Dr. Kathrin Komp is a Springer Publishing author whose title, Gerontology in the Era of the Third Age: Implications and Next Steps, addresses traditional frameworks regarding aging issues and the life course as well as the unique challenges and opportunities that older adults face while moving through this early phase of later life. Dr. Komp takes a moment to discuss the recent economic crisis and how this has greatly impacted both the living conditions of the aging population and our current definition of old age.

The current economic crisis has affected us all. Some lost jobs or had to accept wage cuts, some moved in with their parents to save on rent, and others postponed holiday plans because they could not afford them. The effects are not the same for everybody. Instead, people are affected by the economic crisis differently, depending on a variety of factors such as location, occupation, and age.

While young people struggle especially with unemployment, older people are particularly at risk of losing their pension income. Older workers might be laid off or have their working hours reduced, which in some countries reduces the amount of public pensions they qualify for. Moreover, it might limit their opportunities to put money aside as a form of private pension saving. Additionally, as companies go bankrupt, people might lose their benefits from occupational pension plans. Taken together, these developments drain the financial resources of older people, which increases old age poverty. As a result, older people will have to work until a later age, possibly even after they have already retired. While such a step was already common in the United States some years ago, it still is comparatively rare in Europe.

As a side-effect of increasing workforce participation in old age, the meaning of old age might change. Scholars argue that old age currently consists of two phases. First, people spend some years after retirement in good health. This phase is commonly referred to as “the third age”. In our book, Gerontology in the Era of the Third Age: Implications and Next Steps, the third age is characterized as a time of activity, opportunities, and social participation. Some scholars even go so far as to label it the crown of life, because people have the opportunity to engage in activities of their choice. Once health deteriorates, people transition from the third age into the fourth age. In this context, the fourth age stands for the last years of life that are characterized by physical decline. Because of increasing poverty and workforce participation in old age, however, the meaning of the third age might change. Older people might no longer have the opportunity to choose their activities, because they will have to provide for their own financial well-being. In that sense, the third age might start to resemble middle-age more and more. Whether such a development would herald the end of the third age or simply redefine what it means to be old remains a philosophical question.

How has the economic crisis affected you or an elder member of your family? What could be the future implications of a new definition of old age? Share your experiences and thoughts below.