Working paper

Meanings of a long life: cultural, social and historical perspectives

30 Apr 2013

This paper is part of a series that attempts to re-position the perceptions and contributions of older people in contemporary Australian society. The world is undergoing a profound demographic shift, with almost every nation state experiencing population ageing on a scale that is unprecedented. This means that we have to search for new models by which to grow old and challenge stereotypes that there is only one acceptable way of doing so. The dominant view of adult ageing has recently changed from one based on dependency to one based on economic contribution. However if we are to successfully move to a new cultural environment— one that accepts age diversity and eschews age prejudice— we must consider a wide range of ways in which older adults can make a contribution. It would not be too much to say that we currently experience a poverty of meaning in our understanding of adult ageing; and it is this problem that the current series seeks to address. 

The first paper in this series (Fredvang & Biggs 2012) addressed the question of the rights of older persons; this second examines the diversity of roles that have been open to older adults throughout history, belief systems and cultures. Meanings of a long life is a starting point for a diversity bank of contributions and forms of engagement that older people can interrogate, adopt or reject. The point is that we need to loosen up our current understandings of old age and embrace adaptation to a new demographic environment. 

Meanings of a long life, then, sets the scene by examining the existing models and alternatives available to older adults and looking at the sweep of historical and cultural tradition. This will form the basis of an empirical study that will examine the reactions of older adults themselves and alte rnative understandings that might emerge.

This paper is part of the Social Policy Working Papers undertaken or presented at the Centre for Public Policy, University of Melbourne and the Brotherhood of St Laurence.

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