The American social safety net is aimed primarily at three groups: children, the disabled, and the aged. Of these demographic groups, it’s generally taken for granted that efforts on behalf of the aged have been the most successful, with Medicare and Social Security assuring a baseline quality of life and care for the elderly. Though it’d be folly to assume that the inequalities that so structure our earlier lives are fully leveled in our later years, there’s been little research into the actual effects that our social stratifications have on aging. Sociologist Corey Abramson’s The End Game presents a study designed to address that gap in our understanding of inequality; he introduces the project in the brief excerpt below.
On a brisk October afternoon in 2010, Bernard and I were listening to a radio broadcast of the San Francisco Giants game. The commentary blared out over a cheap plastic radio in the musty backroom of a senior center in Rockport, a predominantly poor, multiethnic, urban neighborhood in the greater San Francisco Bay area. Small groups of African American men were listening to the radio while playing pool, chess, and dominoes. Although Bernard was only in his early sixties, he could no longer stand up long enough to play a game of pool. The self-proclaimed former hustler was also consistently frustrated by the way his chess game had gone downhill. He felt he was now too “fuzzy-headed” to hang with the other guys in the senior center, so he mostly resigned himself to dominoes. On this particular day, however, Big B (as Bernard was known to his friends) was fixated on the baseball game. Like many of the other seniors involved in my ethnographic study of how American inequality shapes later life, Big B was a huge baseball fan. He took slow sips from a small Styrofoam cup containing sugar, cream, and a bit of coffee, while patiently trying to explain the nuances of baseball to me. He pointed out that it wasn’t just the athletic movements that made the game gripping, but also the connections between the players, team dynamics, rules, strategies, and individual backstories. I nodded. The truth, though, is that while I understood each of these parts in isolation, I had only a superficial understanding of the game. What I eventually learned from Big B and the other seniors in my study is that explaining how inequality shapes our final years, like understanding baseball, requires understanding how the pieces fit together. It necessitates charting the larger underlying connections that constitute what sociologist Pierre Bourdieu calls the “logic of the game.” The End Game: How Inequality Shapes Our Final Years explains what I found.
The End Game shows that while seniors from across the social spectrum face a set of common challenges associated with growing old, they do not do so on equal footing. It will quickly become apparent that the disparities that structure our lives from our first breath onward do not end with the promise of Medicare and a Social Security check. When the challenges of “old age” present themselves to us, what they mean and how we can respond are contingent on inequalities both past and present. Some of us ultimately confront common difficulties in later life—such as increasing physical problems or watching friends and loved ones perish—with access to substantial wealth, social support, and education. Others will face the same problems, but do so alone with few resources. The larger implication is that how we grow old, and the options available to us as we do, often depend on whether we are rich or poor, male or female, black or white. In other words, aging is a stratified process.
Throughout the book, I extend the analogy of the game to help explain how inequality shapes later life. The comparison is analytically useful, because social life, like games, consists of active players, organizing mechanics, temporal phases (e.g., innings, periods, quarters) and different styles and strategies of approaching challenges. Further, games quite often thrive on the illusion of being fair even when they are not. In a similar vein, some mistakenly equate the shared experiences of old age with the dissolution of other social divisions. While looking at the presence of certain shared experiences in later life is essential to understanding the end game an increasing number of us will play, the reality is that the score does not revert to zero, nor do the inequalities that existed throughout the game vanish. Socioeconomic, racial, and gender divides still determine who steps onto the field, the equipment they bring with them, the score they start with, and the strategies they can ultimately deploy.
The goal of The End Game is to show how key mechanisms of social stratification—such as, health disparities, structural inequality, culture, and networks—structure everyday life in old age, and, conversely, how the unique practical and symbolic aspects of old age make it an important axis of American inequality. In doing so, the book explains why the opportunities and outcomes of the end game remain stratified, and what its players and rules tell us about inequality more generally.