Age is a biological classification that specifies the time frame between birth and death in years. While age has an objective component, as everyone has been alive for a certain number of years, age also includes substantial subjective and social constructional components.
Age research in sociology
In sociology, the study of aging includes factors influencing people at all stages of life, as well as the particular time period known as old age. However, while research on the long-term effects of changes in early and middle age has started, most studies concentrate on “older” or “elderly” persons.
Matilda White Riley, a significant figure in American sociological studies, discusses the relationship between society and aging. In her work “On the Significance of Age in Sociology” (1987), she states that by researching aging, researchers not only bring people back into society but also acknowledge how individuals and society go through development and change.
Understanding each of the two dynamism is the goal.
(1) the aging of individuals in succeeding cohorts who mature, age, eventually die and are then replaced by new individuals.
(2) how society alters when persons of various ages go through age-based social structures.
Regarding age, sociological ideas take a different tack than other social science fields. The sociologist begins with the idea that old age is fascinating because it simultaneously alters and affects human behavior, yet is an everlasting human experience handled differently by various nations.
The sociologist is interested in examining the mechanisms at play and how men and women from various socioeconomic classes, racial and ethnic backgrounds, and cultural contexts understand them.
This approach starkly contrasts social policy and government objectives in old age. Old age is often seen as a problem in various situations (for the economy or the healthcare system, to name two examples), which is why data collection and analysis are required. Although this method has validity and justification of its own, it may result in a skewed perception of social aging and a constrained range of issues for analysis and discussion.
Life course -1945-75
Contemporary facets of older life have mainly been shaped by changes in the demographics of aging and patterns of employment and retirement. On the first of these, increases in life expectancy have had a vital role in developing “middle” and “old” age as critical life-course stages. In addition, the structure of labor and employment has changed, significantly impacting how the life cycle is reshaped.
In general, the years from 1945 and the middle of the 1970s supported the creation of a “standardized” life course centered on primary education, employment, and leisure. This time frame is linked to the development of retirement as an essential social institution, the expansion of pension rights, and the eventual acceptance of a more extended period of leisure after the cessation of full-time employment.
In actuality, this life-course model only existed historically for a very little time, with the years 1945 to 1975 serving as its outer bounds.
Identification of the Third Stage
Numerous developments starting in the late 1970s may be traced to the emergence of more adaptable labor patterns and the effects of high unemployment rates. With the designation of a “third age” between the time of labor and employment (the “second age”) and a time of mental and physical decline (the “fourth age”), these led to what can be called the reconstruction of middle and old age.
At both its lower and higher ends, the third age’s borders are ambiguous and flexible, which is one of these new characteristics of social aging. Moving away from work and blending dependency and independence in late old age require complicated transition phases.
Marker of changes
Age is a sign of many changes in older persons, resulting from a combination of physiological, social, and biographical variables.
First, many elderly individuals value changes brought on by bad health. For instance, it is predicted that among those 85 and older, one in five will have dementia, and three in five will have a debilitating long-term condition like osteoarthritis or osteoporosis.
Second, there are significant changes in social ties, with the loss of close friends and family members being a notable aspect of later life.
Third, aging may increase rather than lessen inequities present earlier in life.
Age no longer predicts lifestyle, as well as social class, does, and older individuals are more inclined to identify with younger members of their class than with older members of other classes. Age is impacted by social differences related to gender, race, and ethnicity, in addition to socioeconomic status.
Age and race/ethnicity factor
Another significant dividing line that runs across age-based relationships is race and ethnicity. For example, the black community will age significantly in the early twenty-first century as the cohorts of immigration from the late 1950s and 1960s approach retirement age.
Elderly people from minority ethnic groups are more likely to have varied experiences in old age, such as the following:
- Increased susceptibility to physical ill-health due to past experiences, such as hard manual labor and subpar housing.
- Significant vulnerability to mental health problems results from racism and cultural pressures.
- There are severe financial difficulties, with evidence suggesting that elderly Asians are disadvantaged.
Elders from different ethnic groups are said to be in “triple jeopardy” because of their issues. This refers to the reality that ethnic seniors may experience prejudice due to their heritage, language, religious affiliation, and skin color, in addition to their age and the fact that many live in substandard physical and economic conditions.
Women outlive men
The disparities between the sexes in older age are now widely documented. Women outlive males by five years on average; therefore, there are almost 50% more women than men among those aged 65 and over. In late life, the gender gap is much more pronounced: among those 85 and older, women outnumber males three to one. In addition, the high percentage of older women who are widowed has an impact on subsequent gender, identity, relationships, and roles.
Numerous facets of public life are standardized in Western nations based on chronological age. Social structures provide access restrictions and age-specific guidelines for appropriate behavior. Birthdays thus have both personal and societal importance. Legal obligations and privileges are often tied to certain ages, and age-based requirements are sometimes used to regulate entry to various organizations.
The ability to vote, military service, and the need to serve on a jury are some citizenship duties closely correlated with age.
The pre-work, work, and post-work periods also contribute to age construction. Western cultures now consider the start of old age to be sixty or sixty-five, linked to receiving a pension after retirement. However, given continued increases in life expectancy, other signs of aging are feasible and more probable. Retirement at age 70, for instance, would set a new threshold for when “old age” would start due to efforts to prolong working life.
Family and friends circle
Understanding many facets of older people’s life still depends heavily on their social networks, which are centered on their families and friends. Most older persons are a part of family-based networks, which provide various sorts of assistance. Peer relationships, particularly friendship, have been demonstrated to be essential to well-being at a later age. Research has also highlighted the importance of having a confidant or “special connection” in coping with the difficulties and pressures of later life.
The data suggests that friends are becoming more significant in older people’s lives. Friends will be critical in preserving morale and self-identity throughout the early stages of retirement and even until late old life.
Losing close friends may cause serious adjustment issues and risk one’s sense of self-integrity for many elderly persons struggling with reduced income and declining health.
Age stratification theory
However, during the 1970s, concerns regarding the individual-level emphasis of aging theories and their inability to address the influence of social and economic issues on older people’s lives began to be raised. An early example of this was Riley’s “age stratification theory,” which looked at how social institutions affected how individuals aged and how age was stratified in society.
One aspect of this theory is the idea of “structural lag,” which refers to social institutions, such as laws requiring retirement at 65, lagging behind changes in population dynamics, and individualistic aspects, such as increasing life expectancy. The idea has the implications that human resources in the oldest and youngest age groups are underused and that groups in the intermediate years are overburdened with caregiving and other duties.
Age from a functionalist perspective in sociology
Various sociological theories, including functionalist, symbolic interactionist, and neo-Marxist approaches, have examined aging processes and experiences.
Role theory, a functionalist approach to the study of aging that was developed in the early 1950s, concentrated on the effects of losing work-based relationships, which, it was thought, led to an adjustment crisis after retirement.
Another functionalist viewpoint that took the opposite stance, “disengagement theory,” was created in the late 1950s by Elaine Cumming and William Henry. It proposed that shirking traditional social obligations was a normal part of aging. According to this perspective, old age is when society and older adults separate from one another, with men retiring and women becoming widows.
Several social psychology theories of aging, such as “continuity theory” by Robert Atchley and notions of “successful aging,” were prompted by “activity theory.”
According to continuity theory, which derives from “developmental” or “life-cycle theory,” aging people have a desire and an inclination to hold onto the same personalities, routines, and viewpoints they have formed over their lives.
Successful aging involves maintaining a mature, integrated personality, which is also the cornerstone of life fulfillment. As a result, declines in exercise or social engagement are seen as being more closely tied to changes in physical function and health than to a fundamental need for a change in or abandonment of prior responsibilities.
A life-course perspective on age
The life-course approach is yet another effective method that went beyond individual adaptation to aging and was also inspired by the age stratification model. In this study, aging people and cohorts are considered one lifespan stage. They are affected by historical, social, economic, and environmental issues at younger ages.
By considering the connections between social structure, social processes, and social psychological states, life-course theory creates a link between macro and micro levels of study.
The central tenets of the approach, according to Passuth and Bengston in Sociological Theories of Aging (1996), are
(1) aging is a continuous process from birth to death (thereby differentiating this theory from those that focus exclusively on the elderly);
(2) aging involves social, psychological, and biological processes; and
(3) aging experiences are shaped by cohort-historical factors.
Neo-Marxist perspectives of age
Neo-Marxist viewpoints, such as political economy theory, started to influence aging research in the early 1980s. With the work of Carroll Estes and Alan Walker in the late 1970s and early 1980s, this job of articulating the different contributions of capitalism and the state to systems of dominance and marginalization of older people was first undertaken.
Cultural and humanistic gerontology
Cultural and humanistic gerontology, often known as moral economy or cultural gerontology more generally, is another crucial method. The conventional theoretical antagonism of structure vs. agency and culture versus structure has given way to an awareness of the interaction and “recursive” links between culture, agency, and structure. Thomas Cole and Harry Moody initially established this approach.
A growing body of views, including cultural gerontology, contradict the idea that economics alone determines social institutions like the state and old-age benefits. The method offers a re-formulation of the one-way causality that the traditional base/superstructure model of Marxism infers.
The emphasis on resolving difficulties related to meaning and experience in later life has increased as a result, and serious concerns have been expressed over the ability of western civilization to provide sufficient moral resources to support the lives of older people.
Aging – Identity and Self
Conceptions of aging based on concerns with identity and the self have become more significant. In The Body (1991), Mike Hepworth and Mike Featherstone established that aging is best understood as a mask. Here, the external manifestations of bodily aging are contrasted with a true self that is still youthful. According to the “mask of aging” idea, the aging body eventually turns into a prison from which a younger self-identity cannot escape.
Despite its malleability, the body may provide access to many consumer identities. But as people age, it is more complex and harder to “recycle” the failing body, preventing the elderly from entering that realm of choice.
In The Mature Imagination (1999), Simon Biggs argues that the conflict between the inner and outer worlds may cause older individuals to feel at war with themselves as they fight with a desire for young expression and the vulnerabilities brought on by aging bodies.
Biographical perspectives of age
Another critical area of research in gerontology is biographical perspectives. Biographical or “life history” study has a long history in the social sciences. For example, Peter Coleman, James Birren, Joanna Bornat, Paul Thompson, and Gary Kenyon have contributed significantly to the study of aging utilizing biographical and life history methods.
According to Birren’s famous edited book Aging and Biography (1996), biographical techniques may help us grasp both unique and common aging elements over a lifetime. It was proposed that investigating responses to personal crises and turning moments may provide scholars with unique insights into how people create their lives. Studying people’s lives also offers insight into the impact of social institutions, including the family, place of employment, and place of labor.
Thus, information about a person’s life helps researchers grasp what Ruth and Kenyon refer to as the possibilities and constraints imposed by their historical era.
The political economy perspective of age
Political economists concentrate on how economic and political systems, as well as other social structures and social forces, shape and reproduce the current power structures and inequalities in society. This sets them apart from the dominant liberal-pluralist theory in political theory and sociology.
According to the political economy viewpoint, social policies relating to retirement income, health care, and social service benefits and entitlements are investigated as outcomes of institutional and individual forces, as well as economic, political, and sociocultural processes that come together during any given sociohistorical period.
Social policy results from the disputes, struggles, and predominant power structures of the time.
The structure and culture of advantages and disadvantages are reflected in policy via relationships based on class, race/ethnicity, gender, and age. The life chances and circumstances of individuals and demographic groups, such as elderly persons, are significantly influenced by social policy.
Aging and Globalization
Another fundamental problem that has an impact on both aging theories and older people’s everyday lives is globalization. The interaction between demographic change, mainly longer life expectancies, and the developments related to political and cultural globalization results in significant macro-level growth.
Living in an interconnected globe makes it more important to consider issues like cultural diversity, various perspectives on aging, and the definition of an older person.