A Global Perspective on Aging

The Social Construction of Aging

The social construction of aging entails the creation of social norms and symbols that encapsulates the aging process.

Learning Objectives

Discuss the cultural treatment of aging in the U.S. versus Japan, employing Goffman's argument in ''The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life''

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Age is socially constructed because notions of age vary around the world.
  • Different cultures fix age with different meanings and different values.
  • Eastern cultures tend to highly value age and wisdom, while Western cultures tend to highly value youth.
  • In Western societies, people take pains to appear younger than their biological age. These measures follow Erving Goffman 's ideas of self-presentation in that people are trying to get others in society to perceive them as young.

Key Terms

  • social construction: A concept or practice that is the construct (or artifact) of a particular group, meaning that the concept or practice is understood differently by various groups and institutions.

Aging as a Social Construction

While aging itself is a biological process, what it means to be "young" or "old" is socially constructed. This means that there is no inherent cultural meaning to the biological process of aging. Rather, cultures imbue youth and age with meanings. Aging is perceived differently around the world, demonstrating its social construction.

Frequently, the average life expectancy in a given region bears on what age counts as "old." For example, in the United States, where the average life expectancy is over 78 years, people are not considered "old" until they are in their sixties or seventies. However, in Chad the average life expectancy is less than 49 years. People in their thirties or forties are therefore already middle-aged or "old." These variations in people's perceptions of who should or should not be considered elderly indicates indicates that notions of youth and age are culturally constructed. There is thus no such thing as a universal age for being considered old.

Cultural Treatment of Aging


Is this Incongruous?: Given the socially constructed nature of age, there are certain behaviors that people typically associate with certain age groups as being "appropriate" or "acceptable. " Is this old woman challenging any conventional perceptions about how women of a certain age should behave?

Cultures treat their elderly differently and place different values on old age. Many Eastern societies associate old age with wisdom, so they value old age much more than their Western counterparts. In Japan, adult children are expected to care for their aging parents in ways different than in the United States. Sixty five percent of Japanese elders live with their children and very few live in nursing homes. Japanese cultural norms suggest that caring for one's parents by putting them in an assisted living home is tantamount to neglect. When unable to care for themselves, parents should ideally move in with their children. The Japanese celebration of old age is further illustrated by the existence of Respect for the Aged Day, which is a national holiday to celebrate elderly citizens.

Japanese perceptions of elders diverge markedly from public perceptions of old age in the United States. Western societies tend to place an increased value on youth such that many people take extreme measures to appear young. The desire to look younger than one's biological years is frequently the impetus for cosmetic surgeries that can hide the physical effects of aging. These surgical practices, combined with the huge expenditures on makeup and clothing in younger fashions, incorporate a Goffmanian understanding of social presentation.

Erving Goffman was a sociologist writing in the mid-twentieth century. His most famous work, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959) argued that whenever individuals come into contact with other people, they will attempt to control or guide the impression that others might have of them by intentionally comporting themselves in different ways. Individuals thus take sometimes drastic action to control the appearance of their age so that others can perceive them to be younger. Significantly, these social interactions occur in a social milieu that values youth. In this light, people try to appear younger to increase their sense of social value. Of course, interactions involving the perception of age must then vary by culture, as different cultures ascribe the notion of age with different values.

Industrialization and the Graying of the Globe

Industrialization has contributed to the growth of the older age population due to the technological advances that have come with it.

Learning Objectives

Produce a short debate which shows the pros and cons of industrialization

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Industrialized nations are those that meet certain measures of economic growth and security, while non-industrialized nations are those that do not meet those measures.
  • Industrialization increases life expectancy by creating better conditions, better government social supports, and better access to healthcare.
  • There is currently a disparity in life expectancy between industrialized nations and non-industrialized nations.

Key Terms

  • industrialized countries: Industrialized countries are defined by measures of economic growth and security. Most commonly, the criteria for evaluating the degree of development is to look at the gross domestic product (GDP), the per capita income, the level of industrialization, the amount of widespread infrastructure, and the general standard of living.
  • Industrial Revolution: The major technological, socioeconomic, and cultural change in the late 18th and early 19th century, resulting from the replacement of an economy based on manual labor to one dominated by industry and machine manufacturing.
  • infant mortality rate: In the field of public health, the infant mortality rate is a commonly used statistical measure that is defined as the ratio of infant deaths to live births.

Across the globe, industrialization increases the average life span of people. Industrialization is the process of social and economic change that transforms a community from an agrarian society into an industrial one. It is a part of a wider modernization process, where social change and economic development are closely related with technological innovation. The United Kingdom began an Industrial Revolution in the mid-eighteenth century due to the availability of land, labor, and investment capital.

Most Western countries industrialized by the nineteenth century but the Industrial Revolution is still occurring around the world. One schematic by which one can divide the world is between industrialized and non- industrialized countries. Industrialized countries are defined by measures of economic growth and security. Most commonly, the criteria for evaluating the degree of development is to look at the gross domestic product (GDP), the per capita income, the level of industrialization, the amount of widespread infrastructure, and the general standard of living. Countries that score poorly on these scales are considered to be non-industrialized, though it should be noted that non-industrialized countries are undergoing the process of industrialization.

All over the world, people are living longer than ever before. However, while the trend of a growing older population appears the world over, people in industrialized nations are older than people in non-industrialized nations. Thus, while people in all countries are living longer than prior generations, people in industrialized nations live longer than people in non-industrialized nations. According to the Population Research Bureau, the average life expectancy in Africa is 53, in North America is 78, in Latin America is 73, in Asia is 68, in Europe is 75, and in Oceania is 75. Worldwide, about 8% of the total global population is over the age of 65, while about 12% of Americans are over the age of 65.

How can one explain this disparity? Industrialization brings money into an economy. With this influx of capital, countries are able to develop more robust social supports to assist a population. Further, development can create jobs, enabling people to better fend for themselves. Food and healthcare are more widely available. Better living conditions and healthcare both limit the infant mortality rate, which is the percentage of children who die before turning one year old, and extend the average life expectancy. Both of these trends encourage the growth of an older population.


Industrialized Nations: 2011

The Graying of America

The graying of America has contributed to the higher concentration of the elderly in certain areas of the United States.

Learning Objectives

Summarize how the situation in Pittsburgh illustrates the economic tensions produced by an aging population

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • About 12% of Americans are over the age of 65. The elderly are concentrated in the Midwest and the South.
  • The higher concentration of older people in certain places has economic ramifications. These areas are called upon to support a population that has a greater need for social services, such as healthcare.
  • As the aging population rises in Pittsburgh, industries such as healthcare have replaced the steel industry due to the shift to a more elderly population in that area.

Key Terms

  • pension: A gratuity paid regularly as a benefit due to a person in consideration of past services; notably to one retired from service, on account of retirement age, disability or similar cause; especially a regular stipend paid by a government to retired public officers, disabled soldiers; sometimes passed on to the heirs, or even specifically for them, as to the families of soldiers killed in service.

According to the United States Census, about 12% of the American population is over the age of 65. However, the elderly are not evenly distributed throughout the United States. There are higher concentrations of the elderly in the Midwest and in the South, particularly in Florida. The high concentration of elderly in Florida is partially attributable to the fact that many retirees move to Florida for the good weather. In contrast, few elderly people move to the Midwest. Instead, the high concentration of elderly people in the Midwest is due to the fact that the young are moving out of there.


Percentage of the Population Aged 65+ in the United States: This is a map of the USA reflecting the percentage of the population over age 65 by census district based on Census 2000 data.

The city of Pittsburgh offers an intriguing case study of the effects of an aging population on a city. Since 2008, more people die annually in Pittsburgh than are born. Further, many members of the younger generation are moving away from Pittsburgh in an effort to find work. As such, Pittsburgh is both experiencing population decline and the aging of its existing population. This poses an economic conundrum in that the population is increasingly reliant on public services for assistance, such as healthcare, but there is a smaller workforce that can be taxed to support the demand. Additionally, changing demographics have influenced the comparative prominence of different economic sectors in Pittsburgh. Healthcare has replaced steel as Pittsburgh's largest industry. This case study demonstrates how shifting population demographics can seriously impact an urban area's economy.

While the effects of an increasingly aging population on society are complex, there is a specific concern about the impact on healthcare demand. Older people generally incur more health-related costs than do younger people, and in the workplace can also cost more in worker's compensation and pension liabilities.

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