Ageing positive? Not according to the British public

Publication type

Research Paper

Series Number



GeNet Working Papers


Publication date

September 1, 2005


In this paper we examine the British public’s perceptions of age at the beginning of the new Millennium. While ageing is a topic that commands considerable political and policy attention there is surprisingly little empirical research on perceptions of age across the life course. Using both quantitative and qualitative analysis of data from the British Household Panel Study, a representative sample of adults in Britain, we examine how age, gender, education, and income shape people’s perceptions of age and subjective wellbeing. We investigate the similarities and differences, within and across age-groups, in how people perceive the (dis)advantages of age. Not surprisingly, we find that health (including mentions of ageing bodies) is the most common domain cited in terms of disadvantages of the ageing process. In terms of advantages, the most frequent mentions concern freedom and experience. Freedom is cited particularly by younger and older respondents; whereas mentions of experience are rare among those age groups and peak among those in their forties. More generally, we find a disjuncture between the upbeat messages that positive ageing initiatives seek to propagate and way the public perceive the ageing process. We also find a more pronounced negative relationship between age and quality of life, than life satisfaction measures indicate. As expected, resources matter in terms of the benefits associated with stage of life. However, we find no support for widespread claims of a gender double standard of ageing. Our research contributes to the growing field of the sociology of age, which has been somewhat less theorised and well researched than the sociology of ageing, or gerontology. We contend that positive ageing is relevant across the life course, not just in later life.





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