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Social Significance of Aging

Sociologists study the social significance and consequences of aging in different cultures and societies.

Aging refers to the social, mental, and biological processes of growing older and moving through phases of life. Almost all humans experience aging to some degree in their lives. Infants become toddlers, toddlers become children, children become adolescents, and adolescents become adults. However, aging is primarily associated with old age. Most societies recognize old age as beginning between ages 60 to 65. While the characteristics of this phase of life vary among societies and individuals, old age is often marked by retirement from the workforce, having grandchildren, and a decline in health.

Age is also a social construction, an idea that has been created and accepted by a society. The roles, responsibilities, and privileges of people in different phases of life are all shaped by social structures and prevailing beliefs and attitudes. Sociologists seek to understand how aging is constructed and experienced in different societies and communities. Sociology is an important subject in the multidisciplinary field of gerontology, the study of aging and old age. Gerontologists investigate the interrelated physical, social, and cultural processes linked to old age. Sociologists focus primarily on the social and cultural aspects of aging. For example, societies with higher proportions of older people are faced with the problem of how to provide for the health and well-being of people who can no longer work. Elderly people can face a number of social problems including loneliness and loss of independence. Poverty caused by loss of income is also a serious concern for many elderly. They can also face marginalization, or being treated as insignificant and not central to a society or group. Attitudes toward and solutions for these problems are rooted in the culture and structure of a society.

In modern industrialized societies old age is associated with withdrawal from the workforce and eligibility for social welfare programs. In the United States a key publicly funded program for the elderly is Social Security, a benefit program run by the federal government that pays income (benefits) to retirees and their spouses. Eligibility for Social Security begins at age 62. However, full retirement age—the age when a person can retire and receive maximum benefits—is between 65 and 67 years old. This reflects the relatively high life expectancy, or the average life span for a population, and wealth of the United States. In 2017, average life expectancy for Americans was 78.7 years old. This means that, on average, Americans may reasonably expect to live into their mid-70s or beyond. Another characteristic of modern societies is the compression of morbidity, a reduction in the length of time people spend ill or disabled before death, compared to past eras. Beginning in the 20st century, advances in medicine and technology and increased understanding of a healthy lifestyle created this pattern in many societies.

The treatment and social identity of elders varies between societies. In some societies, becoming an elder means that a person gains greater status and respect. These societies treat elders as valuable stores of wisdom and life experience. In other societies, including the United States, youth and the appearance of youthfulness are highly valued. Old age is viewed fairly negatively. The visible signs of aging, such as wrinkled skin and graying or thinning hair, are associated with physical and mental feebleness and lead to elders being sidelined in culture, the workplace, and wider society. A lack of technological skills pushes many older people out of jobs or makes it difficult to overcome unemployment. It can also impact relationships with younger family members whose communication occurs mainly via newer technologies. Views of aging can also be shaped by the overall composition of the population. Countries with a higher proportion of older people tend to have more negative views of aging. This may be due in part to the increased strain put on the younger population. For example, the United States and Western Europe have relatively high numbers of older people compared to numbers of children and working-age people. This means that there are fewer young adults to care for older adults and to pay into social security systems that support older people.

Views of Aging and Aging Populations (2009)

Cultural beliefs, social expectations, and demographics shape views of aging. In many countries where a greater percentage of the population is older, people hold more negative views of aging.