The life course refers to the socially constructed stages that people pass through as they live out their
• Although people think of “growing old” and “growing up” in biological terms, sociologists argue that
stages of life are socially constructed for two reasons:
1) The way people experience childhood or any other stage of life depends on factors such as their class,
race, ethnicity, and gender.
2) The stages of life differ considerably from one society to another.
- The point in history when people are born also influences what people experience as they go through
life. The term cohort refers to a category of people who share some trait, usually their age. Age-cohorts
share similar experiences because they are influenced by the same economic and cultural trends over
• Gerontology is a branch of the social sciences that deals with aging and the elderly.
• Although growing old involves biological changes, how this stage of life is culturally defined makes a
great deal of difference in the reality of old age. In the U.S., the definition of “older” is age 65 and
beyond; the origin of this arbitrary age is the Social Security Act of 1935, which established 65 as the age
• In preindustrial societies, elders were seen as a social elite that should be viewed as wise and
deserving of respect. Additionally, the oldest people own most of the land, giving them real power.
Thus, preindustrial societies take the form of a gerontocracy, a social system that gives a society’s oldest
members the most power, wealth, and prestige. In contrast, the great pace of cultural change
associated with industrial societies led people to dismiss the knowledge and skills of old people as
irrelevant to the lives of the young.
• Population pyramids are a way of showing in graph form the percentage of a population in various age
• In 1900, the U.S. population pyramid looked very much like a true pyramid: the base of the pyramid
was large, indicating that most people were in their younger years, and the top of the pyramid was
much smaller, showing that only a small percentage of the population was elderly. By the year 2030, the
“pyramid” will look more like a pillar with the exception of the very top, which will reflect the large
proportion of elderly people in the population. Life Expectancy
• Life expectancy refers to the number of years the average person can expect to live. Life expectancy
has increased dramatically in the U.S. over the course of the last t