Inequality's Influence on the End of Life

Corey M. Abramson
Sept. 10, 2015

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 60s, 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.

Read more about "The End Game" on the Harvard University Press site.

Excerpted from THE END GAME: HOW INEQUALITY SHAPES OUR FINAL YEARS, published by Harvard University Press. Copyright © 2015 The President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Corey M. Abramson is an assistant professor in the University of Arizona's School of Sociology. Abramson received his doctoral degree in sociology from the University of California, Berkeley, in 2012, then spent the next year as a postdoctoral fellow at the Philip R. Lee Institute for Health Policy Studies at the University of California, San Francisco. Abramson's research uses both quantitative and qualitative methods to explain how social inequality is reproduced over time. His book, "The End Game: How Inequality Shapes Our Final Years," was published by Harvard University Press. Abramson will be giving a public talk at the University of California, Berkeley during a meeting of the Institute for the Study of Societal Issues. He may be reached at 520-621-3531 or coreyabramson@email.arizona.edu.

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