A Rule of Thirds

The term ‘Third Age’, aside from its invention in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings as one of his ages of Middle Earth, can be defined as the current period of life between working adult life and old age. It has become popularised by the University of the Third Age (u3A) which was established in France in the early 1970s.

There are several phrases in vogue today are based on the use of the word ‘Third’. There are quite a few, and it could be argued that this phenomena represents a modern tendency to reinvent/ innovate or at least to do things differently.

Historically, we have two contentious uses of the rank of third:

  • Third Class – In a hierarchical structure, gave less status to groups of people through economic or cultural measures.
  • Third World – Politically incorrect terminology coined in the 1950s implying the superiority of an industrialised (‘capitalised’) world, emergent industrialising (‘capitalising’) world over a developing world.

Culturally, we have the mysterious eponymous character in The Third Man – who turns out to be Harry Lime in Graham Greene’s novella and the classic film noir. More recently, we have American economist Jeremy Rifkin writing a book referring to “The Third Industrial Revolution” in its title.

However the term ‘Third’ is adapted, there is an implication that the ‘First’ and ‘Second’ embodiments of whatever is being described have either passed or preceded the Third embodiment. The numerical base of the phrase also allows for a progression onto a ‘Fourth’. However, the contemporary interpretation of “Third’ as a better way of doing things is current at the moment and is being used as a driver for our political and social landscape.

In UK politics in the last decade of the 20th Century, ‘New Labour’ adopted the notion of ‘Third Way’ politics, as an alternative to Left or Right, countering any Keynesianist and Neo-liberalist politics. Key terminology associated with it includes goals such as ‘equality’ ‘responsibility’, ‘decentralisation’, ‘partnership’, ‘human development’, ‘social capital’, and ‘environment’. Another associated phrase is Third Sector – voluntary and community organisations active in society but distinct from the Private and Public Sectors. The Third Sector is a significant element in the modern economic plan, an enabler for several of the goals, and has resulted in a huge involvement of entities that spring, in theory, from communities, both physical and virtual.

Another, although less recognised term is ‘Third Space’, which refers to the opportunity to gather individuals or groups from mutiple fields or disciplines in order to achieve something. This is in fact a popular concept in ‘Third Way’ politcal landscape, which allows private, public and voluntary sectors to collaborate in various ways, including through processes of critical thinking. I am not yet sure what the First and Second Spaces ever were, but was introduced to the term through a journal article collbaorated on by my principle supervisor. I read it purely out of interest, but the article makes reference to moving beyond ‘communities of practice’ into, for the context of its scope, ‘professional learning communities’. Therefore, the possible implication here is that application of ‘Third Space’ theory can help move an arguably passive model of community into a more pro-active one. However, Etienne Wenger’s COP theories infer slightly less passivity than this would imply. Ostensibly, the whole ‘Third’ signpost may be a large part in any thinking and methodology surrounding the ‘Big Society’ – the current platform for anything involving the absoption of energies from the community.

Wouldn’t it be good if ‘Third Age’ could jump on board the ‘Third’ Bandwagon, as a fresh way of approaching later life? Third Age isn’t simply a stage of life, however, it is a largely untapped physical resource, a potential of intellectual power and, it has to be said, a potential disaster economically and socially if it is not given the prominence it needs. As the notion of ‘Third’ seems to imply an optimistic, the burgeoning new wave of attitude, even though it might simly be a popularisation of distancing from established practice (and therefore a rejection of previous regimes and movements), it seems like a useful focus for basing any further fresh thinking on. It is not quite there yet, however, and, in the absence of other phrases to fit the definition, it’s what we have to go with at the moment.

Rifkin, J. (2011) The Third Industrial Revolution: How Lateral Power is Transforming Energy, the Economy and the World. Palgrave Macmillan

Hulme, R. and Cracknell, D. (2010) Learning Across Boundaries – Developing trans-professional understanding through pratitioner enquiry in Campbell, A and Groundwater-Smith, S. (Eds) Connecting Enquiry and Professional Learning in Education, (pp.53-67) Routledge