SOC101Y1 Lecture Notes - Population Pyramid, Gerontocracy
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 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 two centuries. In the earliest hunting
and gathering societies, living to twenty meant reaching a “ripe old age”; today, however, twenty-year-
olds are considered just reaching adulthood.
• The government reports that males born today can expect to live seventy-four years while females can
expect to live eighty years. The 1996 sex ratio for ages 65 and over was 145 women for every 100 men;
at age 85 and over, there were 257 females for every 100 males. Men die at an earlier age than women
for both biological and sociological reasons—heart disease, stress, and occupational risk.
• Racial minority populations are projected to represent 25 percent of the U.S. elderly population by
2030, up from 13 percent in 1990. While the elderly white population is projected to increase 79
percent between 1997 and 2030, the elderly minority population is expected to increase 238 percent in
the same time period. Although racial and ethnic minorities have a shorter life expectancy than whites,
their increased numbers in the general population are responsible for their higher growth rates of the
• How long a person lives is influenced by his or her social class. In general, the higher the social class,
the longer the person lives, the fewer the debilitating illnesses, the greater the number of social
contacts and friends, the less likely to define oneself as “old,” and the greater the likelihood of success
in adapting to retirement. Higher social class is also related to fewer residential moves, higher life
satisfaction, more leisure time, and more positive self-rated health. In short, the higher one’s
socioeconomic status, the longer, happier, and healthier one’s life.
The Graying of America
• By 1900, the 3 million seniors past the age of sixty-five made up just 4 percent of the population.
However, that share doubled by 1950 and will double again by 2020, to about 55 million elders. This
trend, by which the elderly population is increasing at a faster rate than the population as a whole, is
called “the graying of America.”
• The number of elderly is increasing for three reasons:
1) 76 million baby boomers born between 1946 and 1964 are getting older
2) Life expectancy has increased as a result of better medical care, sanitation, nutrition, and housing
3) Lowered birthrates contribute to a higher percentage of the elderly
• By the year 2030, there will be 70 million elderly in the United States, making up 20 percent of the
total population and more than two times the number of elderly in 1997.