Alan Walker: active ageing, social justice and rampant individualism

Alan Walker is Professor of Social Policy and Social Gerontology at the University of Sheffield, Director of the New Dynamics of Ageing Programme part-funded by the ESRC, the research project Mobilising the Potential of Active Ageing in Europe, and the EU-funded project Social Innovations for an Ageing Population. In 2013 he became the ESRC’s first Impact Champion.

Alan Walker

Why did you pursue an academic career?

Becoming a professional social scientist was accidental. I was hooked strongly by sociology and social policy during my undergraduate degree at the University of Essex, and then Peter Townsend offered me a short term post working on his mammoth project Poverty in the United Kingdom.

Working closely with Peter on this and other projects persuaded me that social science had a critical role to play in public policymaking, and I found the prospect of becoming that particular kind of academic very appealing. The twin moral commitments to social science as a vehicle for the promotion of social justice and the duty of academics to speak the truth to power that Townsend exemplified have been the main drivers of my academic career.

What career achievements are you most proud of?

Whatever I have achieved as an academic has invariably owed something to others, whether as co-researchers, those working in various support roles or as a member of my family. In terms of specifics I am particularly proud of the 50 doctoral students that I have supervised successfully to date – many occupy senior academic positions in a dozen countries. Those in China and East Asia are an extended family with whom I engage as often as possible.

I am also proud that I have directed major research programmes, such as the ESRC’s Growing Older Programme and the New Dynamics of Ageing programme, which have enabled me to both shape the research agenda on ageing and to work with some of the country’s leading researchers in this field. Similar European programmes, such as ERA-AGE and FUTURAGE have led to some major outputs and lasting collaborations.

I am proud too of specific academic contributions such as the political economy of ageing and social construction of ageing theories; pioneering research on employer’s attitudes to older workers and older people with learning disabilities; the development of the active ageing approach; and the invention of the concept of social quality.

What is the most important issue society is facing today?

You would expect me to say demographic change, but in fact I believe that this is a challenge that we can respond to successfully if the political will is present. More fundamental, I think, is the elevation of individualism to a political, social and cultural priority. When coupled with neo-liberalism this has the power to destroy essential collective institutions such as the welfare state.

Rampant individualism denies the fundamental sociological truth that we are all social beings and derive our individual identities from interaction with and recognition from others. Moreover, individualism and the inequality it promotes are damaging to society in both economic and social terms.

What do you feel is the most important finding of economics and social science over the past 50 years?

There are so many major advances made by social science over the past 50 years that picking a single one is invidious. If pushed I would say the association between the extent of inequality in a society and the prevalence of various social problems, from infant mortality to mental ill-health.

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