Caitlin Zaloom has begun our dialogue by showing how discourses of individual financial responsibility have overshadowed concrete ways in which the household is produced by and produces financial capitalism. Assisted by public and private student loans, middle-class families invest in postsecondary education, considered a costly but necessary form of social reproduction, to “open the future” for their children. I’d like to continue our conversation by turning to another matter of transition and social reproduction not uncommon in the life course, in middle-class America and elsewhere: the question of whether older adults can run their own households, and how and where they will live if they are determined unable to do so. While financing the costly transition to university has precipitated a crisis of student debt, these transitions of later life have been characterized as a crisis of care. The crisis, for Nancy Fraser (2016) and others who write about it, arises from a paradox: families and households are faced with intensified demands for caring for others at the same time that their capacity to do so has been diminished.

Demographic transition model of population data for the United Kingdom, 2010.

Education loans open individual futures with a promise; in planning for the rising costs of advanced age in the individual or aggregate, the future on offer is a thinly veiled threat. The threat of demography’s infamous inverted pyramid—a graphic representation of futures in which growing numbers of older adults cannot be supported by the generations below them—questions the ability of the household to reproduce the social, the national, even the global. In this sense, we live in a transnational, intergenerational household that demands planning and intervention, and each one of us is a potential burden. In Turkey, where I conducted my fieldwork between 2014 and 2017, discourses and technologies of individual financial responsibility are emerging around the question of retirement (see Silverstein 2014), but they lie in the shadows of contentious debates on the question of familial, local, and state obligations to the old. As I write this, political debates on the fate of Medicare and the Affordable Care Act engage in similar kinds of boundary work. Considering these concerns in any depth draws our attention to three households: the household as a site of social reproduction, an analytic tool, and a scale of social and political life.

The first household, one of relationships and domestic labor, builds upon the scholarship of feminist writers and activists who self-consciously defined the household against easy distinctions between the public and private spheres. Their households were “dense networks of relationship among individual persons” (Guyer 2004, 142), and accounts of these relations drew attention, to varying degrees, to social reproduction: the racialized and gendered forms of labor and living that sustain collective life over generations. Classic examples include gestating and giving birth to children, raising them, keeping everyone clean and sheltered and fed, and caring for the ill, but financing postsecondary education, health care, and decades-long retirements are all timely, if less romantic, examples.

Emerging in lockstep with this first household is a second, one of expertise and governance. It has been made and mobilized through conversion devices such as financial-aid forms, studies of the family, the paperwork of social workers and family court; this household is a unit of analysis for research and intervention. Like the nineteenth-century concept of population (Murphy 2017), this second household aggregates human life in ways that flatten and quantify living-being, rendering it through economic reckoning. If the first household is constituted by making family dinners and maintaining the family vehicle, this second household arises through aspirations to calculate chickens in pots and cars in garages, monitoring and encouraging their growth. Studying the household thus demands an account of the uneven effects of these calculations and interventions.

Yet another household, one scaled within the social and political economy,has been theorized by scholars from critical geography (e.g., Marston and Smith 2001) to track the scale of the household in and through processes of financial expansion and state formation (see also Bear et al. 2015). Political discourse is a rich site for scalar articulations of the relationship between the family, state, and market. Margaret Thatcher’s infamous proclamation that “There are individual men and women and there are families. There is no such thing as society” is one example. A recent campaign representing Turkish social services as serving “one big family” offers another (Yazici 2012). Whether articulated in political discourse or enacted in everyday life, at stake in this spatial politics of the household are questions of what a household is or does, who can participate in it with what authority, and how social realms and their responsibilities become fixed in relation to it.

In my work on aging, social policy, and gerontological expertise, I have seen these three households cohere in the lives of older adults. Families and individuals are encouraged to plan for the day when older adults will be unable to make “good decisions” for or “take care” of themselves, and, of course, for the future costs and legal difficulties of domestic assistance and institutional care. Children, neighbors, and medical professionals often look on with suspicion as older adults, who may or may not harbor their own self-doubts, run households. Does she need extra help? Is he safe at home? Advancing age, missed pills, dented car doors, unwashed hair, unsavory collections of tissues and refuse, health issues, and perceived frailty: these and other signs can be taken as grounds to doubt one’s ability to manage a household. Household transitions in later life are not simply individual or family decisions; interpersonal histories, expectations of familial assistance, and access to state entitlement programs and other forms of wealth shape these question about future dependencies.

The predictions of future dependency by gerontologists and demographers are alarmist and problematic, built upon anxieties of dependent futures and fears of disability (Kafer 2013, 8; Cohen 1998). Yet they cannot be ignored or dismissed. These predictions and their accompanying interventions will profoundly shape individual and generational transitions in later life, as well as the ethics and practices of obligation in social reproduction. Where will these transitions be to and from, what values and ethical regimes will be associated with them, and, very practically, who will decide? Who will benefit? How will the crisis of care transform these three households: from everyday forms of labor and living to the financial and legal devices that define and intervene upon it to the stakes of the household form as it relates to the question of responsibility for human mortality and vulnerability? For older adults who run their own households as others look on, as well as those who live in institutions of long-term care, at stake in the contours of the household is often nothing less than personhood itself.


Bear, Laura, Karen Ho, Anna Tsing, and Sylvia Yanagisako. 2015. “Gens: A Feminist Manifesto for the Study of Capitalism.” Theorizing the Contemporary, Cultural Anthropology website, March 30. 

Cohen, Lawrence. 1998. No Aging in India: Alzheimer’s, the Bad Family, and Other Modern Things. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Fraser, Nancy. 2016. “Contradictions of Capital and Care.” New Left Review, no. 100.

Guyer, Jane I. 2004. Marginal Gains: Monetary Transactions in Atlantic Africa. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Kafer, Alison. 2013. Feminist, Queer, Crip. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Marston, Sallie A., and Neil Smith. 2001. “States, Scales and Households: Limits to Scale Thinking? A Response to Brenner.” Progress in Human Geography 25, no. 4: 615–19.

Murphy, Michelle. 2017. The Economization of Life. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Silverstein, Brian. 2014. “Statistics, Reform, and Regimes of Expertise in Turkey.” Turkish Studies 15, no. 4: 638–54.

Yazici, Berna. 2012. “The Return to the Family: Welfare, State, and Politics of the Family in Turkey.” Anthropological Quarterly 85, no. 1: 103–40.