There is no universal biological age at which ‘old age’ or ‘later life’ begins, rather there is variation across societies and historically within societies, so the concept of old age is at least to some extent a social construction.
The social construction of old age
In Europe before the industrial revolution old age began whenever individuals reached that stage in life when at which physical or mental deterioration reached the point at which they became dependent on others to look after them, and thus ‘old age’ didn’t begin at a particular age, rather it varied from individual to individual. (1)
The concept of a universal retirement age/ old age which started at the same biological age for all people came much later…
European societies started to introduce state pensions in the early 20th century and over time the age at which people qualified for a pension came to mark the point at the ‘old age’ started, and so from this point forwards we’ve had something of a social consensus about when a ‘universal’ stage of life known as ‘retirement’ begins
The concept of retirement based on pensionable age marks out ‘later life’ or ‘old age’ as the time at which individuals are no longer required to do paid-work, rather they are entitled to sate -benefits based on their biological age, the amount they receive being dependent on what they have paid in to the pension pot during their working lives.
The retirement age is subject to change depending on social policy. For example in Britain the state pension age stood at 65 for men and 60 for women for many decades, but today the state pension age is being put back, depending on what year you were born in.
Similarly, the state pension age is now being increased: it is currently 66 and will increase to 67 for those born after April 1960, from 2026, and then it is set to increase to age 68 in the 2040s, and all of these ages and dates are subject to possible change in the future.
All of this demonstrates that the concept of the final stage of life is a social construction because:
- It is mainly based on government defined notions of when people are formally allowed (though not obliged) to quit work.
- The retirement age has changed overtime and is subject to potential age in the future.
Of course the concept of the retirement age is not the same as old-age, only related to it and one problem with conflating the two concepts is that most people live 20 years beyond the state retirement age and some live 40 years beyond it.
For this reasons some sociologists break up the stage of ‘old age’ into further sub categories. For example Jane Pilcher distinguishes between:
- Young old – aged 65-74 years
- Old elderly – aged 75 84 years
- Very elderly – aged 85 years.
Laslett (1989) distinguishes between the Third Age at which retirement begins and people have fewer responsibilities and the Fourth Age when you become limited physically and or mentally.
One problem with this later conception of old age is that ‘decline’ is often gradual and by degree so there is no clear dividing line between third and fourth age.
Variations in old age between societies
Every known society on earth defines some people as old, but the age at which ‘old age’ begins varies, based on either biological age, physiological and/ or mental conditions/ capacities or generation.
The social norms and expectations of old age also vary. There are variations in how active/ passive old people are expected to be, how dependent or independent and whether they have high or low status within a society.
Why does ‘old age’ vary between societies?
Social organisation: nomadic societies tend not to value the elderly (based on their physical capacity) as they may be a burden when the group has to move on, and thus may be abandoned or encourage to commit s**cide for the good of the group. Non-nomadic societies tend to value older people more as physical capacity isn’t as essential to survival.
Preliterate societies tend to value the elderly more as they are repository of knowledge and skills and are vital to the passing down of those skills and knowledge to younger generations. In literate societies knowledge and skills are stored in text form and so this function of the old becomes redundant, thus they are valued less.
If society is organised in such a way that it is mainly the elderly who control wealth and resources then they may gain more respect if the younger generations have to pander to them to benefit from their wealth.
Cultural attitudes towards death and the afterlife also affect attitudes to ageing. in some societies withe ancestor belief systems the very old are seen as being closer the the spirits of the dead and so may gain status because of this. However in more secular societies which value life over death and there is no belief in the afterlife the old are more likely to be seen as more useless because their ‘best days’ are behind them!
Variations of Ageing within societies
Social class, gender, ethnicity and cohort all affect the experience of old age, and according to conflict perspectives there are stratifying effects based on these factors.
These stratification effects accumulate over the life course and so the effects of being in a relatively disadvantaged social class, cohort, ethnicity or gender will be greatest in old age.
Social class and old age
There is considerable variation in the income of pensioners across the UK (3).
Pensioners are spread fairly evenly across the income distribution, with a slight tendency to be richer than working people.
- 20% of pensioners are in the richest fifth
- Approximately 22% are in the next richest fifth and third richest fifth
- 21% are in the fourth quintle.
- Only 14% are in the poorest quintile.
Those in the richest fifth are more likely to have had careers in professional occupations and to have private investment incomes.
Those lower down the income scale are more likely to have spent a life in temporary or insecure employment and so are going to be dependent on just the state pension for their income.
Life expectancy also varies by social class and so not only do the higher classes have higher pensions, they stay alive longer to enjoy them.
Gender and old age
Sexism and old age can combine to make the experiences of older women especially difficult.
Older women are more likely than men to be characterised as unattractive, and dependent and helpless victims, for example.
Sarah Arber (2006) notes the following differences in the social positions of older men and women.
- Women live longer men and so tend to outlive their partners which means they are less likely to have a spouse to care for them in older age and are more likely to end up living in care homes than men.
- Older women are more likely to be in poverty than men because of lower levels of economic activity during their working lives because of more childcare duties.
In contrast men are more likely to have partners to care for them in later life as they die younger, but those who end up single tend to have higher levels of pension wealth.
Older women have become more independent over time, and more are finding intimate partners in later life, although they tend to opt for living apart for them to avoid caring duties.
Ethnicity and old age
Minority groups tend to have lower occupational pensions. The average gross weekly income for pensioners in 2021 was £556, but for Black and Asian pensioners income was only £391 and £412 pounds per week respectively.
Despite their lower pension incomes members of all ethnic minority groups live longer than white pensioners (5):
Older members of minority groups tend to have more social contact with family members which may reflect the higher rates of multi generational households and they also stronger social networks so are less likely to be isolated.
Variations in the experience of age by Cohort
The current generation of pensioners were born mostly in the 1940s and 1950s and are most likely to be enjoying a long and well funded retirement which started at age 65 or earlier for many of them, and most have no mortgage payments as they own their own houses outright.
In contrast today’s Gen Zers are unlikely to get on the property ladder until their late 30s and face a possible retirement age of 70 or later, and the possibility of their mortgages carrying on into their mid 70s.
It is much more likely that a higher proportion of pensioners in 40 years time are going to be in poverty than today.
This material is mainly relevant to the culture and identity module, one of the options usually taught as part of the first year in A-level Sociology.
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Sources/ find out more
(1) Featherstone and Hepworth (1990) The Mask of Ageing and the Postmodern LIfecourse.
(2) Pilcher (1995) Age and Generation in Modern Britain.
(3) Gov.uk (accessed May 2023) Pensioner Income Series.
(4) Gov.uk (accessed May 2023) Ethnicity Facts and Figures: UK Pensioner Income.
(5) Office for National Statistics: Life Expectancy by Ethnicity.
Arber et al (2006) Changing Approaches to Gender and Ageing.
Part of this post was adapted from Haralambos and Holborn (2013) Sociology Themes and Perspectives 8th Edition.