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The status of older people in modern times

The nineteenth century witnessed radical changes in the social and economic landscape, especially in Western Europe and North America. Social scientists observed that industrialized countries were becoming wealthier; more powerful and politically more stable. Yet, the changes that accompanied modernization were not altogether positive. There were also dramatic social changes such as the breakdown of the traditional extended family into nuclear families. Social gerontologists, who study the social aspects of aging, started wondering how these changes affect the role of older people in society. Do they lose their social status — their standing or importance in relation to other people within a society? Does modernization decrease the social status of older people at a steady rate? Or is there a more complex relationship? Are there other societal factors that, together with modernization, influence the social status of older people?

Donald Cowgill and Lowell Holmes addressed some of these questions in their Modernization Theory published in the 1970s. They thought that the more modern a society becomes, the more the status of older people declines because of four main reasons:

First, modern health technology (e.g., sanitation, immunization) accounts for higher life expectancies and consequently increases the proportion of older people in the population, which ultimately leads to competition over resources. Policy makers introduced retirement in order to ease competition in the labour market. Since labour market participation in modern societies is tied to income, prestige and honour, retirement stripped this away from older people, undermining their status.

Second, a modern economy means that new professions develop which require special training. This usually results in better paid and more prestigious jobs, therefore raising the status of younger people compared to older ones.

Third, urbanization develops because employment opportunities in modern societies exist mostly in cities making young people leave rural areas. The nuclear family becomes more important at the expense of the extended family. Instead of being supported by their families, older people start receiving institutionalized support.

Fourth, in pre-modern societies most of the population is illiterate. Knowledge is passed on verbally and older people play a crucial role as living repositories of knowledge. In modern societies, however, younger people are usually better educated than their parents and much of the traditional knowledge and skills of older people becomes obsolete.

Modernization Theory became a core theory in social gerontology and continues to be widely referenced, probably because of its intuitive appeal. Yet, very few studies scrutinized it. One exception is Erdman Palmore and Kenneth Manton´s analysis of 31 countries which led to a refinement of the theory. They found that older people’s objective status (education and occupation) does indeed decline in the early stages of modernization; however, it increases in more advanced stages of modernization resembling a J-shaped association. This might be because the funds allocated to support older people (e.g., in the form of retirement benefits) also increase, allowing older people to maintain their status.

One of the major criticisms of Modernization Theory points to the vagueness of its key concepts. In fact, “modernization” has been used interchangeably with terms such as “development” and “industrialization”. It is also not clear what exactly is meant by the concept “status” and whether it refers only to the objective status or also to the subjective social status (how people perceive older adult´s position in society).

In a recent study, my colleagues and I tackled some of these criticisms by analysing representative data from the European Social Survey (ESS) with responses from 45,706 individuals and 25 countries. We focused on the subjective social status of older people because it has important implications for older people’s well-being. We operationalized “modernization” according to Cowgill´s theory and used an index composed of national life expectancy, Gross Domestic Income, levels of education, and urbanization. Since all countries in the European region are in relatively advanced stages of modernization, we expected to find a positive linear association between modernization and social status. We also predicted that employment rates of older people matter for how they are perceived. Individuals and social groups who are not employed are usually stigmatized since they are perceived to be dependent on state welfare and as not contributing to society. Hence, older people who are in retirement may be seen as a threat to the economic resources of the country. This should be especially the case in countries with a weaker economy.

As predicted, our results show that the societal context matters in understanding why the status of older people is perceived to be lower in some countries than in others. In general, we found that the more modern a country and the higher the employment rate of older people, the more positively older people are perceived. However, these two factors also interact with each other. The perception of older people’s status is boosted in not so modern societies if there is a relatively high employment rate of older people indicating that their active contribution to the economy is credited with more positive representations. Hence, a psychological variable like perceptions of older people´s social status is related in important ways to socio-economic aspects of a country. Our findings suggest that raising the employment rate of older people in weaker economies – even if it is just partial employment – could raise both older people´s personal living standards and the way they are perceived by others, which should also have positive effects on their well-being.

Image Credit: Aderna. CC0 via Pixabay 

Recent Comments

  1. Gashaye Melaku Tefera

    This is a very interesting piece. Please keep posting such articles as they play a significant role in awakening students like me to pay a proper attention to the field of older people.

    University of Lincoln
    ADVANCES program

  2. […] as societies developed and industrialization moved forward, the value of age declined. As health technologies improved, elderly people, who were once scarce, became copious. Information […]

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