowledgement of the nuanced differences between, for instance, the extended family of a white British-through-the-ages working class family, and that, to give just one of very many possibilities, a UK family of Pakistani or Indian heritage.
Mutuality across age
Perhaps this is for Bytheway’s next book. The reality of exclusion, minority ethnicity and cultural influence in communities matters not only for elders now, but also for generations to come – as I discovered when examining Infant Mortality Rates, which in some small patches of our towns and cities are many times that of the birth-to-age-one population at large. Acknowledging the specific needs of ethnic minority seniors, and seeking ways more actively to include older people in these communities in our public life, could go a long way both to enhancing their lived experience and also, though these elders’ influence within their families, to reducing the tragedy of babies so needlessly lost.
None of these caveats however excuse anyone from reading and seeking to learn from what Bill Bytheway offers us. He starts half a century ago, in the tradition of Peter Townsend’s The Family Life of Old People (1957/63), and he leads us, totally engaged, towards the expectations of the Millennial decades to come.
Developing the research and policy agenda
We learn in Unmasking age about how research into ageing has developed and changed; we are introduced to a wide range of perspectives; we are persuaded that ‘old age research’ based simply on demography or morbidity and clinical needs can never be the whole story, as neither can be a simple focus on social care requirements; and, true to the title of this book, we end up realising that old age has a great deal more significance for research than we may have thought when we began to read.
But most of all Bytheway delivers, accessibly and cogently, a very important message which none of us can afford to ignore. We are asked to think what identity in later life actually is. The question of how we grow older and what happens to us all as we face the process of ageing is going to be something none of us, as practitioners, personally or politically, will be able to ignore.
Unmasking age: The significance of age for social research, Bill Bytheway (Policy Press, 2011) £24.99 / £65
A version of this review was first published in New Start, July/August 2011.