The crisis of Neoliberal project of aging during the COVID-19 pandemic: from compulsory activity to mandatory isolation

Elena Bogdanova (Department of Sociology, European University at Saint Petersburg, Saint Petersburg, Russian Federation; Centre for Independent Social Research, Saint Petersburg, Russian Federation and Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration, Saint-Petersburg, Russian Federation)
Irina Grigoryeva (Department of Sociology, Saint Petersburg State University, Saint Petersburg, Russian Federation and Institute of Sociology of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Saint Petersburg, Russian Federation)

The Journal of Adult Protection

ISSN: 1466-8203

Article publication date: 14 December 2020

Issue publication date: 24 May 2021




This paper aims to consider how the situation of the COVID-19 pandemic questions the neoliberal project of ageing, based on a notion of a healthy, active, working older person. A long-term struggle to include older people has been (temporarily) replaced with a struggle to exclude them. This seems to be one of the most sensitive sore spots of the coronavirus crisis and one of the most serious challenges to social policy and welfare systems the world over. The purpose of this paper is to consider where the concepts of ageing and the action on ageing were at right before the crisis and what their further development may look like.


This paper provides a critical overview of main conceptions based on the neoliberal project of ageing.


The main principle of the neoliberal project of ageing, which had been formed on the crossroad of social theory and policy through decades, became vulnerable in the face of COVID-19 pandemic. The new forced ageing reveals its repressive nature through ensuring seniors’ safety from exposure, their removal from work and isolation. The theory now faces new challenges of meshing a neoliberal actor – active, independent and productive – with an older person in isolation, who needs safeguarding, of re-conceptualizing social exclusion of seniors in a situation where exclusion is equated with safety, of resolving a dilemma between isolation and respect of human rights and of keeping progress in anti-ageism.

Research limitations/implications

This paper presents an overview of the main conceptions, underlying the neoliberal project of ageing. It aims to designate the vulnerabilities of the project, which were revealed under the situation of pandemic. Further development of the discussion needs detailed analysis of theoretical conceptions of ageing.

Practical implications

Theoretical debate reflects policy of ageing. Discussion of theoretical problems of ageism, social exclusion, safeguarding of the elderly and compulsion are necessary for improvement of social policy of ageing.

Social implications

When the neoliberal project of ageing comes into collision with the reality with the reality, the authors recognize it as a crisis. It moves the society, and especially the elderly, to the situation of uncertainty. This paper calls for discussion and search for a new balance among the generations in a society.


This paper relies upon the current debate on neoliberal project of ageing and responds immediately to the situation of pandemic. Now conceptual problems in theories of ageing and policy projects became visible, and the authors suppose it is time to initiate this discussion.



Bogdanova, E. and Grigoryeva, I. (2021), "The crisis of Neoliberal project of aging during the COVID-19 pandemic: from compulsory activity to mandatory isolation", The Journal of Adult Protection, Vol. 23 No. 2, pp. 76-85.



Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2020, Emerald Publishing Limited


Coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) infection is most dangerous for older people (Carrieri et al., 2020; Older people & COVID-19, 2020). Research from different parts of the world shows that the age-dependent clinical fraction increases to 69% (57%–82%) in adults over 70 years of age (Davies et al., 2020, p. 1205). The increased number of cases and greater risk of severe disease with increasing age is not unique to COVID-19. The current coronavirus pandemic has this feature in common with the 2003 SARS epidemics (Anderson et al., 2004). The principal and universal recommendation in all parts of the world is to keep seniors as far away as possible from interpersonal contacts (Goger, 2020). This is intended to minimize their exposure and protect their health. However, some scholars view isolation as a form of house arrest and an infringement on older persons’ rights (Anisimov, 2020; Golubev and Sidorenko, 2020) and suggest that the danger for older people is overrated and isolation can occasionally do more harm than warranted by the risk of possible contagion. This view of the risks of isolation is in good agreement with recommendations from international organizations on ageing on non-discrimination against older people (Seven principles, 2020).

The pandemic affects what is considered best practice in geriatric care, and institutional care in particular. Until recently, the development of nursing homes for the elderly was seen as an acceptable solution. However, nursing homes have proven to be the least safe during the pandemic and have driven home the reality that not every kind of isolation protects older people (Comas-Herrera et al., 2020). According to research carried out in France, Belgium, Canada, Ireland and Norway, nursing home mortality because of COVID-19 reached 50%–60% in relation to total numbers of cases (ibid.).

There are other consequences as well. The recommendation for seniors to be isolated undermines the consensus that has until now informed the rules and regulations regarding older people’s position in society. The concept of active ageing, which to a large extent determines contemporary public understanding, emerged at the intersection of academic debates on ageing and the formation of neoliberal economic and social policy for older adults. In each of these spheres, an effort was made to modify the understanding and perception of senior citizens in society. The Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing (United Nations, 2002b; United Nations, 2002a; World Health Organization, 2002) asserted the value of active ageing and continuing participation in the labour market even after reaching the age of retirement. It questioned the biologized and medicalized understanding of ageing as a process of inevitable decrepitude leading to a loss of ability to work. It also called attention to the need to prevent senior citizens’ social exclusion following retirement, when most social connections are disrupted. And finally, based on seniors’ long experience as qualified workers, it suggested viewing them as a valuable resource rather than as a burden on society.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated every kind of discrimination. It has placed a spotlight on the deleterious effects of deep-seated ageism, sexism and racism (Morrow-Howell et al., 2020, p. 527; Aronson, 2020). The neoliberal project of ageing based on the notion of a healthy, active, working older person and questioning, whether vulnerability cannot help but grow with age, found itself under threat. A long-term struggle to include older people has been (temporarily) replaced with a struggle to exclude them. This seems to be one of the most sensitive sore spots of the coronavirus crisis and one of the most serious challenges to social policy, human rights and welfare systems over the world. In this essay, we consider where the consensus and action on ageing was before the crisis and what their further development may look like.

Society of retirees: point of no return?

The human life course has not always been divided into childhood, adulthood and old age, and these concepts took centuries to take shape. The history of childhood as it emerged in the 17th and 18th centuries is described by the British scholar Michael Wyness (Wyness, 2011; Wyness, 2015). Adulthood took shape in industrial society just as time was divided into working hours and leisure time (not quite the same as work days and holidays in the Middle Ages) and work moved from homes and domestic workshops to towns and factories. Gradually, a shift also occurred from amorphous, private and undisciplined ageing to rigid, externally regulated institutional frameworks around pensioning, employment records and age (Grigoryeva et al., 2019).

Initial attempts to single seniors out as a group were a consequence of the development of state systems of pension insurance, the earliest of which was by Otto von Bismarck in 1885 in Germany. The age of 65 was set as the age of retirement (necessitated by the loss of fitness to work because of age), with lower age variations in some Catholic states. Von Bismarck’s old age security was calculated so that after having retired at 65 after 35 years in the labour force, one could count on receiving about 40% of lost wages as a pension for about 13 more years. At the time, this innovation broke the traditional association between old age and poverty and made for an historic event. Contributions towards future retirement were rigorously accounted for, and people realized that the pension consisted of both employers’ and employees’ contributions according to the rules defined by the state. Thus, it was actually a deferred portion of their own salary, rather than “a gift from the state” that employees received as old age security (Esping-Andersen, 1990).

Eventually the age of retirement hypostatized and came to symbolize the end of the period of “labour” in life and a transition to the time of “resting”, as the post-retirement period was politely dubbed. As labour was mostly forced, happiness and wealth were understood as freedom from being compelled to work.

In western Europe, during the “golden age” of the social welfare state from the 1970s to mid-1980s, many types of early pensions came to exist, and Catholic countries set the age of transition from adulthood to old age at 60 years old (Larsen, 2008; Scruggs and Allan, 2006). Thus, the age of retirement went down, but the population grew older because of an increase in the “number of citizens with low economic activity (aged 60 and over)” (Kuzin, 2018, p. 139). Such relaxations of the rules did not last long, and in the late 1990s, concerns were raised regarding pension systems’ financial sustainability (Kotlikoff and Berns, 2005), only to give way to a later certainty about the “crisis of ageing”. According to the Hartz concept in Germany, many of those who had not yet reached the age of retirement were brought back to the labour market, even if all they got were menial jobs (Shershneva, 2014). One after another, countries began to raise the retirement age.

At the level of policymaking, the problem of older people was reduced to the role they ought to play in the sphere of productive labour. The first international document on the rights of older people – the Vienna International Plan of Action on Ageing (United Nations, 1982) – stipulated each older person’s right to a pension and rest after a certain number of years in the labour force. Ageing was understood as freedom from work and an opportunity for self-actualization unrelated to employment, a liberation from habitual roles and other “structural dependencies” but also as a time of growing loneliness and the breaking of previous social connections (Zelikova, 2014, pp. 119–136). At the same time, the UN Declaration of Human Rights legitimized the idea of the universality of rights without such exceptions based on old age (United Nations, 1948).

The last decades of the 20th century were marked by a boom in research into older people and ageing. On the whole, ageing was primarily the domain of demographers. It was demographers who were responsible for the notion of “the risks of ageing”, even though at the 1994 Cairo International Conference on Population and Development, everyone’s attention was focussed primarily on rapid population growth in impoverished countries and the “birth-rate bubble” (Programma deistvii, 2014). It was also demographers who turned knowledge into power by taking an alarmist position regarding the growing number of older people, as if the contemporary demographic structure represented a drastic deviation from historical norms (Katz, 1992; Foucault, 1998).

At the same time, sociology theories of social inequality underwent conceptual modifications such that the division between the rich and poor gave way to a notion of “social exclusion” (Lenoir, 1974). In Peter Abrahamson’s opinion, “the previous stratification into classes that divided people vertically [was] gradually replaced with a horizontal differentiation between insiders and outsiders” (Abrahamson, 2001, p. 158). Alain Touraine placed an even greater emphasis on the transition from a “vertical” society to a “horizontal” one, wherein “it is important to know not whether one is up or down, but if they are in the centre or on the periphery” (Touraine, 1991).

The main consequence of the rise of the concept of exclusion was the shift of emphasis away from inequality in the distribution of benefits and the fairest mode of distribution to equality in civic and social rights (Abrahamson, 2001, p. 161). These rights could be infringed upon by limiting access to institutions of social integration and vertical mobility – particularly education. It was evident that processes of inclusion were largely related to the distribution of social capital within different groups and to individuals’ ability to “borrow” from those belonging to wealthier groups, even though in daily life we are more likely to observe individuals from similar social groups interacting with each other and exchanging benefits. These exchanges of social capital were thought to be exactly what older persons lose out on when their social ties are reduced after retirement (Walsh et al., 2017).

According to social exclusion theory, the processes of exclusion in present-day society increasingly look similar to a change of lifestyle; by being excluded from one relationship or activity, an individual is included in another, not necessarily stigmatizing or negatively affecting their previous social status. For seniors, this often means a transition from independent living to one more dependent on external help. A number of authors concur that this change is due not only to lower income but also to convenience and even the pleasure of feeling oneself as a victim, uncared for by the state. To satisfy these groups’ needs and demands, new social services have emerged to validate the existing self-identification of population segments that require help (Dmitrieva, 2012, p. 105).

Thus, in recent years, society’s consensus about retirees has begun to lose its conceptual raison d’être. The age of retirement was initially set to mark the beginning of old age and, at the same time, the taking of leave from productive labour. Unsurprisingly, this led to labelling seniors as a burden on society. Placing older adults within the rigid limits of their age group curtails their ability to influence the degree of their own social exclusion. Given an increasing number of older people in the populace, preservation of the established age-based structure of society presents an irreconcilable problem. In this situation, the state has to exert increasingly greater efforts to fight older people’s poverty and social exclusion, invest in public assistance, protect seniors’ social rights and try to compensate for growing limitations on their physical abilities. This results in still greater isolation of older adults within their age group and an enduring perception of older people as burdensome dependents. Moreover, social services for pensioners provided by the state are costly. Singling out an age-based group of persons requiring support from the state arguably reinforces ageism. For all these reasons, a new consensus between society and elderly people was overdue – one that developed into a neoliberal project of ageing that does not remove older people from productive labour but instead pushes them towards employment and “cancels old age.”

Neoliberal project of ageing tested by COVID-19

The theoretical foundations of the new consensus between society and older people lie within concepts derived from social constructivism such as age stratification (Riley et al., 1972), life course (Elder, 1974) and later, towards the end of the 1980s, John Rowe’s and Robert Kahn’s concept of successful ageing (Rowe and Kahn, 1987). The main result of constructivist theorizing was that ageing was seen not just as a biological process but also as a socially and culturally determined experience of transition from one life stage to another, inscribed into social, collective and personal dynamics (Shadryna, 2020, p. 46). The number of human life stages has been continuously reconsidered; nowadays, five stages are suggested, which makes us constantly revise chronology of life.

The theory at the core of the neoliberal concept of ageing questioned the biological determinism of ageing and disrupted the idea of a linear progression from age to feebleness. It is worth noting that along with social constructivist concepts of ageing, there developed also critical gerontology (Phillipson and Walker, 1987; Baars, 1991), and subsequently the critique of critical gerontology, both of which hinged on the premise that ageing is determined by biological processes and cultural and historical and institutional conditions. Nevertheless, for the ideological neoliberal project of ageing, social constructivist concepts proved more suitable.

Three basic features of constructivist concepts helped the neoliberal project of ageing along. Firstly, given the growing pace of population ageing, this approach offered a solution to economic problems. Systems of social welfare are unable to handle the increasing number of people whose age entitles them to social welfare and social services (Karl and Torres, 2015). Bringing older adults back into the sphere of productive labour and restoring their consumer power solves the state’s economic problems. The Madrid Plan, among others, is grounded in making provisions for society’s economic security.

The second major feature is the project of creating a human subject whose every ability and need are integrated into the neoliberal system. As a starting point of this project, Margaret Thatcher’s words describing her own 1981 policies are often quoted: “Economics are the method: the object is to change the soul” (McGuigan, 2014, p. 224). The ideal neoliberal person would be a typical representative of a capitalist society: a successful entrepreneur, an independent consumer and a hard-working taxpayer (ibid., p. 225). Stedman Jones(2012) defines transatlantic liberalism as “the free market ideology based on individual liberty and limited government that connected human freedom to the actions of the rational, self-interested actor in the competitive marketplace” (Stedman Jones, 2012, p. 2). Whereas liberal capitalism cultivated the spirit of entrepreneurship and work ethic (Weber,1905/2002), neoliberal capitalism acquired power by cultivating the spirit of hedonism, which, however, was no longer understood as dysfunctional (Boltanski and Chiapello,1999/2005). This kind of hedonism has to do with a “cool capitalist” cultural formation focussing on consumption and at creating conditions most conducive to consumption.

The third feature of the constructivist position is a new consensus with the state that implies that the latter bears a certain measure of responsibility for its citizens. In exchange for asking senior citizens to remain active, the state provides a medical and social infrastructure to help keep older adults able-bodied. However, in contrast to proponents of a welfare state who insisted on the principle of universal, generally accessible health care, the neoliberal system steers towards a free choice of services according to consumers’ personal resources and preferences.

Taken together, these theoretical concepts produce the notion that citizens are responsible for their own welfare, including in their senior years. Gilleard and Higgs (2000) suggest that citizens’ growing wealth and increasing disappointment in quality of care, provided by the state, are eventually going to break the connection between citizens and the state and minimize strife to keep older adults happy that is typical of welfare states.

The concept of active ageing catering to a neoliberal project of ageing was a product of its time and sociocultural context. On the one hand, this idea was theoretically substantiated, capable of resolving complex problems of ageing and able to introduce serious shifts in key institutions of economic and social policy. On the other hand, it was too superficial and excessively prescriptive in that it refused to acknowledge apparent differences among people of the same age.

Theoretical concepts supporting the neoliberal project of ageing offered a new consensus between society and older adults by rejecting a strictly age-based societal structuring. An older neoliberal person is still a neoliberal subject with the energy, desires and imagination that allow them to work and consume alongside their younger counterparts. The concept of successful ageing tells older people to preserve their health and social characteristics. The concept of the life course declares age group limits and limitations to be flexible and penetrable and makes it possible for older adults to finish playing the roles unplayed and live the life unfinished. Teaching society to do away with old age is the keynote of social constructivist perspectives on ageing. Restrictions leading to ageism were supposed to vanish along with age-based societal structuring, and a “society for people of all ages” was meant to turn into a “society without ages”.

The neoliberal approach requires efficiency and productivity, and thus active ageing becomes “productive” ageing. This means, first of all, the necessity to work efficiently and in compliance with requirements of stringent management. A very frequent argument against extending older adults’ work lives is that as their productivity is lower, so is their ability to use the latest information technologies and devices (Maleva et al., 2016; Pyshmentseva, 2018; Timirchinskaia, 2019). Secondly, there is also the need for an employee to be accountable, to submit to time management requirements. A number of scholars note that contemporary disciplinary (or civilizing) institutions are primarily meant to regulate time (Rosa, 2013; Bogdanova, 2016). Whatever setbacks take place in the “normal” course of life, re-socialization is possible (for at-risk youth, homeless, ex-convicts, etc.), that is, one can “turn back time” and start over if necessary. This is not really true for older adults.

In essence, the concept of active ageing was an attempt to cancel the distinction between regular people and retirees, who have reached an age limit set by the state. Nevertheless, the COVID-19 pandemic re-established age distinctions right away. Medical practice guidelines are known to have initially been age-sensitive. Treatment regimens were developed for seniors first (Morrow-Howell et al., 2020, p. 529), and the ethical question of whether to treat or not treat an older person was openly debated, as well as whether, all else being equal, a young person should be given priority for the last available ventilator over an older person.

According to public documents prepared by the United Nations, “cases have been reported in which older persons have not had an opportunity to give consent to medical treatment or have been put under undue pressure to refuse medical treatment in advance, such as being asked to sign do-not-resuscitate orders before receiving treatment” (Policy Brief, 2020, p. 5). Moreover, the pandemic brought to light the great problem of elderly people’s access to essential health services, a problem that is widespread in developing countries and elsewhere.

Isolation itself does not go well with human rights. Measures to restrict movement may trigger greater incidence of domestic and caregiver violence and all types of abuse – physical, emotional, financial and sexual – as well as neglect. This is even more problematic for senior citizens because they experienced the most severe restrictions in comparison with other age groups. In many countries people over 65 were forbidden to go outside for several months. Those who violated these rules could be fined. This is despite the fact that states could not always ensure their safety and well-being in quarantine.

The current situation has laid bare the barriers to actualizing the key link of the entire neoliberal project of ageing, from employment – to social inclusion, which constituted the foundation for fighting poverty and social inequality as well as resisting ageism. The pandemic revealed the specific issues facing older employees and the impossibility of treating them identically to younger workers. Older people are vulnerable in the face of the pandemic and find themselves isolated. Most cannot work outside the home or even volunteer these days. This has proven damaging to their employers and to those whose job is to care for seniors (Armstrong et al., 2020). For older adults, both vertical and horizontal systems of inequality have become relevant again. Many of those aged 65 and over will likely be unable to return to work after the pandemic even if they want to. Their psyche and “motivation not to age” will have sustained a blow leading to not only depression but also a rise in suicides (Kolosova, 2020).

Well-intentioned public health responses to the pandemic have immediately turned seniors into the other (2020 UNIDOP, 2020). What is surprising is not that age divisions and stigma reappeared but how quickly and easily that happened. Divisions that everyone had agreed to ignore when convenient immediately returned when conditions allowed.

Today we see not only the weaknesses of the “active ageing” paradigm but also the end of a society of efficient labour with its mandatory competition, the measuring of efficiency, etc. Quite clearly, the social welfare state as a manifestation of a “society of labour” did not bring wealth and happiness to everyone even in highly developed countries. Labour intensivity keeps growing, whereas wages are stagnant. Many social processes have failed to follow the route they were supposed to follow, and all the pandemic did was cast a spotlight on this fact. But a dominant reaction in the face of one’s lack of control is an attempt to increase control. This weakens our ability to confront reality and make peace with situations, which are part of human life and are beyond our control.


The COVID-19 pandemic has created a situation that brings multiple risks for the entire world. For all governments, the epidemic has been a test of the ability to react ad hoc, often without clear data on the benefits and consequences of particular responses. From the viewpoint of human rights, everything possible must be done to preserve the rights and dignity of people, even during a pandemic (Policy Brief, 2020, p. 2). Protective measures for public health should not violate human rights.

All people need protection from the virus, but senior people need special protection, and this has shaken the balance of their position in society. The coronavirus crisis has exposed the fragility of the entire neoliberal project of ageing. While weakening the age-based norms curtailing the social role of seniors, the neoliberal project immediately replaced them with the expectation that seniors be as active as a typical highly productive young neoliberal subject. The neoliberal project has also been criticized for its lack of sensitivity to class distinctions and catering to the wealthy classes (Gilleard and Higgs, 2000; McGuigan, 2014; Polivka, 2011). The pandemic has made this even more obvious and problematic.

The coronavirus pandemic has forced us to pay attention, once again, to age differences. The virus made clear the limits of the utopian project of active ageing. The limits of age, capabilities and desires that have been blurred more or less successfully over the past several decades have suddenly become tangible again. They manifested as the walls of apartments and houses that people over 65 cannot leave without a special permission, as their particular susceptibility to the virus and as their being positioned as a special burden on health-care systems. The crisis reminded us all of biology, highlighted our vulnerability and made older adults more vulnerable to abuse and stigmatization.

Now is a good time to consider the future of the neoliberal project of ageing and to ask a number of important questions. The new forced ageing through removal from work and social isolation reveals its repressive nature despite being framed as essential to ensuring seniors’ safety. Does a society, where employment is increasingly less accessible, “save” itself not only from the virus but also from the presence of older persons in the labour market and social life? How does a neoliberal subject – active, independent and productive – mesh with an older person in isolation, dependent on external help? How will social exclusion of seniors be re-concepualized in a situation where exclusion is equated with safety? And will we be able to keep our progress in anti-ageism?

We are now entering a period of investigation of the pandemic and its consequences, and this period will certainly continue for many years. All the questions mentioned above should be considered from the research or policy perspectives in the light of the situation created by the coronavirus pandemic. It is highly likely that issues such as the vulnerability of senior people, age specific biological processes and the human rights of older persons will once again become central questions in research and policymaking around ageing. The objective circumstances have caused a crisis of the conceptual foundations that supported and justified the neoliberal project of ageing. These circumstances call for a careful revision of the sociological and ethical problems of ageing, which seemed resolved until very recently. It also opens a space for new scientific and policy conceptions of ageing and search for a new balance between protection and rights of seniors in contemporary society.


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Corresponding author

Elena Bogdanova can be contacted at:

About the authors

Elena Bogdanova is based at the Department of Sociology, European University at Saint Petersburg, Saint Petersburg, Russian Federation; Centre for Independent Social Research, Saint Petersburg, Russian Federation and Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration, Saint-Petersburg, Russian Federation.

Irina Grigoryeva is based at the Department of Sociology, Saint Petersburg State University, Saint Petersburg, Russian Federation and Institute of Sociology of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Saint Petersburg, Russian Federation.

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