Talcott Parsons developed a Functionalist perspective on age and ageing in the 1950s. He argued that society mainly functioned around working age adults with children being socialised smoothly into their adult roles within the nuclear family, and adolescence being a rebellious phase of life, but a functional necessity for the reproduction of new nuclear families.
He recognised that old age was a problem for industrial societies given the isolation of the elderly from mainstream social roles and structures.
Parsons believed that childhood was a universal stage of life in all societies when young people were socialised into the pre-existing norms and values of their society.
Gender role socialisation was an important aspect early socialisation with girls being socialised into housewife and mother roles and boys into work and breadwinner roles.
In line with the Functionalist perspective on the family, socialisation of children was seen as a mostly one-directional passive process in which children soaked up norms and values from mainly their parents, but also school.
According to Parsons there was less differentiation in socialisation by gender in the USA compared to other, more traditional societies, meaning there was more equality between the genders: both girls and boys received a similar education, for example, and women did have the opportunity to do paid work. However, gender role segregation throughout childhood and into was still the norm.
Parsons saw adolescence as the period in the life-course when children began to develop a sense of independence from their parents.
This stage was crucial so that new nuclear families could be formed across the generations: at some point children had to break free from loyalty to their parents and shift their primary loyalty to their new (heterosexual) partners and form new families.
This fits in with Parson’s theory of the family: nuclear families, rather than extended multi-generational households, are essential to industrial societies because they are smaller and thus more mobile so they can more easily move into new jobs as industrial capitalism evolves and develops new industries in different geographical areas.
Youth culture did involve an element of rebellion but this deviance was in fact ‘functional’ as it helped individuals to develop the independence from their parents that the system required.
Parsons believed that old age was a problem in industrial society: society tended to centre around work and the nuclear family, which both rely on people of working age.
Once people hit retirement age in the USA, Parsons noted that the elderly were relatively isolated from the most important social structures and interests.
He didn’t really seem to have any solutions to this.
Parsons has been criticised for seeing the ‘life course’ as entirely about meeting the needs of society, the theory is too neat and doesn’t reflect the reality of how ageing works.
Children and adolescents are much more active in constructing their identities than Parsons suggests: children today develop very diverse identities, especially in terms of gender identity, and this simply doesn’t fit with what Parsons says.
Similarly youth culture is an extended phase of life for many, with a signficant minority of people not ‘growing out’ of it until their mid 20s, and many of them don’t go on to form nuclear families at all.
With old age it is hard to argue all retired people are just redundant as Parsons suggests. For a start retirement ages differ, and many old people contribute massively to society either as consumers or volunteers, it seems incredulous to write off an entire large age-cohort as playing no useful function!
Signposting and Sources
This material is primarily relevant to the Culture and Identity module, usually taught as part of the first year in A-Level Sociology.
Part of this post was adapted from Haralambos and Holborn (2013) Sociology Themes and Perspectives 8th Edition.
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