Social imagination and a life course approach to ageing

Written by Hannah

You are going to die.

Perhaps it’s the truth of our mortality that underpins our fear of ageing and the progressive movement towards that moment. Or, perhaps we fear ageing because we are fearful of the disruption that any change brings to our emotional, mental and physical world and our ageing connects us to that fear.


Our current public conversation about ageing equates the words ageing or age with being older or old. So we see ageing (even unconsciously) as old, and old carries stereotypes of vulnerability and ‘nice old granny who we cherish’. There is reimagining to be done to re-claim ageing for what it is: a dynamic and shifting identity which is with us throughout our lives. At a systemic level we need to support positive ageing from birth, and to build back our understanding of human ageing in connection to the the ageing of all the other lifeforms around us. The more than human world offers us rich metaphors and imaginal templates to disrupt the linear story of negative decline. At a group and individual level we need moments to disrupt our ageist attitudes towards others, un-learn the ageist stereotypes embedded in how we judge people on their age.

The dominant narrative of ageing in our capitalist culture is that it is good to be young but as you get older you tip into a state of negative decline into your decrepitude. The evidence is everywhere; compliments for looking young, backhanded apologies or laments about our age when we reach 40 and beyond, the flourishing market for anti-ageing products. The association of youth with other good ‘new’ things such as beauty, intelligence, strength, innovation, playfulness, creativity and spark confirm this. Research into the negative narrative of ageing is legion

WHO ageism campaign and report

The association of newness and imagination with youth is clear in many parts of the market, eg. fashion, technology, design, culture, but is also seen in civil society, with a growing emphasis on young people as amongst the most important imaginers of the future. Older people’s imaginings are sought only when the questions explored concern what are believed to be ‘older people’s issues’.

But let’s stop a moment, it will be no surprise to you that ageism affects older people. This isn’t about that one story of ageing. Because within the overarching negative one of decline sit several others which disadvantage young people, children, middle-age people and any other category you want to mention. And these age-related stories intersect with all the other identities we hold.

Reimagining ageing isn’t about being nicer to old people, it’s about living fully for all (alive) people.


I believe we have no idea how feeling out of right-relationship with our age identity shapes our lives and how our lives are constructed by our societal expectations around age (just as with every other identity). We absolutely know that people of all ages experience ageism and we absolutely know that key life transitions including ‘big birthdays’ can cause us great anxiety about who we are.

If we were able to reimagine ageing as a continuous journey of learning and growing, how would life be different?

It could be a life in which we are taught how to navigate the changes in our age identity well, embracing the opportunities and competencies each age offers without being restricted to them. 

It could be a life in which children are given space to lead and influence, in which people of all ages are supported to play and innovate.

It could be a life in which at the crisis moments of our identity (becoming a parent, experiencing bereavement, retirement, getting married etc) we had the tools to navigate these transition well in relation to the phase in our life it is happening in. 

If we were able to understand how our 5-year-old-ness or our 23-year-old-ness, or 44-year-oldness, our 61-year-oldness or 89-year-oldness is both shaped, and free, from our experience of ourselves and our story, how much more peace and self confidence would we have? 

Society has unspoken goals for a successful life, linked to age or life-stage. What effect does a perceived failure to meet those goals have on our self confidence and mental health?

As a dyslexic child I didn’t learn to read and write until I was 11 (I still have a reading and spelling age of about 12, which is above the average UK reading age of 9). During my early education I was deeply anxious about the learning goals I was failing to hit, one way of understanding this anxiety is to focus on the learning disability as the cause, but the sense of being out of step with my peers, with my educational age expectations was just as significant. Lucky for me, my brilliant mum and dad never told me about my disappointing school reports, and I was encouraged to continue being curious and ambitious despite the challenges. But I was very lucky and also very anxious. If we were able live in a system which supported life journeys and choices which don’t follow the expected age trajectory, things would be a whole lot more possible for people of all ages.

Since 2013 I have been working with my colleague Dave Martin on projects which disrupt the ‘negative story of ageing’, and encourage life-course practice and policy approaches.


Age-segmentation groups is widespread in government policy, civil society and the marketplace so reimagining ageing as a lifecourse phenomena and identity is not got a quick fix. This will be take everall lifetimes of work. So we better get started.


Life Transitions are the events in our lives which change our identity; going to big school, leaving university, career changes, house moves, becoming parents, getting married, bereavements, divorce, winning the lottery, a chance in our health etc etc. they may be ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ voluntary or involuntary, sudden or slow. Even the good ones have a significant effect on our emotional resilience. 

We have developed an experiential pre-retirement transition course to support people develop emotional resilience and courage for their post-retirement selves.


During 2020 we convened groups of artists curious about how we might stretch our understanding of age and identity and reveal how shapes our lives and the stories of our lives we tell to the world. Artists created pieces of work which speak to these identities through word, music and visualisation.


Birthdays offer a universal moment to reflect on our age identity and our life course. The very fact that we feel less excited about birthdays as we age reveals a lot. And this anxiety is reflected in the ageist birthday cards we see, some of which are deeply offensive. With our professional doodle colleague Jen Danger of Danger Doodles, we have designed birthday cards which refer to ageing but do so truthfully and appreciatively. We have now joined forces with Changing the Narrative, in Colorado to lead on an anti-ageism campaign centred around birthday cards .


In 2021 we will be creating a microsite connected to this page which offers tools practices and provocations for reimagining your own ageing and reimagining ageing together.