Introduction to Sociology/Aging

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Aging (often spelt ageing) is the process of becoming older. Aging is a biological process, but it is of interest to sociologists because it is accompanied by changes in how one is viewed and treated in society.

Dividing the lifespan[edit]

Human life is often divided into various age spans, like the following:

These divisions are somewhat arbitrary, but generally capture periods of life that reflect a certain degree of similarity. In many countries, such as Sweden, adulthood legally begins at the age of eighteen. This is a major age milestone that is marked by significantly different attitudes toward the person who undergoes the transition.

Socially Constructed Aspects of Aging[edit]

This is a photo of an "older" person who is more physically fit than many "younger" people. While age will eventually take its toll on everyone, the association of vigor with youth is a cultural construct and does not necessarily reflect the reality of biological aging.

While aging, itself, is a biological process, what it means to be "old" or "young" and at what ages such distinctions are made varies by culture. In Western societies, where youth is highly valued, people are considered "old" at much younger ages than in Eastern societies where age is often seen to beget wisdom. This emphasis on youth translates into considerable expenditures on makeup, cosmetics, and surgeries to hide signs of aging, particularly among women, but also among men. Ironically, among adolescents, just the opposite approach is taken, as adolescents often try to appear "older", though obviously not too much older.

The labels of "old" and "young" also vary by life expectancy. In societies where lifespans are relatively short (e.g., Chad), one could be considered "old" or "middle-aged" by her mid-twenties, whereas in countries with longer lifespans (e.g., Japan), mid-twenties is still considered young-adulthood.

The activities that are expected of one at different ages is also socially constructed and relative to culture. For instance, retirement only became a "universal" American institution in the post-World War I era, as the growth of Social Security and private pensions dramatically expanded the safety net available to aging workers who were leaving the labor market.[1] Likewise, the idea of childhood being an age of innocence when children should be kept from adult worries and spend their time pursuing education and recreating is only widely held in highly developed countries and is a relatively recent invention, following the industrial revolution and the introduction of child-labor laws.[2][3]

Differential Treatment by Age or Ageism[edit]

Ageism is prejudice on the grounds of age.[4] While it can be targeted toward individuals of any age, two groups that are often targeted are the young and the elderly.

Treatment of the Young[edit]

While most people are aware of the mistreatment of the elderly (see below), few people seem to realize that young people are often subjected to discrimination because of their age. Discrimination against young people is primarily in the area of behavioral restrictions, often by parents,[5] but also in public places like malls and stores.[6] Some stores have gone so far as to limit the hours young people can be in their stores.[7]

While the above are clear examples of discrimination, there are other restrictions placed on young people based on the assumption that they are unable to make decisions for themselves. Examples of such restrictions include:[4]

  • inability to vote in elections
  • inability to legally imbibe alcohol or smoke cigarettes
  • inability to legally engage in sexual activity (this varies by region)
  • inability to hold public office
  • inability to determine whether or not one can marry
  • inability to determine whether or not one can get an abortion (varies by region)

All of the above restrictions hinge upon the idea that young people lack the maturity required to make such important decisions. While this is likely true for some young people, there are also some young people who are mature enough to make these decisions. The above restrictions are tied to specific ages for legal reasons, but such restrictions may not always be followed, do vary substantially by region and culture, and may not always make sense. However, it is also the case that young people can lack the maturity to make important decisions. Legally, when young people make poor decisions, the defense of infancy is used in such cases to argue that such individuals are too immature to be held responsible for their decisions.

Another way in which the young are treated differently is in the marketing practices of corporations. Children and teenagers have little money of their own, but of the money they have most of it is available for buying consumer goods (their parents cover their basic living needs). Children can also be heavily influential on how their parents' spend their discretionary income.[8] Manufacturers of consumer goods and providers of services (e.g., Disney[9]) are aware of the buying power of young people and target them specifically. The elderly are also targeted as a consumer demographic, but the approaches are different.[10]

Young people are also stereotyped as being both amusing, but at the same time potentially dangerous and disturbing.[11] It is stereotypes like these that translate into the discrimination toward young people described above.

Treatment of the Elderly[edit]

While discrimination toward the young is primarily behavioral restrictions, discrimination toward the elderly ranges from behavioral restrictions to the realm of physical abuse. Elder abuse is a serious problem in the U.S. There are nearly 2 million cases of elder abuse and self-neglect in the U.S. every year.[12] Abuse refers to psychological/emotional abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, caregiver neglect or financial exploitation while self-neglect refers to behaviors that threaten the person's own health and safety.

Elderly individuals who are subjected to abuse have at least two times higher risk of premature death than do other seniors.[12] And elders who suffer from self-neglect have an even higher risk (up to 5 times higher) of premature death than do elders who do not suffer from self-neglect. The higher risk of death associated with elder abuse effects both those who are physically and cognitively impaired and those who are more capable.[12]

Additionally, the elderly are often stereotyped. One stereotype of the elderly is that they are inflexible in their attitudes and that they tend to only become more conservative with time. This is not the case - the elderly are quite adept at changing their views and often they become more tolerant as they age.[13] Another stereotype of the elderly is that they are poorer drivers than younger people. This stereotype is also not backed by evidence, with some caveats. Up to about the age of 75, older drivers are actually safer than drivers of other ages. Beyond age 75 response times and visual acuity do begin to decline, leading to increases in accidents. Thus, many older drivers are actually much safer than the youngest drivers (under 18).[14]

Age and Income[edit]

Prior to the introduction of Social Security in the U.S. and other programs for the needy, the elderly were the poorest age group in the U.S. Social Security (technically Old-Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance or OASDI) is an income redistribution program that takes taxes from those working and distributes it to those who cannot work or who are elderly enough to be considered past the age at which they can retire. With the introduction of Social Security, the poverty rates of the elderly in the U.S. dropped dramatically, as illustrated in the figure below.

This chart depicts the percentage of the respective age groups that fell below the poverty line over the last 40+ years.

Despite the success of the Social Security program in reducing poverty among the elderly, one unforeseen consequence has been the increasing poverty of people under 18. Conflict theory provides a clear theoretical argument to explain this: Since there are limited resources - in this case limited tax revenue - if those resources go to one group, they must necessarily come from another group. Thus, if the elderly see an increase in their total share of tax revenue, it is likely that some other age group will see a decrease in its total share of tax revenue. Thus, individuals under 18 have seen some programs cut that would have otherwise helped maintain their lower levels of poverty. Even so, poverty rates across all three age groups depicted in the figure above have declined from what they were prior to the introduction of tax redistribution policies like Social Security.

While generally considered a highly successful program at reducing poverty among the elderly, Social Security is currently experiencing problems. The chart below illustrates the problems with Social Security payments for retirees in the U.S. Currently, more money is received from Social Security taxes than is distributed to retirees.[15] However, that will change if Social Security is not modified by 2017. At that point, less will come in than will go out. For about 20 years following that, the Social Security Trust Fund, which is the money that was collected when there was a surplus in tax revenue, will make up the difference in payments. But by 2037, the Trust Fund reserves will be exhausted and payments to beneficiaries will drop to about 75% of what they would normally receive.

Social Security Benefits - 2009-2083.png

Of additional concern is where the Trust Fund reserves were invested - in Federal bonds. While Federal bonds are backed by the the U.S. Federal Government, it is the Federal Government that borrowed the money. Thus, the Federal Government of the United States actually owes itself the money - over $2 trillion. If the Federal Government is unable to or decides not to pay this money back, the reserves will run out sooner, reducing the payments to beneficiaries at an earlier date.

While the Social Security program in the U.S. is in trouble, the situation of Social Security is not as dire as is that of Medicare, which is a healthcare program for the elderly. The chart below replicates the chart above, but for Medicare. Medicare is worse off as tax income in 2009 was already insufficient to cover the expenses of the program and the Trust Fund reserves are already been tapped to offset the costs. The Trust Fund for Medicare will be exhausted by 2017, at which point the Federal Government will only be able to cover about 80% of the costs of medical treatments of senior citizens. That percentage will gradually decline to 50% by 2035, then to 30% by 2080.

Medicare's Future Payments to Beneficiaries, 2009-2080.png

This is resulting from the lower ratio of employed workers to benefit recipients, a ratio that continues to decrease as the U.S. population grows more elderly (as shown in the figure below).

Percentage of US Population Over Age 65 1950-2050.png

Age and Gender[edit]

While the elderly have seen substantial improvements in their economic situation in recent decades, those improvements have not equally affected men and women. Women, whether working or not, are more likely to fall below the federal poverty line than are men, as depicted in the figure below.

Poverty Rates by Sex and Work Status for Americans 65+ in 2006.png

This is of special concern considering women live longer than men, as illustrated in the next figure.

This chart depicts the increasing life expectancy at birth in the USA.

Why women live longer than men is not perfectly understood. Several factors may contribute to this. For instance, men do engage in riskier behaviors than women, reducing their life expectancy.[16] Men are also more "successful" when attempting suicide, which increases the rate of death among men of suicide.[16] Another factor that may contribute to the greater life expectancy of women is the different types of jobs men and women tend to have during their lifetimes.[17] Other biological factors likely play a role, including greater heart health among women,[18] though how much they contribute to the greater longevity of women is not entirely clear.[19] The combined effect of all these differences may or may not account for the longevity gap between men and women, but it is clear that women do live longer than men and that holds true around the world.

Age and Race[edit]

Aging does not result in similar outcomes for members of different races. There is evidence that black senior citizens are more likely to be abused - both physically and psychologically and suffer greater financial exploitation than do white senior citizens.[20]

Aging in the US[edit]

The geography of age in the US is quite intriguing. The map below illustrates that the elderly are not equally distributed throughout the U.S.

This map depicts the percentage of the population that is over age 65 by census district (from the 2000 Census).

There are concentrations of the elderly in the Midwest and in the South, particularly in Florida. While the high concentration of the elderly in Florida may not come as much of a surprise to most Americans who are aware of the high rate at which people who retire move to Florida, the high concentration of the elderly in the Midwest may be more surprising. This higher concentration is not because the elderly are moving to the Midwest but rather because the young are moving out of the Midwest as they search for jobs. Thus, the two regions with the highest concentrations of the elderly in the US have high concentrations of elderly people for very different reasons.

The city of Pittsburgh offers an intriguing case study of the effects of an aging population on a city.[21] As of 2008 more people are dying in Pittsburgh than are being born.[21] Add to this the fact that many young people are moving away from Pittsburgh to find jobs, and you have the perfect recipe for both population decline and an aging population. One result of this demographic shift is that there is a greater demand for health care provision. Health care has replaced steel as Pittsburgh's biggest industry.[21] Another result of these trends is the decline in students attending Pittsburgh schools. In the 1980s there were nearly 70,000 students in the public school; by 2008 there were only about 30,000 and the number is declining by about 1,000 every year.[21] In short, as populations in specific locations age, the entire social structure must change to accommodate the new demographic, which supports the notion of equilibrium in structural-functionalist theory.

Global Aging Trends[edit]

Globally, most countries are seeing the average life expectancy of their populations increase. This translates into a greater percentage of the world's population falling above the age of 65, as illustrated in the figure below.

Percentage of the World Population Over 65 - 1950-2050.png

However, the rate at which the world's population is aging is not uniform across countries, and some countries have actually seen decreasing life expectancies, largely as a result of AIDS. The varied life expectancies and younger populations are illustrated in the map below, which depicts the percentage of each country's population that is over 65.

This map illustrates global trends in aging by depicting the percentage of each country's population that is over the age of 65. The more developed countries also have older populations as their citizens live longer. Less developed countries have much younger populations. An interactive version of the map is available here.

It is pretty clear from the map that more developed countries have much older populations and a greater percentage of their population is aged 65+. The least developed countries are also the youngest countries as life expectancies are substantially lower.

Aging and Health[edit]

While aging is often associated with declining health, current research suggests there are some things people can do to remain healthy longer into old age. For instance, maintaining a positive attitude has been shown to be correlated with better health among the elderly.[22] Older individuals with more positive attitudes and emotions engage in less risky behavior and have lower levels of stress, both of which are correlated with better health.[22]


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