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Critical Gerontology - Political Economy

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The political economists (Estes; Estes et al.; Guillemard; Minkler and Estes, 1991, 1999; Myles; Olson; Walker) argue that to understand the problems of elderly people, one should attend to the political and economic conditions surrounding them. This turns attention away from the problems of elders as largely lying, according to gerontological theorists, in "their private troubles" and toward the political economy of growing older. To apply C. Wright Mills's (1959) language further, attention is centered on (1) the public issue of age and (2) the relationship between public issues and private troubles.

For political economists, the sources of private troubles, such as social isolation and role loss in old age, are found in the relations between the state and a capitalist economy. (Marxists [e.g., Olson] give signal governance to the economy; Weberians [e.g., Myles] provide for relatively independent state influence in social relations.) This view stands in stark contrast to the notion that older people have problems for which they are virtually blamed—blaming the victim. The solution, for the latter, is for elderly persons to "do something about it" or, as actually happened, for an army of experts to help them with the task. However, the political economists maintain that "Older persons individually are powerless to alter their social status and condition" (Estes, p. 15), positing that the structure of society itself has created the problem of old age.

Consider, for example, the Older Americans Act of 1965 (OAA) as a state-supported means of perpetuating the private troubles of elderly persons (Estes; Estes et al.; Olson). While OAA had the ideal of establishing the independence and well-being of older people, its welfare-oriented articulation further transformed them into a state-dependent class, a welfare class. The program saw the solution to the problems of aging, in application, largely in local planning for the coordination of fragmented, recreation-like programs. For example, rather than make elderly persons economically solvent, the strategy was to keep them happy in the confines of places like senior centers. Rather than make them independent, individual managers of their affairs, their very sustenance became bound to a system of dependence, perhaps best symbolized by nutrition programs (hot meals and Meals on Wheels).

Such programs, Carroll Estes (p. 22) argues, "ignore the widespread poverty of the aged and provide no direct economic relief. Instead the aged become consumers of services that simply feed the expanding service economy." The army of experts, professionals, and service providers that has arisen to dole out benefits of various kinds to the elder population has expanded the service sector of the American economy. A tremendously complex welfare bureaucracy that both controls and presumably benefits elders also provides an ever-expanding job market for the young. The process results in a large discrepancy, on income grounds alone, when comparing the income of bureaucrats servicing the elders with the income of the elders they service. In effect, the political economy of aging serves those who serve the state more than it serves those who are troubled by its conditions.

The political economists shift the focus of attention from attempting to explain the existing conditions of old age in terms of individual adjustment to a class explanation for the helplessness of the position of older people (Olson). While the argument presented raises important questions concerning "individualistic" thinking in gerontological theory—asking, in effect, "Whose interests are served by thinking of age in particular ways?"—at the same time, it tends to overstate the extent to which elderly persons, as a whole, are impoverished and disenfranchised (see Harris and Associates). Indeed, some researchers have suggested that the majority of elderly people in American society constitute a "new old" who are healthier and live in relative economic well-being (Cain; Neugarten). Political economists, however, increasingly have attempted to include issues of gender, race, and ethnicity as part of their class analysis (Minkler and Estes, 1991, 1999). Another problem with the political economy perspective is that it is overly deterministic. Political economists tend to treat private troubles as direct distillations of public issues, as if individuals automatically realize in their personal experiences what is defined at large. This ignores problems of meaning and interpretation in the everyday lives of elderly people, something that is of primary concern for the social phenomenologists, to whom we now turn.

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