Sunday, 7 November 2010

What is The Third Age?

Listening to a broadcast of ‘Gardener’s Question Time’ on BBC radio earlier today, I was interested to hear the presenter say that the team had been the guests of the University of The Third Age. I’d heard of this organisation before and had supposed it to be some sort of educational establishment for retired people. But, if so, why is retirement considered to be “the third age”?

The Seven Ages Of Man (an engraving by H Bourne from a picture by William Mulready)- but which is the third age?
The obvious source of the idea that a person’s lifetime is divided into numbered ‘ages’ is Jaques’s ‘All The World’s A Stage’ speech from Shakespeare’s ‘As You Like It’. So which age dies he define to be the third? Let’s take a look....
"All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. [1] At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms;
And then [2] the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then [3] the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress' eyebrow"

So there we have it. the third age is the lover. So is the University of The Third Age aimed specifically at lovers? If so, sign me up!

Let’s see what they say on their site:
“U3A membership is not related to a specific age but to a period in one’s life (the third age) after the second age of full-time employment and parental responsibility. Anybody in their third age can join U3A and this includes people who are working part time. There is no lower age for membership.”

So, contrary to my expectations, they say that, first, the ‘age’ in the name of the university doesn’t say anything about the age of their students and, secondly, that the ‘third age’ is some time after retirement or bringing up children.

This seems a bit arbitrary. Also a bit vague. For a more precise definition I turned to an academic paper called ‘Third Age Guidance: research into guidance needs and methodologies’ by Dr Pamela Clayton of the University of Glasgow. She directly refers to the Jaques’s speech but rapidly dispenses with three of its ages, claiming that “we can conceptualise at least four ages of man” and goes on to do so:
  • First Age: to the end of formal education
  • Second Age: of potential membership of the labour force
  • Third Age: or the later stages of active life
  • Four Age: frailty and greater dependency

I suppose, then, this definition of ‘third age’ blends ages 5 and 6 (justice and pantaloon) of Shakespeare’s version. I have no idea who decided to use the term ‘third age’ to mean this. If anyone knows, please tell me. It strikes me as a bit of a cop-out, frankly - a wishy-washy way of saying not very much. In spite of the U3A’s insistence that there is no lower age for membership, the definition “after the age of full-time employment and parental responsibility” suggests, to my cynical mind, that what mean to say is “retired” or “old”. However, both those words might be regarded as carrying negative connotations whereas phrases such as Dr Clayton’s “later stages of active life” sound wholly positive. The Collins World English Dictionary takes up this positive theme in its definition of ‘third age’ as “old age, esp when viewed as an opportunity for travel, further education, etc.”

Personally, as I get older I do not intend to enter the ‘third age’. I plan, simply, to get old. That does not, of course, mean that I might not avail myself of educational opportunities and travel – I just plan to be an old student and traveller. As I’ve never been a soldier (Jaques’ fourth age) I am probably ready to pass straight on to the fifth age of the ‘justice’. The very existence of this blog demonstrates well enough that I am already full of “wise saws and modern instances” and I am perfectly prepared to aim for the “fair round belly with good capon lin'd”.

Here, then is the rest of Jaques’ speech:
Then a [4] soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon's mouth. And then [5] the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lin'd,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the [6] lean and slipper'd pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well sav'd, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
[7] Is second childishness and mere oblivion;
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything."

1 comment:

  1. completely off the wall perhaps, but I've heard it said that there's three stages in a man's life: tri-weekly, try-weekly and try weakly.