Ageing and Society

Later life, inequality and sociological theory

a1 Department of Sociology and Social Policy, University of Leeds


A central concern of many theorists of later life has been to elucidate the processes which shape the marginalisation and relative disadvantage of older people in contemporary society. This concern parallels a current argument within sociological theorising: that life course stage and generational location constitute increasingly important dimensions of social difference and inequality. It is an argument of the paper that many current approaches operate with metaphors of society which ultimately locate those in later life at the margins by virtue of the theoretical terms being used. Too much has been claimed for life course-based divisions and too little has been claimed in respect of life course-related processes. The paper develops an alternative, moral economy, perspective with the aim of furthering analysis of the social organisation of life course-related rights, claims and obligations and their relationship to lifetime inequalities across the population. Such an approach offers a resourceful framework both for interrogating the diverse circumstances and experiences of those in later life, and for conceptualising social inequality and its reproduction.

(Accepted July 14 1999)

Key Words: later life; life course; generation; inequality; moral economy; social claims; work; welfare.

c1 Address for correspondence: Sarah Irwin, Department of Sociology and Social Policy, University of Leeds, Leeds LS2 9JT; e-mail: