Week 5 – Age relations and Ageism
Starting Points, Chapter 8
Ageism All types of prejudice or discrimination against members of
society based on an individual’s age, whether old or young.
Ways of looking at… Age groups
o Society is only as strong as its weakest members.
o Disengagement theory – elderly people are among the weakest
members of the population and that society has, therefore, devised a
means of displacing them from central positions of power and
For the good of society and for themselves, elderly people
finally give up their positions and withdraw to the edges of
society, where they begin to prepare for their eventual death.
Retirement is beneficial because it opens up a spot in the
workforce, recognizes the retiree’s contribution, and allows
out-dated ideas to be replaced by newer one. This is natural
and crucial to society’s effectiveness.
o Disagree with functionalists that exclusion of older people from
financially rewarding and socially important roles is good for society.
o Ageism does not serve society as a whole but as merely a form of
inequality exercised by people in the middle ages (e.g. 20-60) to
further their own interests
o Employers push people out of work. When elderly people disengage,
then, it is often because of other people’s wishes, not their own.
o Different age groups hold different interests, and each competes
against the others to enlarge its share of society’s resources. So the
young and old have less power and less access to the resources they
o Many assumptions about aging lead directly to the financial
dependence of elderly people on the rest of society.
o How we symbolize elderly people and enact aging in our society. How
socially constructed definitions of age and aging affect a person’s
experience of growing old.
o Age is a state of mind shaped by the labels society applies.
o Activity theory – contrary to disengagement theory, people in fact
take on new roles as they age. Such continued activity preserves a
sense of continuity, helps people preserve their self-concept, and
contributes to greater life satisfaction. o Some have looked at how society and media portray elderly people.
The portrayals reflect society’s stereotypes about older people and
help reinforce these images.
RESULT: women tend to disappear from the media as they age
more than men do.
o For women, aging is associated with a culturally defined loss of youth
and glamour. This loss isn’t as crucial for men.
o Women earn less pay and are less likely to qualify for a pension plan.
Further, also live longer. SO much more likely to be in poverty when
old. “feminization of poverty.”
Classic Studies: Centuries of Childhood (Philippe Aries)
Childhood as we know it is a cultural invention. Invented in late medieval
Europe and perfected in industrial times.
o Age was relatively unimportant before industrial times, and childhood
was almost non-existent.
o Started to be viewed as different from adults in the 16 century.
Segregation of childhood and adulthood has the effect of preparing children
poorly for adult life.
The growth of education has extended the period of cultural childhood –
characterized by social marginality, behavioural irresponsibility, and
o Invention of the period of adolescence.
His analysis of the ways age groups become more distinct over time, in
response to emerging social concerns, is crucial to understanding age group
relations in the past and today.
Youth: A Time of Risk-taking
Young people are most likely to take risks.
o Older youth take more risks than young, and boys take more risks
o Youthful risk-taking is commonplace.
o Delinquents share the same values and attitudes as non-delinquents,
and need only the help of neutralizing excuses to break rules.
o Delinquents defy moral codes because their attachment to social
convention is weak.
Four social bonds that routinely promote conformity are attachment,
commitment, involvement, and belief.
o Attachment – a person’s interest in or attachment to others (esp
parents and peers).
o Commitment. Time, energy, and effort spent in conventional activities
tie an individual to the moral code of society. More time spent in
building up a reputation, less likely you are to do anything that might
harm it. o Involvement in activities that support the conventional interests of
society since such activities don’t leave time to engage in delinquent
or criminal acts.
o Belief in the laws of society and in the people and institutions that
enforce such laws.
Age Group Relations
Conflict between generations sometimes leads to alliances against a common
generational enemy (e.g. grandparents and grandchildren).
Less economic incentive to have children.
Culture has shifted from “respect your elders” to “respect the children.”
Changing Age Relations
Falling fertility rate is masked by high immigration rates. Many immigrants
are of childbearing age and from countries with different fertility norms.
Median age The point that divides a population into two groups of equal
size based on age, with half the population above that age and half below it.
Saskatchewan is Canada’s eldest province. Alberta is the youngest. Calgary is
the youngest city (due to lots of young people emigrating there in search of
well-paying work). West is younger than the east of Canada.
Territories – high birthrates, and high youth immigration rates. But also
people die younger.
As the number of youthful dependents has decreased, there had been an
explosion in the number of aged dependants.
Dependency ratio The proportion of people who are considered
“dependants” (under 15 or over 65 years old) compared to people 15 to 64
years, who are considered of working age.
Classic Studies: Children of the Great Depression (Glen H. Elder)
Describes the ways that historical and biographic forces act together – and on
one another – to influence life decisions within specific contexts.
o Aging is an accumulation of experiences and influences, so that what
happens in early life has consequences for later outcomes.
Studied kids who were 11 in California in 1929. Split them into to groups –
deprived and non-deprived.
o GD changed family roles – mothers took on more authority.
o To compensate for father’s decreased income, teen sons had to work
early on. RESULT: more independence, social importance, and
stronger social networks.
o More equal sharing of power in the family. Earlier independence for
the children (i.e. going out, dating at an earlier age, etc.).
Argues that shortened childhood and earlier entry into adulthood didn’t
harm deprived kids in the long run. On the contrary, many of them grew up
to be useful and successful members of society.
Relations between Young and Old
Children have an enormous influence over their parents, and vice versa.
o Kids have access to lots of strategies of resistance. Nothing to lose, and
tons of time to waste. Can use “terrorist tactics” Older parents also use similar tactics with their grown children – i.e. shame
But as dependants, elderly parents are more obedient than young children.
For several reasons:
o Often have their own independent lives and don’t want to abandon
o Often have their own resources and don’t need or expect resources
from their kids (e.g. money).
o Elderly parents have already experienced what it means to be a
middle-aged parent, squeezed by kids on one side and parents on the
other. So more capable of empathy and self-restraint than young kids.
Age in School and the Workplace
School and the workplace present opportunities for cross-age cooperation.
School – both with other kids, and with (old) teachers and (young) students.
Workplace – seniority and rank are often linked. But not necessarily always.
RESULT: problem of respect for age (also, seniority and presumed
experience) versus the respect for expertise.
Classic Studies: Mean Streets: Youth Crime and Homelessness (John Hagan and Bill
Goal: to examine how and why youths leave home for life on the street.
o Daily toils and survival strategies of nearly 500 street kids in Toronto
o Identifies risks facing youth who live on the street. Many come from
abusive or neglectful homes. Boys esp have been physically abused.
Schoolwork starts to slip, and they drop out.
o Too little social capital and poor skills limit the choices of these youth
after leaving home and school, so the street is all that’s left.
Why turn to crime? Because they can’t meet their basic daily needs like food,
shelter, and clothing. Survival strategy.
o Criminal capital – knowledge and technical skills that promote
criminal activity, as well as beliefs or definitions that legitimize
This study shows the effects of faulty parenting, “anomie” (Merton), and
“differential association” (Sutherland) on the development of criminality
among young people.
o Where street youth receive social assistance to meet their daily needs,
crime rates are lower.
Age and Crime
Few of the young people who commit delinquent acts graduate to serious,
adult criminality. Also, few who experiment with drugs and alcohol graduate
to serious adult drug addiction.
o Jackson Toby – tendencies toward crime and addiction weaken as
people develop a stake in conformity – i.e. when they get higher
education, a job, fall in love, etc. o Social control theory – we re all inclined to break the rules, but less
likely to break them if we accept the legitimacy of social control. These
can be laws, rules our partners set down, or internalized values that
grow out of relations with significant others in childhood or
Age and Mental Health
Most old people tend to be happier and more satisfied with life than younger
o Why? Because their expectations are set low, so are more easily met.
o Also, seniors are more financially secure today than they were ever
Younger people are unhappy due to the societal and cultural pressures that
surface when society begins to view someone as a responsible, soon-to-be
Age and Physical Health
Young and old suffer distinctive health problems. E.g. domestic violence,
neglect, accidents, etc.
Like unhappiness and depression, poor physical health is a poor indicator of
faulty age-relations, or ageism.
Today’s senior are healthier than previous generations. Living longer. But
less healthy than their children and grandchildren.
A higher prevalence of health problems in seniors taxes the health care
system, and will increasingly become a major economic issue as Canada’s
population, and the world’s, increasingly ages. Use of health care by seniors is
not only higher than that of any other age group, but three times higher than
their share of the population.
o No difference re: education and class. Number of chronic conditions
decides how often you see the doctor, not money.
Abuse and Violence
Children are at greatest risk of violence in houses where women are at risk.
Mothers do abuse children too, though.
Violence is often intergenerational – those abused as children are more likely
to become abusers.
Elder abuse –