Relational Geographies of Age

This section considers current trends and directions being addressed by and impacting upon geographies of age. Relational approaches to age help render the operation of age explicit within all geographical analysis and support greater awareness of age and ageism throughout human geographical research. This has strong parallels with the way understandings of gender and race now inform a vast range of geographical studies. Furthermore, relational approaches to age can help address ageism within the discipline as well as within society more generally.

Geographers have begun to demonstrate how norms and expectations associated with age are played out spatially, demonstrating how homes, streets, neighborhoods, parks, and shopping centers acquire meanings of age and become sites at which ageism may be reproduced and challenged. Although geographers have contributed a large amount of research and analysis to ethnic or racebased segregation, however, there has been very little attention to age based segregation, a highly significant, yet largely overlooked geographical issue. This is particularly striking given the growing attention given to age segregation within disciplines such as sociology and anthropology. Furthermore, the burgeoning policy interest in age noted above suggests a valuable role for geographical analysis of the ways age plays out in society generally and shapes segregation more specifically.

There are clear signs that age segregation is increasingly manifest spatially as well as socially and economically. Older age, for example, has been described as 'another country' by several commentators. Equally, as children's geographers have shown, younger people are increasingly segregated based on age not only from middle years and older adults, but also from younger people of different ages. This segregation operates through a range of practices and norms, including those surrounding housing and retail provision, education, transport, employment, and leisure. There has been very little work within geography, or indeed any discipline, looking at the ways age segregation affects both the young and old. The tendency to focus on either end of the age spectrum is in part the result of increasingly narrow research disciplines and subdisciplines responding to a increasingly competitive neoliberal agenda privileging international research. However, it is also indicative of the inbuilt ageism within academic disciplines such as geography and the wider social propensity to segregate based on age.

Beyond studies which attempt to bridge the gap between young and old, however, relational approaches to age suggest a broader and more inclusive agenda in which adulthood itself is directly interrogated. To develop relational understandings of age and begin engaging with the root causes of ageism and segregation, it is necessary not only to look at the ways childhood, youth, and older age are produced and experienced, but also to explicitly look at the invisible middle years. In this way relational approaches to age can learn from feminist geographies which have begun to explore masculinities and engage with men as research subjects and similar moves to look at whiteness within geographies of race and ethnic relations in the Minority World.

Addressing segregation is important as research suggests age based prejudice increases as levels of segregation increase. This has already led to calls for greater age integration. It is important to note, however, that age is always highly intersectional, differentiated by other social axes, including gender, class, and race. An intersectional approach, which recognizes complex and overlapping identities, is central to relational geographies of age. While greater age mixing often creates opportunities for shared understandings and challenging the stereotypes upon which ageism is founded, many gaps remain in understanding how such processes operate. Indeed, evidence suggests that tokenistic and socially and culturally insensitive age mixing may actually increase prejudice.

A prerequisite in reversing ageism and age differentiation is better understanding of how they operate, are experienced, and reproduced. This involves looking critically and sensitively at the range of contexts and scales at play, from the individual to the region. For example, segregation operates on an individual level within an individual's own psyche as they internalize norms and practices which compartmentalize our life courses into different age based stages. These individual scale processes contribute, in the post welfare state Minority World at least, to the reproduction of a tripartite segregation of life course into periods of education, work, and leisure. As lifestyle and life course become more individualized, this segregation may weaken. The rise of neoliberalism, and other contemporary trends have led to flexible employment, lifelong learning and reskilling, the extension of the retirement age and questions over the feasibility of pension funds, for example. These processes undermine established age based patterns and norms such as the tripartite life course and open up new possibilities which could reduce or exacerbate segregation. The difficulty in predicting the implications of such changes highlights the importance of continued research and analysis.

Another example of such trends is the increase in market segmentation used to sell goods and services. This can contribute to age segregation through the creation of narrowly defined identities which often have rigid age based ordering, though this is not inevitably nor exclusively the case. Nevertheless, much work remains to be done by geographers, and others, employing relational understandings of age to explore such processes. Furthermore, a gap remains when it comes to practical policies capable of increasing age based mixing and reversing the trend toward age segregation and more holistic and relational approaches to age and segregation can help address this lacuna.

Sustainability, for example, is an imperative moving rapidly up the political and social agenda throughout the world as challenges posed by climate change, peak oil, and growing inequality become more apparent and urgent. The transition to a more sustainable society involves significant changes in terms of social, environmental, and economic organization. Therefore, these transformations will both benefit from and significantly contribute to greater age based awareness, equality, and integration. For example, sustainable settlement planning tends to involve mixed use developments integrating a full range of functions, including employment, housing, retail, education, recreation, energy generation, and other forms of production. This is a reversal of the zoning approach dominant within urban planning since 1945 and opens up considerable opportunities for greater age based integration to be placed at the heart of new approaches to settlement planning.

A more nuanced and relational approach to segregation is paramount when one looks at other future trends, including the aging of society. Despite exceptions, the tendency within geographical studies of age to date has been for geographies of age to emerge from Minority World institutions, research Minority World contexts, and address Minority World concerns. While such a critique has been leveled at geography as a whole and is by no means unique to geographies of age, it is important that geographies of age address it and relational approaches can again support this. Much can be learnt from looking at the ways age is experienced and produced across different contexts around the world. The phenomenon of society's aging, for example, is happening in both Minority and Majority World countries, and the implications of this phenomenon have both similarities and marked contrasts across these contexts. The trend toward increased age segregation in the Minority World has been driven in many respects by developmental pathways based on consumerism driven economic growth. As this pathway has been increasingly taken up in the Majority World since 1945, how is this shaping age relations in these diverse contexts? Relational geographies of age are well placed to help answer such questions and address the various gaps identified above. Perhaps key to this is a more integrated approach which relational approaches to age can help provide. This involves a refusal to simplify either identities or the process at work which lead to differentiation and segregation.