Theories of Aging
After completing this chapter, you should be able to:
1. Describe how theories about aging can be useful in explaining the relationship of age to
other social characteristics.
2. Explain the major theoretical approaches in social gerontology.
3. Assess how gerontologists use research to evaluate theories.
4. Trace the relevance of birth cohort, race, ethnicity, gender, and social class on the life
5. Evaluate power and inequality in later life.
Â© Glow Images / Superstock
Aging Quiz Chapter 3
Take a moment to decide whether the following statements are true or false. Correct answers
can be found at the end of the chapter.
1. Social norms, the spoken and unspoken rules and guidelines for behaviors, are pretty
much the same in every society.
2. Views about the power and influence of old people are pretty much the same from one
society to another.
3. There is no one single theory about old age that is generally accepted in the United
4. While one child is quite different from another child, by old age most people are very
5. When people grow old, they become more heterogeneous.
6. In some societies elderly people have been respected precisely because they are old.
Mrs. R. is a 72-year-old second-generation Japanese American woman who was born in Los
Angeles and lives in Garden Grove, California. She is married and has four children. In an interview about growing older, she was asked, â€œWhen do you think a person becomes a senior?â€
Markson (2003). Mrs. R. replied:
You mean what age bracket? . . . Well, my husband is going to laugh at me, because
I donâ€™t consider myself a senior (she laughs). Because I enjoy life. I like to do a lot of
things. . . . When my mother died, and she was 42, I remember her being a very little
old lady. But my gosh, . . . I donâ€™t consider myself a senior. I think itâ€™s a state of mind.
To me, a senior citizen naturally slows down a little bit and, in that respect, Iâ€™ve slowed
down. But I think itâ€™s how you feel about life. . . . I am up early in the morning, gardening. I enjoy going to Vegas, I enjoy playing cards, you know, bridge, and going to the
movies. . . . My husband had acute leukemia two years ago and look at him now, you
knowâ€”heâ€™s very healthy. And I think somebodyâ€™s been looking after us all this time.
And I tell him, â€œThey donâ€™t want you up there yet.â€ So, you know, basically, I think
we enjoy going to Vegas. Heâ€™s gone there more than I have. Weâ€™ve been trying to go
once a month. He still enjoys playing golf. I used to play golf, but I gave it up because
of my skin. (Markson, 2003, p. 91)
Mrs. Râ€™s view of her own life is but one illustration of how people construct their own aging.
Given that age is both a biological fact and a social construct, how can we make sense of
Mrs. Râ€™s perspective as well as what we read and observe about aging and old age? How
can we link together our findings to discern patterns from a specific observation or set of
Writing about the historical development of theories of aging, Hendricks and Achenbaum
People in all times and at all places have tried to make sense of the ways people age.
Bestselling anthologies . . . use excerpts from the Koran, Confucius, and Langston
Why Theories in Social Gerontology? Chapter 3
Hughes, among others, to convey quintessentially human concerns about relationships and feelings over the course of life. (pp. 21â€“22)
This chapter focuses on how social gerontologists learn how people age by comparing and
contrasting events in their lives as they grow older.
3.1 Why Theories in Social Gerontology?
To understand the nature and consequences of events, scientists use theories, that is, â€œthe
construction of explicit explanations in accounting for empirical findingsâ€ (Bengtson, Burgess,
& Parrott, 1997, p. S72). In other words, a theory is a statement of how and why facts relate
to each other. Theories allow us to generalize about some aspect of social life we want to
understandâ€”a way to explain, describe, and predict behavior. Suppose a group of gerontology students decides to sit at the entrance of a mall to calculate the number of times men
open the door for other people. They observe that men seem more likely to open doors for
children and older people than for others. Therefore, the students conclude that behavior is
patterned. In addition, they begin to question why certain behaviors are more common than
others, as well as question their relationship to social and cultural norms. They will have the
basis for a theoretical perspective on how elders and children are generally viewed and what
assumptions are made about their strength and capacity. The key process involves coming up
with an explanation that can be tested to determine whether the phenomenon observed is
patterned and predictable.
Knowledge is always relative. Theories are shaped by the culture and historical context in
which they are made. Bearing in mind the assumptions that have been made to formulate
them, there are several practical uses of theories to observe or predict behavior, as summarized in Table 3.1.
Table 3.1 Practical Uses of Theory in Social Gerontology
Gives framework to summarize and link together findings in a meaningful way.
Shows how and why certain events are logically related.
Gives meaning and understanding to the world around us.
Provides useful directions for practical and real-world interventions.
Theories in social gerontology encompass more than age as an attribute of individuals. As in
the example of holding the door open for children and older people, social gerontology theories attempt to explain the how and why of human behavior. They consider the relationship
of age to other social characteristics and to the structure of society. In short, theories help
us answer such questions as â€œHow is age used in the regulation of social life? How does age
enter into the manipulation and negotiation of daily living?â€ (Fry 1999, p. 282).
When studying later life, social gerontologists face four basic questions:
1. What issues or topics should we study?
2. How should we study themâ€”should we use large-scale social surveys, observation, participant observation, published reports such as newspapers, books, stories, in-depth interviews, historical records, or some other method?
Twentieth-Century Theories About Later Life Chapter 3
3. Whom do we study; that is, what sample should we select?
4. How do we connect the facts from our research to form theories about later life?
In answering these questions, gerontologists follow one or more theoretical road maps that
guide the research. Unlike many of the so-called hard sciences, such as chemistry or physics,
in social gerontology old theoretical approaches are not necessarily discarded as new theories
develop. Rather, they may inspire a new theory or perspective that either expands upon or
takes issue with an older formulation. Although tempting to arrange theories chronologically,
each of these is important because it has been used either as a building block for other theories or is still influential in the social gerontological research. There is no single ruling theory
Gerontologists, like many other scientists, often disagree about what determines the most
interesting questions and ways to answer them. This is not necessarily bad, for new theoretical road maps provide new directions for research and social policy. Not surprisingly, aging
and old age have been studied from many different perspectives: that of individuals, groups,
specific societies, distinct historical periods, comparative studies of societies, and so on. As
is evident throughout this book, some researchers seek to find similarities, and others look
Despite the differences in what gerontologists choose to study, distinct theories developed
during the 20th and 21st centuries have guided social research on aging. Each theory and
set of new findings has the potential to open up new theoretical directions as road maps for
other researchers to follow.
Individual, Societal, and Individual and Societal Theoretical Formulations
As Riley and Foner (1968) observed many years ago, â€œResearch on aging is vulnerable to
special problems of conceptualization and interpretationâ€ (preface). Since individual aging
is deeply intertwined with social change, each can best be understood in its relationship to
the other. Yet most research approaches have tended to focus on only selected aspects of
aging, such as the individual and personality; how the social unit links to individual social
roles; and the cultural and structural aspects of a particular society. Table 3.2 summarizes
some of the major theoretical formulations used by social gerontologists during the 20th and
21st centuries. As you look at the table, be aware that â€œindividualâ€ (or microtheories), â€œindividual and societal level,â€ and â€œsocietal levelâ€ (or macrotheories) classifications of theory are
imperfect, because aging occurs in a specific context and is influenced by historical as well as
In the following sections theories are roughly arranged by whether they center on the individual, the individual and society, or the broader society itself. In some instances, however,
this arrangement is not feasible, because a theory may have a different focus and expand or
contradict another theory that precedes it.
3.2 Twentieth-Century Theories About Later Life
As you will see in the following section, much of the research on aging during the first half of
the 20th century accepted the 19th-century belief that to be elderly was an explicitly or tacitly
undesirable state in an individualistic, activist society such as the United States.
Twentieth-Century Theories About Later Life Chapter 3
A key notion in many theoretical approaches to old age, especially accepted in the first half
of the 20th century, was adjustment to the status of â€œoldâ€ or â€œelderlyâ€ through specific role
behaviors, rather than a developmental or life course approach. As you will recall from Chapter
1, a role is the dynamic aspect of a status: Individuals hold a status and perform a role. For
example, in the status of student, the role is to attend class, do homework, write papers, and
take exams. Failure to play the role associated with the status of student will probably have
negative results, such as flunking out and losing student status. By the 1940s, social gerontologists used the status of â€œoldâ€ or â€œelderlyâ€ and the concept of role to provide a theoretical
frame for predicting adjustment or maladjustment in later life. Activity theory is a microtheory,
focusing on the individual and an individualâ€™s social roles, and is still popular today.
Table 3.2 Summary of Major Theories in Social Gerontology
Theory Primary Focus Key Point
Activity Individual Maintain midlife activities as long as possible to maximize
Continuity Individual A theory of adult development that assumes personality and
coping mechanisms remain stable with aging.
Individual A process of coordinating and balancing the gains and losses
associated with aging to master daily life.
Successful Aging Individual Focuses on life satisfaction and happiness, health, and social
Productive Aging Individual An active older population whose participation in paid or
volunteer work is vital for the well-being of its members.
Disengagement Individual and society Social norms mandate withdrawal from vital social roles to
continue smooth maintenance of society.
Exchange Individual and society Assuming an economicâ€“rational choice behavioral model,
proposes that elderly people are in a lesser bargaining position
than younger people.
Individual and society Through interaction, individuals disengaged from vital social
roles form a subculture of aging based on similar interests.
Age Stratification Individual and society Society is stratified by age and social class; inequality occurs
because it is both theoretically and practically useful to think of
members of society as stratified on the dimension of ages (and
birth cohorts) as well as social class.
Life Course Individual and society Individuals are shaped by the differential effects of membership in a specific birth cohort as well as the different patterns of
their lives from birth to death.
Modernization Individual and society Modernization and industrialization reduced the status and
prestige of the old.
Political Economy Society Social and political hierarchies persist in capitalist societies to
act against the needs and interests of older people.
Critical Society Focus is on patterns of power and domination, the contradictions therein, and potentials for positive social change.
Feminist Society The experiences of women are socially constructed and accumulate disadvantages across the life course.
Twentieth-Century Theories About Later Life Chapter 3
Beliefs About Aging and Old Age
A common belief is that somewhere, in the past or in some distant society, elderly people were
venerated and respected precisely because they were oldâ€”a so-called golden age. Alas, like many
of our treasured beliefs, there is little evidence to substantiate this (Nydegger, 1985). Rather, power
and prestige among elderly people have been largely due to their ability to control goods, knowledge, and other resources.
A society in which eldersâ€”usually menâ€”control goods, knowledge, and resources is called a
gerontocracy. For example, the Samburu of northern Kenya have typically been a gerontocracy,
in which the power of elder men comes from the belief that their curse has religious power. If an
elder curses a younger person for disrespect of any kind, divine punishment will follow. Absolute
obedience and complete devotion to parents was the rule, as was the lower ranking of younger
people. This type of family organization allowed elders to keep a monopoly over the timing of marriages and a manâ€™s number of wives (Spencer, 1965). Few American adults today would welcome
such absolute power of elders in their lives.
Although some historians (e.g., Fischer, 1977) have claimed that a
firmly established gerontocracy existed in colonial America, other
historians (Demos, 1978; Smith, 1978) argue that any high status
enjoyed by elders was due to their control of valued resources.
The retired, the poor, and widows without husbands or children
were often segregated from the rest of society and dependent
upon others for support (Haber, 1983). More important than
chronological age was economic power (Haber, 1983). Those old
men and women who were poor and dependent upon the goodwill of their relatives and the community did not enjoy high status
(Haber & Gratton, 1994). Historical evidence thus suggests there
was no preindustrial golden age for elderly people in the United
States (Achenbaum, 1978).
During the Victorian age of the 19th century, moralists split the
last stage of life into two: the â€œgood old ageâ€ of virtue, health,
independence, and salvation; and the â€œbad old ageâ€ of sin,
disease, dependency, premature death, and damnation (Cole,
1992, pp. 161â€“162). Negative views of old ageâ€”the concept of
bad old ageâ€”abounded during the latter part of the 19th century and persisted throughout the first third of the 20th century
(Achenbaum, 1978). In 1905, for example, Sir William Osler, the
most influential physician of his time, decided to retire at age 55
from the medical faculty of Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, commenting that â€œmen above forty
years of ageâ€ (Cohen, 2012, p. ED20) are useless. Osler apparently made an exception for himself,
since he went on to accept a position at Oxford University that he held until his death at age 70.
From a broader social perspective, commentators who analyzed various social illsâ€”such as the
increasing number of poor people, overcrowded labor markets, or growing numbers of unskilled
workers in the United Statesâ€”hypothesized that elderly people declined in status and fell into poverty almost universally. They were the inevitable casualties of an industrial society. Old age began
to be defined by social scientists, reformers, and physicians alike as a social problem. These and
other experts directly linked old age to poverty and ill health (Haber, 1983, p. 46; Haber & Gratton,
1993, p. 122). From this perspective, old age not only meant physical and mental decline but was
also a social problem associated with modernization and industrialization. The negative view of old
Â© John Warburton Lee / SuperStock
The Samburu of northern
Kenya have typically been
a gerontocracy, in which
older menâ€™s power comes
from the belief that their
curse has religious power.
Twentieth-Century Theories About Later Life Chapter 3
The basic premise of activity theory is that the individual who ages best is one who maintains his or her usual activities as long as possible. The theory is derived from data drawn
primarily from the Kansas City Studies of Adult Life, a 10-year landmark study of midlife
and old age (Cavan, Burgess, Havighurst, & Goldhamer, 1949;
Neugarten, 1964). According to activity theory, people aged 65
and older are not very different from people in midlife. Social
researchers such as Cavan et al. (1949) emphasized activity and
individual life satisfaction as hallmarks of normal (versus pathological) old ageâ€”somewhat akin to the good old age described
by 19th-century moralists. Continued activity in old age preserves
self-concept and ensures higher levels of life satisfaction (Cavan
et al., 1949; Havighurst & Albrecht, 1953; Hadler, 2011). Defying
oneâ€™s age by keeping busy and staying as active as possible are
the keys to a good old age.
How to achieve adjustment and avoid maladjustment in old age
are also topics for research. Older people who identified themselves as â€œelderlyâ€ or â€œoldâ€ were expected to be more maladjusted than those who claimed they were still middle-aged
(Phillips, 1957). The tacit assumption was that old age was best
handled through â€œstaying young.â€ As social gerontologist Robert
Havighurst (1961) summed it up: â€œSuccessful aging means the
maintenance as far and as long as possible of the activities and
attitudes of middle ageâ€ (p. 8). Supporters of activity theory
viewed their tasks as â€œadding life to the years,â€ giving a series of
prescriptions for the individual and society.
Although activity theory is intuitively appealing to Americans
who value individualism and personal independence, empirical
evidence for activity theory has failed to show that activity is integral to life satisfaction.
Lemon, Bengtson, and Peterson (1972) examined social activities and their relationships to
life satisfaction in a retirement community of relatively well-off elders. They found that only
informal activities with friends, such as talking, visiting, and getting together, were significant
determinants of life satisfaction. No other activities with relatives or neighbors, such as participation in voluntary organizations, or solitary leisure and household activities were related
to life satisfaction. A decade later, Longino and Kart (1982) conducted a second test of activity theory in three racially and socioeconomically mixed retirement communities, and again
found that only participation in informal activities was associated with life satisfaction. Put
differently, the informal social supports provided by friendships are important for life satisfaction in old age, but maintaining a high level of activity itself is not.
Activity theory suggests that maintaining activities as long as possible
supports healthy aging. At age
49 Jamie Moyer of the Colorado
Rockies was the oldest pitcher during the 2012 Major League Baseball
age in the 20th century also increased between the two world warsâ€”roughly from 1918 to 1939
To what extent have these two opposing views of good and bad old age shaped theories about
later life? Which specific theoretical perspectives support a negative or a positive view of later life?
Can you find evidence for either approach in your daily observations of people? In current films or
television shows? In political views?
Twentieth-Century Theories About Later Life Chapter 3
Continuity theory is an individual-level and social-psychological theory of adult development. It postulates that personality remains stable with aging (Neugarten, 1964). According
to this theory, despite changes in physical functioning, health, and social situations, people
tend to respond consistently to various situations and deal with the world in habitual ways
that enable them to adapt to changes without experiencing a crisis (Atchley, 1989, 1995a).
This theoretical orientation is based on the assumption that older people assess change from
the perspectives of their long-standing personality traits, interests, and habits, many of which
have been built up over time.
As summarized by Robert Atchley, the theoryâ€™s major
proponent: â€œThe heart of continuity theory is the presumption that people are motivated to continue to
use the adaptive apparatuses they have constructed
throughout adulthood to diagnose situations, chart
future courses, and adapt to changeâ€ (Atchley,
1995a, p. 229). In other words, no dramatic changes
in personality, ways of coping, or preferences for
environment and activities are likely to occur.
According to continuity theory, people all want to
continue the kinds of lives they have had as adults.
For example, if an individual has always solved problems or dealt with others in a certain way, he or
she will continue to do so. Similarly, if a person has
always been outgoing, he or she is likely to continue
to make new friends or engage new situations. If
someone has always felt more comfortable in the
city, a sudden love for the countryside is unlikely to develop. Continuity theory has intuitive
appeal because it emphasizes that personality, problem-solving strategies, and personal preferences do not change with aging but remain relatively constant throughout adulthood.
Much early gerontological theory and research focused not only on the changes that occur in
old age but also on the success with which people solve problems throughout later life.
A more recent individual theory, proposed in the last two decades of the 20th century, is
selective optimization with compensation, which postulates that as an individual ages,
he or she coordinates and balances the gains and losses associated with aging to master
daily life (Baltes & Baltes, 1990; Baltes & Carstensen, 1999). In other words, individuals can
compensate for losses of capacity or control by optimizing their strengths, using old strategies, and developing new strategies to solve problems. This theory differs from activity theory, which postulates that successful aging requires a continuation of middle-aged behaviors
throughout life. It also differs from continuity theory by emphasizing the development of new
adaptive activities or strategies.
A television interview with the late concert pianist Arthur Rubinstein provides an eloquent
example. Rubinstein, then in his 90s, described his strategies for successful concert performance in old age, which included: (a) he performed fewer pieces, (b) he practiced each piece
more frequently, and (c) he introduced more ritardando (slower segments) in his playing before
Â© iStockphoto / Thinkstock
Continuity theory assumes that personality, interests, and habits build up over time. Long-term
friendships support such continuity.
Twentieth-Century Theories About Later Life Chapter 3
fast segments, so that the playing speed sounded
faster than it actually was (Baltes, 1993). Rubinsteinâ€™s
techniques show how he used his musical creativity
and knowledge for selective optimization with compensation, shifting the ratio of gains and losses he
experienced in old age.
This process is not unique to old age, of course.
Throughout our lives, we select goals and ways to
achieve them that maximize gains over losses. All of
us tend to compensate for weaknesses in one area
by optimizing our abilities in other areas in which we
do well or excel. Consider, for example, a student
who performs poorly in mathematics but excels in
history. This person will probably be more inclined to
register for courses in history than in math. Likewise,
a good batter but poor foul-line shooter will probably choose to play baseball rather than basketball.
Those who have played a single sport throughout
their lives also adapt. For example, to compensate for slower reflexes, older tennis players
often switch from playing singles to doubles; to compensate for loss of power, they may use
strokes with more spin; to compensate for decreased mobility, they may add an elbow or knee
brace for support.
According to the selective optimization with compensation theory, the amount or type of
activity is not as important as whether the possible choices suit an individualâ€™s social and
personal characteristics (Dychtwald & Kadlec, 2005). Preserving a sense of consistency and
continuity to maintain life according to oneâ€™s own standards of well-being and activity is key.
This theoretical orientation emphasizes the individuality of aging as an ongoing process of
maximizing gains as one ages, rather than providing a prescription for a good old age.
During the past two decades or so, the theory of successful aging has reemerged in gerontology. In the 1960s, when research on successful aging focused on life satisfaction and adaptation to age-related changes, Havighurst (1961) suggested that successful aging described
maximum levels of satisfaction and happiness. Society, too, plays a role, maintaining a balance
between individual satisfactions and the well-being of elders as a whole (Havighurst, 1961).
Based on the MacArthur Foundation Studies of Aging in America, physicians John Wallis
Rowe and Robert L. Kahn published their results in a 1998 book titled Successsful Aging. They
define successful aging â€œas the ability to maintain three key behaviors or characteristics:
â€¢ low risk of disease and disease-related disability;
â€¢ high mental and physical function; and
â€¢ active engagement with life.â€ (Rowe & Kahn, 1998, p. 38)
Although there is a hierarchical order between the three components of successful agingâ€”
with absence of disease key to maintaining the other twoâ€”each is intertwined. Active engagement with life, or, as one participant in the MacArthur Foundation studies stated, the mindset
of â€œjust keep on going,â€(Rowe & Kahn, 1998, p. 40) is critical to successful aging. Rowe and
Â© Stockbyte / Thinkstock
Selective optimization with compensation suggests that older persons balance age-related
gains and losses to master daily life. In tennis, this
is evident when people develop new strokes, use
more spin, wear support braces, and otherwise
compensate for slower reflexes or physical pain.
Individual and Societal Level Theories Chapter 3
Kahn (1998) give a number of prescriptions
for how to age successfully, including attitudinal, societal, and governmental changes that
would be necessary to ensure successful aging.
At the individual level, when asked how to age
successfully, older people tend to offer advice
that varies but shares some similarities with
both continuity and activity theory. One person, for example, suggested that exercise and
staying healthy was key to aging successfully;
another recommended that older people take
up hobbies and value leisure time. Another recommended staying productive and engaged.
These views of successful aging emphasize the
importance of remaining productive, whether
in paid work, volunteerism, or informal caregiving (Rowe & Kahn, 1998).
Allied to the theoretical perspective proposed by Rowe and Kahn is that of productive aging,
which echoes themes of activity theory. There are various definitions of productive aging.
These include the 1982 suggestion that people can and must facilitate their personal and
social productivity (Butler & Gleason, 1982). A more recent idea proposed by Bass, Caro, and
Chen (1993) defines productive aging as anything that produces goods or services or develops
capacities to work productively, whether they are paid or unpaid.
A major criticism of productive aging is that it has proceeded without definite agreement about
what constitutes productiveness and without a research agenda (Morrow-Hall, Hinterlong, &
Sherraden, 2001). Successful aging, activity theory, and productive aging theory are more
prescriptions for a good old age than tightly constructed theories subject to empirical testing.
Nevertheless, both successful aging and productive aging are open to many different individual and cultural interpretations. The real danger in stressing successful aging using these
definitions is that people who have incapacitating illnesses are stigmatized as aging unsuccessfully; in actuality, they may be optimizing their capacities, given their limitations (Baltes
& Baltes, 1990). Paradoxically, it is the young old, not the old old, who complain most
about age-related changes. The very old cope using both behavioral and cognitive skills. For
example, very old people may scale back their roles and activities to be more manageable
and decide how to redefine what they can do to maintain control of their lives. Even very old
people who have lived relatively mundane lives can have a sense of well-being (Johnson &
Barer, 1996). As Johnson and Barer (1996) noted about the very old respondents they interviewed: â€œFeeling in control, the world is controllableâ€ (p. viii).
3.3 Individual and Societal Level Theories
The theoretical orientations discussed so far focus on the individual rather than on the society
in which we grow old. The following theories examine the impact of the society on the aging
process. They focus not on how to manage or adapt to old age but on how the structure of
society influences individual life trajectories, statuses, and roles in later life.
Â© Alija / Getty Images
Successful aging describes maximum levels of satisfaction and happiness. This womenâ€™s rock band has performed for many years with much success.
Individual and Societal Level Theories Chapter 3
Developing a Productive Aging Gerontology Program
By Frank Caro, PhD, Emeritus Professor of Gerontology,
McCormick Graduate School, University of Massachusetts.
In the late 1990s the Gerontology Program at the University of Massachusettsâ€“Boston (UMass
Boston) achieved national prominence by emphasizing the importance of productive aging, a
theme that emphasizes the ability of older people to make positive social and economic contributions. Welcomed by many gerontologists, it provided a contrast to themes that focus on declining
health and loss of earning power in old age.
The origins of a gerontology program at UMass Boston go back to the late 1970s, when Murray
Frank, a dean who had a major interest in workforce issues, proposed a demonstration program to
train older workers for employment in aging services. The program was made possible by a grant
from the Administration on Aging, and Scott Bass, a young community psychologist, was hired to
help design the program and later to assist in its administration. After the grant ended, the training
program became part of the regular curriculumâ€”a 1-year program offering academic credit that
authorized state educational institutions to grant waivers of tuition and fees to students over age
60. A very popular program, it enrolled as many as 60 students each year. Although some enrollees
used the program to develop employment skills, the majority used it as a basis to make contributions that are more significant to aging programs throughout eastern Massachusetts (Bass, 1986).
A basic part of the curriculum was an action research course that examined issues affecting older
people in the region. The studies conducted by the UMass students helped gain visibility for the
program (Bass, 1987). The success of the program not only persuaded the university to establish
one of the nationâ€™s first PhD programs in gerontology, but also convinced the Massachusetts state
legislature to provide the university with funds to establish the Gerontology Institute.
The program attracted additional faculty from different disciplines. For example, Robert Morris, a
distinguished retired Brandeis University gerontologist, participated as a volunteer because of the
programâ€™s emphasis on the ability of older people to contribute as volunteers (Morris & Bass, 1988)
and later collaborated on an edited book on retirement that was broadly concerned with productive aging. This led to other collaborative efforts concerned with productive aging, and a variety of
scholars contributed to a 1993 volume on productive aging edited by Bass, Caro, and Chen. The
introductory chapter offered a definition of productive aging that emphasizes socially or economically valued activities. Although Robert Butler had introduced the concept of productive aging in
1985, the definition used in this book differs from his, which focused on activities beneficial to
health (Butler & Gleason, 1985).
Additional work on productive agingâ€”a national survey of older people on their productive
activitiesâ€”was made possible by a grant from the Commonwealth Fund and resulted in another
edited book (Bass, 1995) that called further attention to the productive aging theme.
This groundbreaking theoretical work on productive aging was rooted in the experiences of the
faculty at UMass Boston in providing training to capable and highly motivated older people. These
people used their training to make highly appreciated contributions as volunteers in many aging
service settings in the Boston area.
In the program described above, what definitions of productive aging predominated? What age
groups of people were targeted for training? Do you think their training enhanced their own productivity (however defined) and that they enhanced the productivity of the older adults for whom
they were volunteers? Why?
Individual and Societal Level Theories Chapter 3
Challenging the individualistic activity perspective, sociologist Elaine Cumming and psychologist William Henry (1961) also used data from the Kansas City Studies of Adult Life to develop
disengagement theory, recognized as the first formal theory of aging by social scientists
(Lynott & Lynott, 1996). Disengagement theory centers on the smooth functioning of a
society rather than on individual adjustment or attitudes. Inherent in the theory is that individual lives are played out within and governed by a society with a preexisting set of social
norms to maintain societal continuity and stability. According to this argument, because aging
and death are universal and a decline in abilities probable, societal norms mandate individual
withdrawal from the most vital social roles. The social system deals with this by institutionalizing disengagement between older people and society. In other words, individuals either
choose to occupy fewer statuses (as in the case of voluntary retirement) or are forced out of
them (as in mandatory retirement or layoffs of older workers). For example, the older man
who chooses to retire from his job as a teacher and decides to sail his boat around the harbor
is voluntarily withdrawing from the status of teacher and making room for another, younger
teacher. The older, middle-management executive who is â€œreorganized outâ€ of the company
against his or her will to make room for a younger employee is forced to relinquish his or her
status. The roles and authority previously reserved for older people are passed on to younger
people. A disengaged person is not inactive, however, but often maintains a high level of
activity in smaller numbers and varieties of social roles.
Disengagement theory has been criticized for many reasons. A major reason is misunderstanding about the term disengagement. This term does not mean apathetic withdrawal
or inactivity, but rather fewer socially mandated roles as older generations are replaced by
younger generations. The importance, not of continuation of the same activity, but of personally meaningful roles is thus an often overlooked but essential thread running through
disengagement theory. The retired teacher may play the role of sailor or angler; the ex-management executive may focus on neighborhood improvement, and so on.
This theory remains important for several reasons. First, as noted above, it was the first social
science theory to be a formal theoryâ€”that is, a stated set of linked propositions designed
to explain something. It is therefore more amenable
to empirical testing than activity theory, continuity
theory, successful aging theory, or productive aging
theory. Second, it challenged a major premise of
activity theoryâ€”that successful old age was a continuation of middle ageâ€”by proposing that old age
is a distinct life stage characterized by roles different in quantity and quality from those of earlier life.
Third, it was perhaps the first explicit recognition of
gender differences in aging. It remains debatable
whether growing old is easier for women than men,
as Cumming (1963) suggested, but certainly there
are gender differences in how old age is experienced.
Later work, for example, suggested that flexibility
in gender rolesâ€”a balance between stereotypically
male and female behaviorâ€”is associated with both
life satisfaction and greater longevity (Monge, 1975;
Sinott, 1977). Moreover, there is some evidence that,
as we age, we become more androgynous. This
Â© Blend Images / SuperStock
According to disengagement theory, as people
age they withdraw from social roles, either
voluntarily or by force. For example, a person
may choose to retire or may be forced into
Individual and Societal Level Theories Chapter 3
means we take on some of the personality characteristics usually associated with the opposite
sex; men become more nurturing and women more assertive (see Chapter 5).
Lastly, and most important, disengagement theory stimulated the development of theories
during the 1970s and onward. Roseâ€™s subculture of aging, Dowdâ€™s exchange theory, Cowgill
and Holmesâ€™s modernization theory examining aging in cross-cultural perspective, and Rileyâ€™s
age stratification are but a few. Several approaches during the 1960s and 1970s explored
social forces associated with the relatively disadvantaged position of elderly people in industrialized society. This chapter briefly examines each of these, along with evidence that substantiates or refutes the premises. As you read, think about the extent to which each takes
account of the diversity and heterogeneity of elderly people. To what extent is membership
in the social hierarchies of race, ethnicity, gender, and social class discussed or ignored in
Social theorists at the turn of the 20th century cited industrialization and modernization as
major culprits in lowering the power and influence of elderly people. This perspective was
expounded more fully by various theorists (Ogburn & Nimkoff, 1940; Simmons, 1945; Cottrell,
1960) and elaborated as modernization theory in the 1970s by Cowgill and Holmes (1972)
and Cowgill (1974). Like disengagement theory, this approach is a macrolevel formulation,
focused more on the social structure of a society than on the individual. The modernization
approach views industrialization as the reason for diminished power and prestige of older
people. According to modernization theory, as a society moves from a rural, agrarianbased society to an urban, technology-based system, older peopleâ€™s leadership roles, power,
and influence decrease. With rapid social change, their skills and knowledge become obsolete. This results in elders being more likely to be excluded from community life.
Another major assumption of the modernization theory is that the status of older people
is drastically different from that of previous centuries. The idea of elders as the povertystricken discards of modern society is deeply rooted in well-intentioned social reform; early
20th-century advocates for elderly people inaccurately stressed the neediness of all elders
so they could push for retirement pension laws. Rather than reducing the status of elderly
people in the United States, however, recent historical research suggests that modernization
resulted in real gains in wealth of the average American. By the first decades of the 20th
century, most older persons â€œpossessed wealth and assets that were unattainable to all but a
few preindustrial eldersâ€ (Haber & Gratton, 1994, p. 175). Moreover, the majority of the old
of yesterday and today have never been impoverished or socially isolated, although a persistent minority of eldersâ€”widowed women, women without families, African Americans,
immigrants, and ethnic minoritiesâ€”have been mired in poverty over the centuries (Haber &
Gratton, 1994). Others have recently become poor due to economic inequities such as high
While no longer a widely accepted theory in gerontology, modernization theory helped stimulate research about the status of elders in different societies and historical periods. We now
know that cultural definitions of old age and the respect accorded to older people have
varied widely from culture to culture, with dramatic implications for how they are treated
(Sokolovsky, 1993). Even within a specific preindustrial society, images of aging are variable
and complex, influenced by degree of family support, gender, class position, and health. For
example, in one male-dominated Andean society in Peru in which the prestige of all females
is low, female power and prestige are separated from age. Having a miserable lifeâ€”ranging
Individual and Societal Level Theories Chapter 3
from being overworked as a child or young bride to being abandoned by a husbandâ€”rather
than age, is the basis for the assignment of prestige; the more wretched the life, the higher
the womanâ€™s prestige among other women (Mitchell, 1998).
Like modernization theory, exchange theory reflects the economic (and therefore social) bargaining power of elders in modern society. Exchange theory differs from modernization
theory in that it focuses on the economic and social power that older people lack in comparison to younger adults in an industrialized society. The premise of exchange theory is that
people tend to act in ways that bring them the most benefit at the least cost. Individuals, like
corporations, make rational choices about the relative worth of what they can gain in contrast
to what they must give up (the cost) to achieve a goal. Ideally, individuals have a surplus of
goods, knowledge, money, energy, affection, and so on to exchange for something they want
others to provide. Some people, however, have a greater surplus than others.
In contemporary industrialized society, exchange theory postulates that elders are no longer
able to bargain equally in social exchanges. For a variety of reasons, societyâ€™s younger people
do not generally value what older people have to offer (Dowd, 1975). The workers who
once exchanged skills for wages lose bargaining power upon retirement. Either their skills are
devalued or, as older workers, their experience is discounted in favor of younger workers. A
dependent widow living with her married children and grandchildren may have to adapt her
wishes and patterns of actions to theirs; since she is no longer the family head, her power
as decision maker in the home is diminished. However, some older people do maintain their
economic power; a wealthy parent or grandparent can influence decision making by younger
family members by rewarding or threatening to withdraw financial support.
Loss of bargaining power is not inextricably associated with old age because, as Dowd pointed
out, the nature and degree of power possessed by elders is associated with individual socioeconomic status, ethnicity, race, economic resources, and social policies. Although Dowd accepted
the dubious premise that the position of older people has worsened due to modernization, he
noted that greater economic autonomy, increased Social Security benefits, and reemployment
of older workers after retirement could improve their bargaining ability in the future, as could a
coalition of older people to protest their social and economic situation (Dowd, 1975). This topic
is explored more fully in the subculture of aging theory discussed in the next section.
Subculture of Aging
A third approach is Arnold Roseâ€™s (1962) theory of the subculture of aging. Accepting Cumming
and Henryâ€™s premise that elders are disengaged from society, Rose examined both the disadvantages and potential advantages that expulsion from vital social roles can have. He noted
that older Americans experience diminished self-concepts as they age because society tends
to place a higher value on younger people. Therefore, elders who endure exclusion from
major social roles as well as a diminished sense of self tend to band together as a group, or
subculture, and become more homogenous. Rose claimed that this seemingly negative attribute of aging may be offset by group identification and consciousness, presenting a potential
for unified social action. In other words, the subculture of aging implies that older people tend
to identify with each otherâ€™s common interests and take positive action, often in the form of
exerting political power to change views and policies toward older people.
Individual and Societal Level Theories Chapter 3
This approach assumed that, simply because of chronological age, people become more similar. Whether this actually happens is debatable. Both heterogeneity and diversity are the most
outstanding hallmarks of later life. Consider, for example, the difference in life experiences
between a 65-year-old rural Black woman who lives below the poverty level in the Deep
South and a 65-year-old White male who lives in a suburban mansion after retiring on a handsome pension from his position as a corporate executive. While the people in these examples
may share the same age, their lifestyles, opportunities, and daily lives are worlds apart. So are
their life experiences and possible allegiances in political and social action. As you will see in
Chapter 9, older Americans have rarely formed a unified political force in American society.
However, the potential of â€œgray powerâ€ should not be ignored, because issues regarding
Medicare, Social Security, and other programs with a direct impact on older people increasingly receive attention in political elections.
First proposed in the 1970s by Matilda White Riley and her associates (Riley, Johnson, & Foner,
1972), the age stratification theory proposes it is both theoretically and practically useful
to think of societyâ€™s members as stratified along both age and social class. According to this
view, middle-aged and older adults have greater control over resources such as income, savings, political power, and the media because of the positions they hold in various institutions
and organizations. Their education, experiences, and knowledge give them access to powerful statuses. For some, this power carries over into old age. Calling attention to the importance of birth cohort, Riley emphasized the significance of the period in history in which we
live and its interaction with our chronological age. For example, members of the large baby
boom cohorts born in the decades following World War II faced greater competition for jobs
and affordable housing than did smaller cohorts born during the Great Depression years of
The study of cohorts allows us to separate the effects of biological aging from the impact
of being a particular age at a given historical period. For example, we now know that many
age-related declines in mental functioning are not actually due to aging but rather to historical differences in the length of schooling. Living through the same slice of history, however,
has different effects on various age groups. This â€œcohort effectâ€ can be seen in the differing
impact of the Great Depression on various generations. Those who were coming of age in the
1930s have never forgotten the fear of unemployment and instant poverty, and it still shows
in their strong support of Social Security. Their children, however, have only vague memories
of that fear and are less committed to preserving the safety net. Meanwhile, their grandchildren have been willing to risk part of their old age benefits in the stock market, the very
institution whose collapse led to the Great Depression. Thus, stratificationâ€”that is, a personâ€™s
place in the social orderâ€”is a result both of the personâ€™s cohort (when he or she was born)
and the social power the person has achieved over his or her lifetime.
Largely accepted in social gerontology today, age stratification is especially useful to show
that some of the presumably fixed, built-in life stages proposed by earlier social scientists and
physicians alike reflect the experiences of a particular cohort (Riley, Johnson, & Foner, 1972).
Thus, great caution must be used in making sweeping generalizations about â€œnormal aging.â€
What is normal aging for one birth cohort may not be normal for another. As Riley, Foner, and
Riley (1999) stated, â€œBecause society changes, members of different cohorts, born at different
times, age in different ways. . . . [Hence,] the lives of those who are growing old today cannot
Individual and Societal Level Theories Chapter 3
be the same as the lives of those who grew old in the past or of those who will grow old in
the futureâ€ (p. 333). This has given rise to other theoretical approaches that will be discussed
in this chapter.
According to age stratification theory, because the population that is currently aged 65 and
older contains several distinct cohorts (with some born in the early 20th century and others
at midcentury), one cannot speak of â€œthe elderlyâ€ as an undifferentiated mass. Birth cohorts
vary in the way they physically age, the opportunities and obstacles they encounter, and the
concerns they bring to late life. One birth cohortâ€™s shared history and opportunities thus
shape its membersâ€™ life experiences and aging very differently from another birth cohortâ€™s.
An individualâ€™s location in a specific birth cohort determines his or her statuses and roles and
forms his or her attitudes or actions. The so-called generation gap refers to the experiences
of different birth cohorts, as well as to age norms for appropriate role behavior for the different cohorts.
This is true about even mundane, everyday preferences and behaviors. Thinking about differences in everyday preferences and behaviors, consider the musical tastes of the now old. Many
were teenagers or young adults in the 1940s and early 1950s, when the big band sounds of
Benny Goodman and the crooning of Frank Sinatra were popular. This cohort is likely to prefer
Sinatra, big band sounds, and other music of this era to rock and roll or hip-hop. Those growing up in the 1960s may prefer the Beatles, Bob Marley, or the Rolling Stones to the music
their parents preferred in old age. When those growing up in the 1990s are old, however,
they will be more likely to listen to Nirvana or Hole than to the music loved by their parents or
grandparents. And those growing up in the early years of the 21st century are likely to have a
greater appreciation for the music of Adele, Rihanna, Lady Gaga, Jay-Z, and BeyoncÃ©.
Age stratification paved the way for the life course theoretical perspective, which focuses
on individuals, the different patterns of their lives from birth to death, and the differential
effects of membership in a specific birth cohort. The life course approach proposes that the
meaning of age in any society is formulated and constructed by the society and period of history in which people live.
Although this theoretical orientation is perhaps the most widely recognized approach in social
gerontology today, it has been developing in the social sciences for more than 40 years. For
example, as early as 1964 one sociologist, Leonard Cain (1964), proposed to â€œsystematize a
life course frame of reference and advance sociology of age statusâ€ (p. 273), suggesting that
terms such as life cycle, life span, career, and stage of life are synonyms for the concept of
life course. For Cain (1964) the life course refers primarily to â€œthose successive statuses individuals are called upon to occupy in various cultures and walks of life as a result of agingâ€
(p. 278). Riley (1979) called attention to the emerging life course, which contains four central
principles: (a) aging is a lifelong biological, psychological, and social process; (b) it is affected
by social and environmental change; (c) it is affected by history; and (d) new patterns of aging
can cause social change. Glen Elder, perhaps the preeminent scholar in the field, defines the
life course as â€œa sequence of socially defined events and roles that the individual enacts over
timeâ€ (Giele & Elder, 1998). Elder â€œplaces the individual and structural life course in historical
time. . . . [sic] A major contribution to theorizing the life course . . . in his book Children of the
Great Depressionâ€ (Marshall & Bengtson, 2011, p. 23).
Individual and Societal Level Theories Chapter 3
This theoretical orientation postulates that all members of a birth cohort share a common
experience of living through the same historical period, such as growing up during the Great
Depression, the Korean War, or the Vietnam War. Because of living through the same time
period, they experience similar challenges. Recall from the preceding discussion that members of the large baby boom cohorts born in the decades following World War II faced
greater competition for jobs and affordable housing than did cohorts born during the Great
Depression. Younger people today face a high unemployment rate, high costs of college
tuition, and a debt structure likely to affect their lives in the future.
Although members of a given birth cohort share the same slice of history, Elderâ€™s research
indicated that shared history is not the only factor that affects how they age. Rather, shared
history intertwines with race, gender, social class, and historical events to affect an individualâ€™s
life course. For example, middle-class and working-class women differently experienced both
the Great Depression and their subsequent old age. Although women of both social classes
were disadvantaged by their status as females in a male-dominated society, and both suffered
economic losses during the Depression years, higher-status women fared better. Middle-class
women who lived through the Great Depression were more likely to have feelings of mastery
and assertiveness in old age, whereas working-class women were more likely to feel passive
and helpless (Elder, 1974).
To understand the complexity of the life course, we must also distinguish between predictable
and relatively durable strains of daily life. These include scheduled and transitional life events
like graduation from high school and college; courtship and marriage; childbirth; and less
expected, unscheduled events such as job loss, shutting down or moving oneâ€™s workplace,
war, environmental catastrophes, and so forth. Social gerontologists need to observe both the
event itself and ways in which people experience, adapt, and find social support to cope with
them and how they negotiate the life course (Marshall & Bengston, 2011).
Although cohort members encounter the same major events in an eraâ€”whether an economic
depression, a war, or even the popularity of particular television programs, music, sports, and
so forthâ€”the meaning of these events varies. Important also in the life course is the timing
of life transitions, events, and behaviors in a personâ€™s life (Elder, 1998). For example, some
people may become grandparents at 40, others at 60 or even 80. The timing of this event is
a milestone in â€œbecoming oldâ€ for most people. Norms identify appropriate times for most
transitions, such as marriage and retirement. Events are â€œon timeâ€ if they occur according to
accepted norms; â€œoff-timeâ€ if they do not. The marriage of two 15-year-olds, for example,
would be considered an off-time event in the United States and probably would have very
different social consequences for the life courses of these young people than if they married
at age 25.
Although sociohistorical events influence oneâ€™s present life and shape future responses to
social and economic stress, people also differ in age-related capacities, life chances, and
social constraints. Everyoneâ€™s life is linked to the lives of others; that is, our social relationships are intertwined with the events of our life course and in old age. Each of us constructs
our individual biographies in different ways throughout our life course. We make choices and
compromises based on our capacities, the opportunities we perceive available to us, and the
opportunities that are actually available to us.
At the societal level, our birth cohort and the sociohistorical events through which we live also
shape life opportunities and lifestyle (Dannefer & Uhlenberg, 1999). Different patterns at the
Individual and Societal Level Theories Chapter 3
individual level encompass ascribed characteristics such as gender, race, ethnicity, and contextual biographical characteristics, including social class membership when growing up or
as a young adult. These characteristics are internalized and have an enduring significance on
subsequent life. For example, males who were 18 to 24 during the Vietnam War years either
had to serve in the military or seek an exemption. Whether they were drafted or exempted
had a profound impact on their futures. For example, those returning from service were not
celebrated by opponents of the war; those who were exempted were possibly resented by
those who served. In addition, unlike previous generations who served, Vietnam veterans did
not receive GI bill benefits for their education, as veterans of previous wars had. Many of their
peers who did not serve in the military often protested the war and, if in school, were able to
continue their education.
Although members of your birth cohort live through similar social and historical events as
you, and experience them at more or less the same age, each of your life chances will differ.
Everyoneâ€™s life chances are shaped by their socioeconomic positionâ€”the social and economic
resources available to that person. Your ability to attain successâ€”however you may define
itâ€”will be shaped not only by your individual ability to command economic resources and
personal attributes, but also by the size of your birth cohort and its life chances or opportunities. What impact will the economic recession have on your life? On your job prospects? How
is this different from your parentsâ€™ experience? If you already have children, how do you think
their lives will differ from yours?
The life course approach emphasizes the importance of early life experiences, environmental factors, and sociohistorical factors to explain the dramatic heterogeneity and diversity
in growing old. Aging, although a universal process, varies widely among individuals, as do
sources of satisfaction in later life. Older people interpret their life experiences in many different ways that relate not only to their individual characteristics but also to their social class,
race, and ethnicity.
Â© Comstock / Thinkstock
Lifestyle is shaped by a familyâ€™s socioeconomic
position, that is, the social and economic resources
available to them. Lifestyle also shapes the next
generationâ€™s life chances.
Â© Spencer Grant / Getty Images
The limited social and economic resources available
to the families at this food bank are likely to negatively impact their childrenâ€™s life chances.
Power and Inequality Approaches Chapter 3
3.4 Power and Inequality Approaches
The past few decades have witnessed a theoretical shift which set new directions for examining old age. Social theorists turned their critical lenses inward, examining their previous
assumptions about aging. They have begun to examine the so-called facts of aging. One of
their biggest criticisms is the concept of age-as-leveler; the assumption that old age is somewhat like a giant mixer where everyone is blended into one bland substance or leveled out (Su
& Ferraro, 1997, Ferraro & Shippee 2009).
Age-as-leveler assumes that other differencesâ€”such as race, ethnicity, social class, and genderâ€”become irrelevant once one is old. The notion of age-as-leveler ignores how membership in these social hierarchies affects the many ways in which people grow old. For example,
both the activity and disengagement theoretical approaches were based on relatively homogeneous, middle-class, primarily White samples of elders living in Kansas City, excluding the
importance of race, ethnicity, and social class membership.
Race, Social Class, and Ethnicity
Upon discrediting the idea that age renders everyone equal, theorists began to analyze the factors
that make people â€œunequalâ€ as they age, such as
power and the interplay among race, social class,
and ethnicity. The concept of double jeopardy was
introduced by Talley in 1956 to take into account the
compounding effect of both age and membership
in an oppressed minority group. In other words, an
older Black American is likely to face more adversity than an older White American. This concept
has been subsequently expanded to include older
women, gays, and lesbians (Calasanti & Slevin, 2001;
While many theories tend to focus on minority disadvantages, such as racial discrimination, poverty,
and limited life chances, there also appear to be
some advantages to aging as part of a minority
group. For example, studies have shown that several factors enhance life satisfaction among very old
African Americans. These include strong social supports from family, friends, and religion; the satisfaction of surviving lifelong discrimination;
and African American cultural values that emphasize old age as a natural process (Johnson,
1995; Akers & Coble, 2010). Similarly, for members of minority groups who have faced a lifetime of discrimination and limited upward mobility opportunities, a racially and/or ethnically
homogeneous community can provide a haven in a hostile world (McAuley, 1998).
Nonetheless, as Dressel, Minkler, and Yen (1997) point out, focus on social adversity has unintentionally portrayed disadvantaged elders as victims, ignoring the strengths that minority
groups also possess. By emphasizing differences among groups, the meaning of aging and its
positive dynamics within groups are ignored.
Â© Comstock / Thinkstock
Although people might be the same age, their
experiences vary widely within their birth cohort.
For example, a 65-year-old White male who
retires from a powerful corporate position will
have different later life opportunities, values,
and experiences than a 65-year-old poor Black
woman from a rural community.
Power and Inequality Approaches Chapter 3
Gender and Feminist Theory
Gender and its relationship to aging and inequality are relatively new to age theories. Estes
(2006) developed four premises of a critical feminist perspective to explain womenâ€™s standpoint. These build upon both a life course orientation and a critical theory perspective (Marshall
& Bengston, 2011). Briefly, critical theory focuses on patterns of power and domination,
examines their contradictions, and assesses potential for change. This theory is discussed in
detail later in this chapter. The premises of a critical feminist perspective are presented below
in Table 3.3.
Table 3.3 Critical Feminist Perspective of Womenâ€™s Aging
The experiences of women across the life course are socially constructed.
The life experiences and problems of older women are not the product of individual behavior and decisions.
Womenâ€™s disadvantage accumulates across the life course.
Womenâ€™s marginalization results from lifelong oppressions of race, ethnicity, class, and sexuality.
Building on these premises, feminist social gerontologists have looked at the intersection
of gender inequality with age. Studies in this area have shown that women and men gain
identities and power in relation to one another, but socially dictated gender behavior mostly
privileges men. Men have a tendency to gain unearned advantages at the expense of women
(Calasanti, 2010; West & Fenstermaker, 1995). Examples aboundâ€”in wages, career opportunities, organized religion, politics, and even organized sports. In Western industrialized
societies, social structures are organized around gender; popular ideals of manhood and
womanhood result from and affirm a gendered division of labor, authority, and social status
(Calasanti & Slevin, 2001).
To understand how gender shapes later life, gerontologists look at how gender is constructed
over the life span and its persistent influence in old age (Calasanti & Slevin, 2001; Calasanti,
2010). For example, at age 65 and older, women face greater financial insecurity, with poverty
rates almost double those of older men (11.9% versus 6.7%). Their income is 57% of older
menâ€™s income (Administration on Aging, 2011). This income differential reflects the many
reasons for gender gaps in pay throughout the life course. These gaps remain throughout life
for women because their lifetime salaries were lower, they will receive lower Social Security
benefits, and they are less likely to have private pensions (see Chapter 8).
Political Economy of Aging
Focus on the political economy of aging has enlarged awareness about the importance of
social structure and membership in social hierarchies, such as how social resource allocations
complement age stratification, which largely ignores the differences in power between men
and women, rich and poor, and disadvantaged minorities, and the impact of these differences
on the less powerful.
The political economy perspective focuses not on individual aging but on how aging is affected
by living in a particular kind of society. As summed up by Quadagno and Reid (1999):
The political economy perspective on age highlights how socioeconomic institutions
affect individuals over the life course and how they influence their social and economic well-being in old age . . . , [shifting] the focus of gerontological research from
Power and Inequality Approaches Chapter 3
the individualâ€™s ability to adapt to aging to an examination of broader social processes. . . . The outcome for any particular person depends both on his or her relative
position in the social hierarchies of gender, social class, [and] race/ethnicity and [on]
the ways in which governmental policies often reinforce these hierarchies in old age.
Implicit in the political economy approach is concern about whether the needs and philosophy
of a capitalist society can be reconciled with the needs of elders. The British sociologist Chris
Phillipson (1982) argued that the priorities of a capitalist society usually make social and individual needs less important than the search for profits. From this perspective, older people are
likely to be caught between their need for better services and the steady decline of facilities,
as well as cuts in their standard of living imposed by the demands for greater profits by the
most powerful social classes (Ferraro & Shippee, 2009; Ferraro, 2007).
Carroll Estes has been a leading American spokesperson for the political economy approach
to aging. She, along with her associates, proposed that the course of the aging process is
conditioned by each individualâ€™s location in societyâ€™s stratification systems and the economic
and social factors that affect that position (Estes, 1979; Minkler & Estes, 1991). According
to Estes (1991), experts have a disproportionate say in how we define old age and how
resources for older people will be allocated. Those who control definitions of aging in effect
control access to old age benefits such as medical care, as well as the personal and public
costs of care and the structure of health care delivery. Currently, public money and professional effort are disproportionately expended on institutional (hospital and nursing home)
medical services for elderly people. Both reflect
a definition of health care that is the product of
the professional dominance of medicine and a
guarantee of a profitable medical care industry
Social programs designed to benefit older people not only have created an â€œaging establishmentâ€ that regulates the distribution of social
resources to elders, but also have often benefited business interests more than those of
older people. Consider, for example, the following nursing home example, in which business
interests took precedence over care of the residents: Based on almost 200,000 reports, about
20% of the facilities received deficiency citations. Deficiency citations are given to nursing
homes that violate Medicare/Medicaid regulations in four categories: abuse, neglect by staff,
criminal screening investigation and reporting,
and policy development and implementation
At the same time, many older people have clearly benefited from programs targeted at elderly
people. Social Security and Medicare, despite their limitations, are but two examples. A major
contribution of political economy has been to call attention to the persistence of social hierarchies and inequities in old age and tie to public issues the private problems of individual
elders, such as poverty and inequality.
Â© Michael Reynolds / epa / Corbis
New female members of the 112th U.S. Congress
pose for a photo on the East Front steps of the U.S.
House of Representatives. Although women constitute more than half of the U.S. population, they held
only 73 (17%) out of 435 seats in the U.S. House of
Representatives in 2011, a discrepancy which indicates
their low status in the overall social hierarchy.
Theoretical Frameworks and Classification of the Several Ages in Old Age Chapter 3
Recently, critical theory stresses the need to examine aging paradigms and the later life premises they make. Critical theory focuses primarily on how models of aging developed by gerontologists have become too abstract and do not reflect the real lives of older women and
men. As a result, elderly people become the â€œotherâ€â€”objects rather than subjects of study.
In contrast, critical theory seeks to expose patterns of power and domination, show the contradictions of these two patterns, assess potential for change, and criticize the system to bring
about change (Moody, 1988). Critical theory emphasizes social justice and focuses on applying
social research toward human betterment, especially the condition of the powerlessâ€”minorities, people of color, and women. Relying on the political economy tradition, critical gerontology adds a focus on the plight of elderly people. As Moody (1993), a leading spokesperson for
the critical approach in aging, has emphasized, â€œAbove all, critical gerontology is concerned
with the problem of emancipation from all forms of domination . . . identifying possibilities
for emancipatory social change, including positive ideals for later lifeâ€ (p. xv). Critical theory,
feminist, and political economy theoretical orientations have expanded thinking about how
models about aging and old age are constructed, interpreted, and applied in real life. It has
also challenged older theories and assumptions in social gerontology.
3.5 Theoretical Frameworks and Classification
of the Several Ages in Old Age
Increased life expectancy, growing proportions of the population over age 65, and lower
levels of disability among older people have led some sociologists and gerontologists to
reconceptualize old age into two segments: the third and the fourth age. The third age is
the period in life that occurs after retirement but prior to the onset of disability. First used
in a policy report written by French gerontologists (Laroque, 1962), the concept of the third
age introduced a new ideological framework for old age as a social category, opposing
ageist beliefs and fears that an increasingly elderly population would engulf social benefits.
Third agers were described as both producers and consumers, suggesting that the third age
was intended to change older adultsâ€™ social roles and status. No longer were older adults to
be depicted as frail and needy but as healthy retirees who could and should be active and
integrated into society.
In the United States Bernice Neugarten (1964) argued a similar theme. She proposed that
changes in the composition of the older population called for a new way of classifying older
people into two groupsâ€”the young old and oldest old. Suzman and Riley (1985) proposed
still another category: the oldest oldâ€”people aged 85 and older. Others have suggested
three age groupsâ€”the young old, the old old, and the oldest old. These can be referred to as
the â€œfrisky, the frail, and the fragileâ€ (Cain, 1964), and, more playfully, the â€œgo-go, slow-go,
and no-goâ€ (Marshall & Bengtson, 2011).
With an increasingly healthy and active older population, productive aging as a concept
became popular (see earlier discussion in this chapter). The growing number of healthy retirees became seen as a resource to society and their active engagement as vital for their wellbeing (Butler & Gleason, 1985; Carr & Komp, 2011). In short, healthy retirees use their vitality
to give back to society, rather than draining societal resources.
Theoretical Frameworks and Classification of the Several Ages in Old Age Chapter 3
Despite its popularity in the social sciences and in the mass media, the concept of the third
age remains controversial. Some criticize it because retirement and retirement benefits remain
based on a dated social construction of when old age begins (Brown & Lynch, 2011; George,
2011). Old age social policies lag behind the life expectancy, health status, and economic wellbeing of the now old. Both legislative policies and social attitudes have not kept pace with
improvements in the well-being of older adults.
Others criticize the concept of the third age as an elitist, middle- and upper-class model. They
argue that healthy aging is a privilege primarily available to high-status individuals, most of
whom are White. Yet studies show that many elders, especially members of minorities, tend
to be poor and sick (Carr & Komp, 2011). If only privileged groups experience the third age, it
is not a normative, or standard, sequence of later life.
In short, the concepts of the third and fourth age remain more popular rhetoric than empirically verified. Not all fourth agers are unproductive and in poor health, and not all third agers
are healthy and productive (Laslett, 1996). The two concepts need further analysis to shed
light on the health and productivity of both women and men in later life (Komp, 2011). What
is known about how class, race, gender, lifestyles, and opportunities influence who experiences the third age or fourth age? Is there an inevitable transition from one to the next, and
if so, why?
Trends in Applied Research
At the same time, gerontology has moved from theorizing about the basic processes of aging
to applied gerontology. This involves featuring models, focusing on quick-term, programrelated studies, and large-scale social surveys. Such surveys are often collected for another
purpose, at an arbitrary point in time, or repeated at intervals. Although not usually based on
a specific theoretical perspective, these data have begun to recast old assumptions about the
life course and to challenge beliefs about aging. For example, research has shown that family, education, health, work, and leisure patterns occur throughout life at different, and often
later, ages than were previously believed to occur (Oâ€™Rand & Campbell, 1999; Riley, Foner, &
Riley, 1999; Mortimer & Shanahan, 2006; Marshall & Clarke, 2007). Transitions of life events
have also become blurred. The line between worker and retiree has become less well defined,
because many people who have retired reenter the labor force in part-time jobs and even
pursue further education.
In order to advance our knowledge of the full complexities of aging, the field of social gerontology needs in-depth studies to examine comparable time periods and historical and cultural
contexts (Oâ€™Rand & Campbell, 1999). But such factual data also need to be linked to relevant
theoretical frameworks. As Bengtson et al. observed, â€œin their quest to examine aspects of
individual and social aging, researchers have been quick to provide facts but slow to integrate
within a larger explanatory framework, connecting findings to established explanations of
social phenomenaâ€ (1997, p. S72). Without theoretical frameworks, we are less able to use
empirical studies, because our ability to integrate specific findings into more general knowledge is limited (Marshall & Bengston, 2011).
Chapter Summary Chapter 3
A theory is a statement of how and why specific facts are related that allows us to summarize findings or observations to make inferences about something we want to understand.
Theories are conceptual road maps that guide research and generate hypotheses for testing.
Knowledge is always relative, because each new set of findings has the potential to provide
new theories or ways of interpreting phenomena. A variety of social theories have been proposed and summarized.
Researchers have proposed numerous theories about old age that focus on individuals. For
example, activity theory stresses continued activity as a way to preserve self-concept and
ensure higher levels of life satisfaction. Extending this theoretical perspective, continuity theory assumes that personality, social relationships, goals, and adaptive mechanisms formed
during adulthood remain consistent in old age.
Scholars have also proposed theories that focus on the society and the individual, rather than
on the individual alone. A prime example is disengagement theory, which highlights aging
within a society and the need for older people to disengage from vital social roles to maintain
societal continuity, stability, and opportunities for younger adults. The subculture of aging,
modernization, and exchange theories emphasize elderly peopleâ€™s exclusion from social life.
Age stratification theory points out that age is used as a criterion for entry into and exit from
different statuses and that birth cohort influences oneâ€™s opportunities for particular social statuses and role behavior. Newer theoretical approaches that may combine both individual and
social perspectives include critical theory, the political economy of aging, and the life course
What can we learn about aging and old age from these diverse road maps or theoretical
approaches? The following summarizes key directions within the past half century or so:
â€¢ Attention shifted from a focus on individual adjustment to a broader societal level.
â€¢ Questions were raised about the effect of modernization on elderly people.
â€¢ Researchers concentrated on the political economy of aging through increased attention to social class and relationship of social class to the modes of production.
â€¢ Scientists criticized the so-called facts of agingâ€”that is, the concept of age-as-leveler,
which ignored the interplay among race, social class, gender, and ethnicity.
â€¢ Social gerontologists use large-scale databases both to test hypotheses and to provide
quick answers to specific questions.
How can past theoretical approaches help us understand aging and the life course, including
the coming reality that 1 in 5 people aged 65 and older will be both actors and acted upon
in changing lifestyles, social institutions, and social and political policies? There is currently
no single â€œgrandâ€ theory that satisfactorily explains aging, but various minitheories are useful road maps to navigate disparate research findings (Bengtson, Rice, & Johnson, 1999). For
example, which theoretical approaches reviewed in this chapter best explain the fact that
elderly African American women are disproportionately likely to live in poverty? Why? As you
read this book, keep in mind the various theories in this chapter. Evaluate which ones best fit
the evidence presented as well as what is lacking in the explanatory power of each.
Key Terms Chapter 3
activity theory A theory of aging that stresses the continuation of midlife roles and activities as long as possible.
age-as-leveler A theory of aging that assumes that other differences such as race, ethnicity, social class, and gender become irrelevant once one is old and that in old age everyone
becomes more or less alike.
age stratification A framework that proposes it is both theoretically and practically
useful to think of members of society as stratified on the dimension of age, just as with
androgynous A term that describes someone who has taken on some of the personality
characteristics associated with the opposite sex; for example, men who become more nurturing and women who become more assertive.
continuity theory A microlevel and social-psychological theory of adult development that
assumes personality and coping mechanisms remain stable with aging.
critical theory A theory that focuses on patterns of power and domination, examines their
contradictions, and assesses potential for change.
disengagement theory A theory that posits that because the expectation of death and
the likelihood of lessening physical and mental ability as people age is universal, elderly people either withdraw voluntarily or are forced out from vital social roles in order to maintain
stability and continuity of the society.
exchange theory A theory that focuses on the economic and social power that older people lack in comparison to younger adults in an industrialized society.
feminist theory A theory that suggests the experiences of women are socially constructed
and their lives accumulate disadvantages across the life course in a patriarchal society.
gerontocracy A society in which elders, usually men, are in control of goods, knowledge,
life course theoretical perspective A theory that focuses on individuals, the different
patterns of their lives from birth to death, and the differential effects of membership in a
specific birth cohort.
macrotheories Theories that focus on the larger society and its relationship to individuals.
microtheories Theories that focus on individuals as they grow old.
modernization theory A macrolevel formulation that focuses more on the social structure
of a society than on the individual and postulates that elderly people lost status as a result
political economy of aging A concept that focuses on the importance of social structure
and membership in social hierarchies of power, prestige, and property.
productive aging A healthy and active older population whose active engagement is vital
for the well-being of its members.
Discussion Questions Chapter 3
selective optimization with compensation A process of coordinating and balancing the
gains and losses associated with aging to master daily life.
subculture of aging A theory that is concerned with how interaction mediates between
the attributes of individuals and society.
successful aging A theory of aging that focuses on life satisfaction, happiness, and adaptation to age-related changes.
theory A statement of how and why facts relate to each other, resulting in generalizations
leading to understanding.
third age The period of the life course that occurs after retirement but prior to decline, or
the onset of disability.
1. Explain why theories of aging are useful.
2. Look back at the interview with Mrs. R. at the beginning of this chapter. Which of the various theories discussed in this chapter best fits her view of her own age? Why?
3. How has membership in your birth cohort affected the number and types of social roles
available for you? Your beliefs and attitudes? Do these options and attitudes differ from
those of your parents or your grandparents? If so, what sociohistorical factors do you think
are related to these differences?
4. Discuss the following statement: â€œThose who control definitions of aging in effect control
access to old age benefits such as medical care, as well as the personal and public costs of
care and the structure of health care delivery.â€
5. From what you have read in this chapter, why do you agree or disagree with the following statement: â€œModels of aging developed by gerontologists have divorced this work on
eldersâ€™ lives from those doing the living. The result is that elderly people become the other;
objects rather than subjects of study.â€
6. How might you integrate the Baltes concept of selective optimization with compensation
in your own everyday life activities? Give two examples of how you may selectively choose
a certain course of action to optimize your progress on something to compensate for an
individually or socially perceived limitation. (Hint: Do limitations arising from your personal
strengths and weaknesses, or your social characteristics, such as birth cohort, gender,
social class, or race and ethnicity, lead you to choose one activity or approach to a problem
7. Interview an older person (that is, someone 65 or older) who is not a relative or close friend
and ask some questions about his or her life history. What theoretical insights can you gain
from his or her account?
Additional Resources Chapter 3
Marshall, V. W., & Bengston, V. L. (2011). Theoretical perspectives on the sociology of aging.
In J. L. Angel & R. Settersten (Eds.), Handbook of the sociology of aging (pp. 17â€“34). New
York: Springer. This comprehensive article provides a history of theoretical perspectives
in the sociology of aging up to the late 1970s, when the field turned to the life course
perspective. It includes significant theoretical development during the next three decades;
and concludes with a discussion of the major challenges for future theorizing.
Follow this link to the University of Michigan Institute of Gerontology and find information
about the many programs and research options in gerontology and geriatrics.
This site is maintained by the Rand Corporation, an organization engaged in behavioral
research on many aspects of aging. Free publications can be ordered online.
Maggie (30 minutes; available from Terra Nova Films, http://www.terranova.org). An interview with Maggie Kuhn, founder of the Gray Panthers, highlighting issues of power,
inequality, aging, and the need for an intergenerational social movement to combat
Strangers in Good Company (105 minutes; available from First Run Films, http://www.
firstrunfeatures.com). Semidocumentary of seven very different elderly women stranded
in a remote farmhouse and their lives and styles of aging.
Take It With a Smile: Self-Identity and Aging (20 minutes; available from Terra Nova Films,
http://www.terranova.org). A useful film to trigger discussion of theoretical approaches
to aging that features older adults discussing their self-perceptions and roles as they have
War Stories Our Mothers Never Told Us (95 minutes; available from First Run Films, http://
www.firstrunfeatures.com). Seven women of different social classes, races, and cultural
backgrounds discuss how World War II affected their lives and loves. This is useful for discussion of period and cohort effects on the lives of the now old.
Calasanti, T. M., & Slevin, K. (2001). Gender, social inequalities, and aging. Lanham, MD:
AltaMira. A feminist analysis of old age and ageism that explores social class, ethnicity,
sexual orientation, and race as they affect the lived experience of older people.
Elder, G. H. (1974). Children of the Great Depression. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
A classic study showing the interplay of sociohistorical events, gender, and social class
and their impact on the life course of depression-years cohorts.
Additional Resources Chapter 3
Haber, C. (1983). Beyond sixty-five: The dilemma of old age in Americaâ€™s past. New York:
Cambridge University Press. A readable and detailed historical account of how aging has
been constructed in the United States.
Haber, C., & Gratton, B. (1993). Old age and the search for security: An American social
history. Bloomington, IN: University Press. Recommended reading for those interested in
the economic status of elderly people in the United States from preindustrial times to the
Meigs, M. (1991). In the company of strangers. Vancouver, BC: Talonbooks. An entertaining
account by a painter and writer of the actual lives of the eight very different women featured in the semidocumentary film Strangers in Good Company, presenting the womenâ€™s
self-images, pasts, and present views of their own old age.
Terkel, S. (1996). Coming of age: The story of our century by those who lived it. New York:
St. Martinâ€™s Griffin. Lively reminiscences by men and women, ranging in age from 70 to
99, about their lives and interests. Provides firsthand accounts of racial, ethnic, social
class, and cohort influences on the life course.
Answers to Aging Quiz
1. Social norms, the spoken and unspoken rules and guidelines for behaviors, are pretty much
the same in every society. FALSE
2. Views about the power and influence of old people are pretty much the same from one
society to another. FALSE
3. There is no one single theory about old age that is generally accepted in the United States.
4. While one child is quite different from another child, by old age most people are very much
5. When people grow old, they become more heterogeneous. TRUE
6. In some societies elderly people have been respected precisely because they are old. FALSE
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