Ageing and Society

25th volume celebration paper

(Peter Townsend's paper, ‘The structured dependency of the elderly: creation of social policy in the twentieth century’, was published in Volume I of Ageing & Society (1981, part 1: 5–28). The following paper was presented at the annual meeting of the British Society of Gerontology at the University of Keele in July 2005. The BSG's invitation was both to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the journal, and to recognise Peter Townsend's strikingly original and substantial career contributions to social gerontology.)

Policies for the aged in the 21st century: more ‘structured dependency’ or the realisation of human rights?

a1 Department of Social Policy, London School of Economics, and Townsend Centre for International Poverty Research, University of Bristol, UK.

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By the late 20th century, the plight of millions of older people in many developed countries was regarded as serious and was acknowledged to require concerted cross-national remedial action. Sociologists and social gerontologists only then were beginning to put together explanations rooted in the evolution of social policy and its corresponding institutions. One thesis that attracted support was that the dependency of the aged had been ‘structured’ by long-term economic and social policies. During the final decades of the 20th century, older people were perceived and treated, according to accumulating research evidence, as more dependent than they really were or needed to be. This had been fostered by the emerging institutions of retirement, income maintenance, and residential and domiciliary care. This development had been the responsibility primarily of the State, which tried to deliver welfare but also to accommodate the market. Forms of discrimination against older people had become, or continued to be, as deep as forms of discrimination against women and ethnic minorities. Such ‘institutionalised ageism’ had to be countered. Hopes were invested in anti-discriminatory policies that reflected good reciprocal relationships between the generations in many families and the rights of individuals of any age to human dignity and opportunities to practise their skills. The globalisation of the market and affiliation to neo-liberal policies, together with the simultaneous passage of various instruments of human rights, have changed the nature of the problem, and therefore the debate, during the early 21st century. This paper argues that the release and implementation during and after the Second World War of collective liberal egalitarian values, expressed in many countries in international statements on human rights, as will be shown, had a big impact on the design of public services, including those for older people. If the claims for the elderly in the welfare states of 50 years ago were exaggerated, as we can now safely conclude, the claims for older people today are even more exaggerated – at a time of heightened emphasis on individual rights and individual market powers. The various problems of ‘structured’ dependency persist, and seem set to grow in many parts of the world. Human rights offer a framework of rigorous analysis and anti-discriminatory work. Success depends on good operational measurement, and the incorporation of international and national institutions and policies that reflect those rights.

(Published Online February 27 2006)
(Accepted September 5 2005)

Key Words: poverty; deprivation; discrimination; human rights; dependency; ageism.

c1 Department of Social Policy, London School of Economics, Houghton Street, London WC2A 2AE. e-mail: