Income and Wealth Differences by Age in the U.K.

Adults aged 60-64 are nine times wealthier than adults aged 30-34. (ONS wealth survey, 2018-202.

Older generations enjoyed higher incomes in their peak earning years compared to today’s workers. Older people are much wealthier than younger people today.

Income Differences by Age

The Baby Boomers enjoyed high incomes for most of their working lives because they were part of a relatively small birth cohort and their peak earning years were before globalisastion really kicked into gear.

When China opened up to world trade in the 1990s this meant British workers had to compete with cheaper labour from abroad. By this time most of the Boomers had most of their working years behind them and were well set up financially to cope with this.

The 2008 financial crisis changed things dramatically for the worse, and wages for younger generations have been going down in relative terms. 30 year old Millennials today have 4% less disposable income than Gen X had when they were a similar age.

Moreover, younger generations feel as if they are more hard done by, meaning they are more likely to question the social contract. 40% of Millennials think they have a low income compared to only 30% of Generation X.

The Stereotype of spend-happy youth

Younger generations are often criticised for being materialistic and more likely to report they think it is important to be rich, with some commentators suggesting the young can learn lessons in frugality from their elders.

However, the stats suggest younger people in fact spend less, and thinking it’s important to be rich is a function of them having lower and less secure incomes!

The over 50s account for one third of the population but 47% of consumer spending. 55-64 year olds spend around 20% on consumer items than 24-35 year olds.

Wealth distribution by age

Wealth is mainly concentrated among older people.

Since 2007 nearly all the extra wealth created has gone to the over 45s, with over two thirds going to the over 65s. Mostly driven by the increase in property prices.

This wealth hasn’t come because of frugality, but because of government policies creating windfalls: low interest rates, printing money keeping property rates high.

Bar chart showing median wealth distribution by age, UK 2018-2020.

And the ability to save for the younger generations has been harmed by stagnating wages and student loans.

Younger people increasingly rely on their parents helping them out financially, most obviously when they purchase their first house. In 2017 34% of first time buyers received help from their parents to buy, and the Bank of Mum and Dad was in the top ten of mortgage lenders!

However this only serves to increase inequality: those at the top are better able to help out their kids, who get richer faster while those at the bottom have nothing.

And it’s a long wait for inheritance, even for those lucky enough to be in receipt of one: age 61 is the average age.

Despite all of the above, there is no mass resentment against the old, and no real desire for wealth to be passed down en masse. The main problem is the inequality of wealth within the top generation and the economic inequality this increases across generations.

Sources and Signposting

ONS: Wealth distribution by age and other characteristics dataset.

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Functionalist Perspectives on Age

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.

Old Age

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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Ageism is discrimination against older people on the basis of their age. It involves making narrow judgements about the elderly based on stereotypes and treating them differently based on nothing other than their biological age, which can occur at both individual and institutional levels.

Two example of ageism include:

  • judging older people based on stereotypical assumptions about age, by assuming they are less physically or mentally capable just because of their biological age.
  • Blocking older people from opportunities to work or take part in society in other ways on the basis of their age.

According to Loraine Green (1) Ageism can take one of three forms

  1. Subtle ageism: acting towards older people as if they were a homogenous group, without taking into account the wide variety of experiences and abilities among older people.
  2. Compassionate ageism: trying to protect older people from harm which may be well intentioned but can end up restricting their opportunities and doing more harm than good.
  3. Direct discrimination: where policies overtly block older people from doing certain things or people are overtly hostile towards older people.

While it is true that generally older people do suffer from deteriorating physical and mental capacities over time which can make participating in society and just life in general more challenging, the existence of ageism in society adds further barriers which makes the experience of ageing even more difficult!

Individual Ageism

One of the worst forms of individual ageism involves abuse of the elderly and there are several types.

The World Health Organisation (2) defines Abuse of the elderly (aka elder abuse) as any action or lack of action which takes place within a relationship of trust which causes harm or distress to an older person in that relationship.

A 2017 review of 52 studies from 28 countries found that as many as one in six people aged 60 or over have experienced some form of abuse.

Examples of elder abuse

  • psychological abuse: involves intimidation or harassment of older people with the intention to make them afraid, and/ or failing to meet their cultural/ religious needs within institutional settins
  • physical abuse: involves both direct harm to older people or anything than deliberately causes them to become unwell such as manipulating food intake or withholding medication
  • financial abuse: involves either stealing from or preventing an older person gaining access to their finances.
  • Neglect: involves the lack of sufficient care for older people.

Institutional ageism

Institutional ageism is systematic discrimination against the elderly by institutions. These may either be organisations specifically dedicated to elderly care or social institutions more generally such as workplaces.

Prior to 2011 in the UK employment law allowed for forced retirement at the age of 65, so it was legal for companies to overtly discriminate against people when they reached 65 by ‘retiring’ them, meaning anyone aged 65 or over was blocked from working if companies wished it.

A more indirect form ageist social policy occurs when state pensions are so low that those without sufficient private pensions are forced into claiming state benefits on top of their pensions, which effectively locks older people in to having to maintain their benefits claims. Some older people don’t claim out of either shame or because of the complexity of the process, meaning older people are more likely to live in poverty.

If older people are dependent on benefits it reinforces the stereotype that older people are in need of help, when in reality this is only the case because of state policies underfunding pensions.

Recent policy changes in the UK have reduced these kinds of institutional ageism: since 2011 people over the age of 65 now have the right to carry on working, they can’t just be sacked at the age of 65, and the treble lock to the pension means the value of the pension has increased significantly relative to earnings meaning that today older people are less likely on average to be in the bottom quintile for income than those aged under 65.

The relative underfunding of health and social care through four decades of neoliberal Tory policy could also be regarded as a form of ageism. Most older people don’t require treatment in hospital for most of their lives, for those that need extra support home visits are usually sufficient, but it is precisely this aspect of the public sector which has been underfunded.

Another form of institutional ageism is media stereotypes of the elderly, who are typically overrepresented as dependent, helpless, as objects of fun or pity, or in the case of older women, subject to symbolic annihilation given that there are relatively few positive representations of older women in the media.


This material is mainly relevant to the culture and identity option, usually taught as part of A-level sociology in the first year of study.

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(1) Lorraine Green (2016) Understanding the Life Course: Sociological and Psychological Perspectives.

(2) The World Health Organisation Abuse of Older People.


Old Age

sociological perspectives on when old age begins and the norms surrounding later life.

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.

mind map on the social construction of old age.

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.

screen capture of pension age calculator UK

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.

image of village elders having a meeting
Older people are often treated with more respect in traditional societies.

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.
pension income distribution UK 2021

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.

pension income by ethnicity bar chart, UK 2021

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) (accessed May 2023) Pensioner Income Series.

(4) (accessed May 2023) Ethnicity Facts and Figures: UK Pensioner Income.

(5) Office for National Statistics: Life Expectancy by Ethnicity.

(6) Check your State Pension Age.

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.

The Myth of the Generational Divide

the idea that there is a ‘war’ between younger and older generations is a media construction.

Media narratives suggest that we are in the middle of a generational war: Baby Boomers are selfish sociopaths who are steeling the future of younger generations and Millennials are narcissistic ‘WOKE’ obsessed snowflakes.

For example, at the end end of 2019 Great Thunberg was named Time magazine’s person of the year, with the magazine calling her a ‘standard bearer in a generational battle’, but this characterisation of there being a ‘battle’ between the generations around climate change isn’t born out by the statistics: old people are just as likely to be concerned about the environment as young people.

However, while there is a growing separation between the young and the old, with resentments mainly concerning economic, housing and health inequalities, the generations share more in common than you might think and there is still a decent degree of intergenerational goodwill.

This goodwill was demonstrated during the response of the younger generations to the Covid Pandemic: the vast majority obeyed lockdown rules to protect the older generations, despite the fact that the chance of young people dying from the virus was very small.

In order to truly understand the differences in attitudes between generations, and thus the extent of any generational divide, we need to distinguish between three things:

  • Period effects – the effect of big events on populations
  • Lifecycle effects – how people change as they age
  • Cohort effects – genuine differences between the generations.

It is only the later where we can really talk about there being ‘generational differences’, and in fact quite a lot of differences in attitude are down to the first two above.

For example, concern about terrorism tends to increase for ALL age groups when there is large scale terrorist attack (a period effect); people tend to get fatter as they get older (a Lifecyle effect); but church attendance is truly effected by cohort: older generations are more likely to attend church than younger generations.

To examine differences between generations without taking into account period effects and lifestyle effects is to ignore two thirds of ‘age based’ analysis!

IF we take the time to do ‘synthetic cohort analysis’ we find the differences between generations are not as drastic as the media would have us believe.

A Moral Panic?

The narrative of young people against old people makes for good headlines, but it is almost certainly something of a moral panic, and we must remember that:

  • Young people have always been seen as a problem by older people, with moral panics about youth being recurring.
  • Young people have always been more likely to adopt the latest fads and fashions.
  • Older people have been stereotyped for decades, usually negatively

It follows that media criticism of young people as snowflakes or WOKE obsessed, and the ‘OK Boomer’ refrain from the young are nothing new: the old have always criticized the young, and the young have always seen the old as reactionary.

But there are generational differences

Having said this, there are differences in opportunities between the generations: young people do face economic, housing and health challenges that their parents and grandparents did not and do not, as a general rule.

And while the exact boundaries between the classic generational dividing lines are blurred (Baby Boomer, Gen X, Millennials and Gen Z) there are meaningful differences in life-experience between them.

However, it is NOT helpful to characterise the generations as being at war, what we need to improve the lives of Gen Z, for example, is more intergenerational goodwill of the sort we saw during the Covid Pandemic.

Sources and Signposting

This post was summarised from Bobby Duffy (2021) The Generation Divide: We We Can’t Agree and Why we Should.

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Age and the Life Course

ageing is socially constructed, to an extent, shaped by social norms, the age structure and generation experiences.

Ageing is a universal biological fact of life: everyone goes through physical transformations as they age: from conception to birth followed by a period of physical and mental maturation during childhood, puberty and adulthood, and finally physical decline leading towards eventual death.

While biological age and ageing are obviously linked to both physical and psychological development sociologists argue that age and ageing cannot be fully understood without looking at their social contexts: the process of ageing and the normal ‘stages of life’ which are associated with different ages vary enormously historically and across societies, and so many aspects of age are a social construction.

Norms surrounding childhood in Britain have, for example, changed drastically over the last 200 years. In the early 19th century it was regarded as acceptable for young people to do paid work, meaning that people as young as 12 were already taking on adult roles. Today people are legally required to be in school until at least 16 and most won’t take on full adult working responsibilities until finishing tertiary (university) education at 21 or 22 years of age.

Attitudes towards older people vary across cultures too: in China and Japan elderly people are treated with respect, regarded as having wisdom and worth listening to and seeking advice from. In Western European societies older people are generally seen as non-productive, dependent and out-of-touch, and the very elderly are often hidden away in care-homes, forgotten about by society.

Hence to an extent age and the life course are socially constructed, but we have to also recognise the role that biological or physical ageing plays too!

Factors affecting the experience of ageing

There are at least three broad factors which affect the experience of ageing:

  1. Biology and the physical ageing process
  2. The society we live in and the way society interprets the ageing process (and socially constructs age)
  3. The age structure of a society
  4. The historical period into which we are born (our age cohort or generation). 

Biology and ageing 

Although sociologists prefer to focus on how things such as ‘age’ and ‘childhood’ are not purely biological but rather socially constructed, we can’t deny that biological age has an affect on the experience of ageing. 

As mentioned above human beings start off totally dependent on older human beings and as they get very old their physical and mental capacities deteriorate. 

Society and the social construction of age 

Most societies have norms surrounding what people of different biological ages should be doing at those ages, and these norms are often codified into laws. For example, people aged below 5 in Britain don’t have to go to school, people aged 5-16 MUST go to school (or be home-school), and from 16-18 laws change to allow the transition to adulthood at 18. 

It is well established within sociology that childhood is socially constructed, but also at the other end of the life course the pension age is too because it is society that determines that (for younger people today) this starts at age 68, it is currently (for people retiring today) set at 65.

Most people would also recognise that there is a typical ‘life course’ in their society, or a broad set of norms which outline what it is socially acceptable for people to be doing at certain ages between childhood and retirement. For example in Britain we broadly have a transition from childhood (dependency) to adolescence (becoming adult 16-21) to early adulthood (21-35 dating/ renting/ finding career) to midlife (35-65: established career, home owning, children) to retirement (65+ children left home, stopped working).

Granted, the boundaries above do vary a lot, and MANY people diverge from this model, but the life course above is still possibly recognisable as ‘typical’.  

Age Structure 

The age structure of a population refers to the relative size of age groups within a population at any one point in time. 

The age structure is affected by the fertility rate, life expectancy and migration. 

Age structures vary enormously between countries. In Germany, for example, which has a low birth rate and high life expectancy there are relatively few young people, a high proportion of 50-60 year olds and then numbers gradually tail off after 60, but still large numbers of people aged 70 plus. 

In Nigeria, there are many more younger people and relatively fewer people aged over 70 because of higher birth rates but lower life expectancy. 

The typical age someone can be expected to live can have a huge impact on the social construction of age, especially the retirement age. 

Age Cohort or Generation 

A group born in the same historical period is known as an age cohort, and they will grow up and age experiencing similar historical events which will influence their experience of ageing. 

There are no objective dividing lines between one age cohort and the next, it depends how the observer decides how to split the ages up: in schools we refer to each year as cohorts, but other research models may look at the experiences of people born in the same decades, grouping all people born in the 1970s together, all born in the 1980s together and so on. 

One of the best known popular versions of this is the distinction between Baby Boomers, Generation X and so on…

  • Baby Boomers: 1946 – 1964
  • Generation X: 1965 – 1980
  • Millennials: 1981 – 1996
  • Generation Z: 1997 – 2012
  • Generation Alpha 2013 – present day. 

You’ll have to decide for yourself whether the groupings above make sense, but the general idea is that the historical period you are born in will shape how you experience the life course. 

One way this seems to be true is that Baby Boomers had an easier time buying their houses when they were cheap and are able to retire comfortably, Generation Z face much more job insecurity, global warming as more of a threat, unaffordable housing and a later retirement age (yes kids, life is getting worse, sorry!). 

Life course and life cycle 

Life Cycle refers to the stages of life which people usually pass through as they age, from birth to death. 

There are different models of ‘life cycles’ but one example, applicable to the United Kingdom, is from Bradley (1996) who Identified five stages of life: 

  • Childhood – when children are in a state of innocence and dependency, protected by their parents and (in the UK today) and by law. This is the stage of life when children are learning norms, values, skills and knowledge to prepare them for adulthood, but are free from many of the responsibilities of adulthood. 
  • Adolescence – a time of transition from childhood to adulthood which takes place from puberty onwards. During this time adolescents are given more freedoms and responsibilities as they get older. This is also typically regarded as a time of experimentation, exploration of identities, and maybe deviance and rebellion. 
  • Young adulthood – the period from leaving the adult home to full adulthood, so possibly from early 20s to mid 30s: the time when young adults find their first jobs, and find and move in with their long term partners. 
  • Mid-life – There is disagreement over when mid-life begins: somewhere between 35 and 50. This is the ‘churn’ of adulthood – full time careers, dependent and then maybe independent children. 
  • Old age – Formal retirement age, when you can claim your pension, is 65 in the UK, so that is the formal ‘marker’ of old age. In Britain it is the end of work which marks this point in life. 

Jane Plicher argues that the concept of the life cycle is problematic because it implies that there are set stages through which all people pass. 

In reality, however, there is no universal life cycle through which everyone passes, and thus Plicher prefers to use the term Life Course. 

The concept of the life course recognises that in most societies there is a ‘socially defined timetable’ of behaviours generally seen as normal and acceptable for people of certain ages in that specific society, but also that people may experience their own individual life course in very different ways.

You can probably already see the above scheme of five stages is problematic because there is so much blurring between the boundaries of the stages, especially in the boundary between young adulthood and mid-life as there is so much variation in when people get established in their careers and have children. 

There is also considerable variation in experience within each age-group. For example, many people retire well before 65 and some continue working into their 70s. 

Ethnicity and gender can also affect people’s experiences as they age, another reason why ‘life course’ is preferable to ‘life cycle’. 

The De-standardisation of the Life Course 

Postmodernists argue that there is so much variation in the ‘Life Course’ today that it no longer makes any sense to talk of a life course anymore. 

Not only is there huge variation in the age at which people transition from adolescence to a state of independence in young adulthood, the age at which people have their first children spans 20 years, and many choose not to have children at all. Similarly it is hard to see when young adulthood becomes mid-life: many would argue 50 is still relatively young, and incredible diversity within all of these age brackets and especially in the way people experience retirement. 

Maybe there is no longer a social norm of the life course, just a series of individual choices around how to age? 


This material is mainly relevant to the culture and identity module within A-level sociology, but also partly relevant to families and households.

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Age Pyramid: Germany:

Age Pyramid: Nigeria:


Why don’t young people like the Monarchy?

Young people are twice as likely to NOT support the monarch as old people, but why is this?

Attitudes towards the British monarchy vary significantly by age.

According to a recent YouGov survey commissioned by the BBC’s Panorama (1)only 32% of 18-24 year olds think we should continue to have a monarchy compared to 67% of 50-64 year olds.

So more than twice the proportion of 18-24 year olds are against the idea of continuing the monarchy compared to 15-64 year olds.

When you stretch the age gap further you find the difference is even greater: Only 26% of 18-24 year olds think the monarchy is good for Britain, compared to 72% of over 65 olds:

The difference is certainly significant, but why is there such a remarkable difference in attitudes towards the monarchy between younger and older Britons?

Lifecycle or Cohort Effect?

Is this stark difference in attitudes towards the monarchy down to a lifecycle or cohort effect?

  • A lifestyle effect would mean that all younger people in general, from any generation, start off viewing the monarch less favourably and as they get older view the monarchy more favourably.
  • A cohort effect would mean that there is a difference in attitude across the younger and older generations, in which case we can expect younger people to keep their more negative attitudes towards the monarchy as they get older.

Of course it is also possible that BOTH of the above effects are at work: intuitively it makes sense that the monarchy is becoming less relevant over time AND that as people get older they are more likely to defer to authority.

One way determining the relative strength of each effect would be to ASK older people whether they used to support the monarchy or not (although there are potential validity flaws related to memory in this), so a more valid measure would be to look at PAST opinion polls on the monarchy.

If we go back to this 2020 survey on whether Britain should have a monarchy the results for the older age groups are slightly higher to that of the 2023 survey suggesting what we are seeing here is a cohort effect, rather than a lifecycle effect.

What is surprising is that 52% of 18-24 year olds reported wanting a monarchy only three years ago…

To my mind this possibly suggests what is known as a ‘period effect’ – where a significant event effects public attitudes, and this case the event was the death of the Queen and forthcoming coronation of the new King: people simply aren’t that keen on King Charles compared to the Queen, and maybe this has had more of an impact on younger people.

Also there is the negative press associated with Prince Andrew and his love of sleeping with teenage girls, which probably didn’t do the institution many favours in the eyes of 18-24 year olds!

If you go back further, you can find a lot of historical polls on public attitudes towards the monarchy, but it’s hard to find anything which is split clearly by age cohort, so we are left with national average figures.

In general there is broad support here for there being a cohort effect – if we go back 20 years we see nearly 80% supporting the monarchy, compared to just over 50% on average today, and given that we’ve got an ageing population clearly people aren’t changing their minds and becoming more pro-monarchy as they get older!

In some of these polls people are even asked ‘what should happen to the monarchy after the Queen dies’ and it’s clear that there was less support for the monarchy in that previous hypothetical situation compared to when the Queen was alive, and we see that being played out in the statistics now!

Why do young people show less support for the monarchy?

I don’t know of any research looking at WHY the younger generation are less likely to support the monarchy compared to the older generation, but decades of surveys give us some kind of idea and we can theorise about why more broadly, based on social changes over the past decade.

First of all it seems there has been an immediate decline in support for the monarchy based on the death of the Queen. We see this in the relatively rapid decline in pro-monarchy attitudes in 2023 compared to 2020.

This makes intuitive sense: even teenagers today would have ‘grown up’ with the Queen, and more so for older people. Media coverage of the Queen was always very positive and she’s been a mainstay of British popular culture for decades, whereas our new King Charles has received much more negative press (‘the crazy organic guy’) and Camilla isn’t that popular, and he simply doesn’t have the historical kudos of the Queen: he doesn’t link us back to this warm and toasty (albeit mythical) 1950s feeling like the Queen did.

And then think of the turmoil the Royal Family has gone through over the last decade: with Meghan and Harry leaving and Andrew’s taste for teenage girls, it’s all a bit sordid, they’re just a bit all over the place, they simply don’t represent wholesomeness in the same sort of way the Queen did.

So it kind of makes sense that once the Queen is dead, there’s not a lot positive within the monarchy to support anymore.

Younger generations may also be less inclined to support the monarchy because they haven’t grown up with just television: personalised feeds mean younger people are probably much less exposed to BBC representations of royalty, less likely to get news items about royalty and when they do they will be presented more as media celebrities rather than anything special.

Possibly national identity means less to younger people in a global age, and royalty are ‘British’, so maybe they are less supported because of this.

I’d like to think that there’s a sense of injustice about so much tax payers’ money being spent on this defunct institution when they are already so wealthy, but I doubt this is much of a thing, maybe for a few percent it is though.

Signposting and Sources

These statistics seem to be evidence of the broad shift towards postmodern society. The fact that young people have such different attitudes towards the monarchy than older people suggests a degree of social fragmentation, certainly not anything like value consensus.

Declining support for the monarchy also suggests we are less likely to defer to authority and hierarchy based on tradition, and presumably more likely to decide for ourselves what we should be doing with our lives.

BBC News (April 2023) How Popular is the Monarchy Under King Charles?

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Britain’s Ageing Population – Is it a Problem?

This post provides an overview of statistics on Britain’s ageing population before looking at some of the problems associated with this trend, including the increased strain on health services and increased burden on young people. It also asks whether the ageing population is actually a problem or not?

Statistics on the Ageing Population

  • In 1998, around one in six people were 65 years and over (15.9% of the population )
  • In 2020, approximately in five people are aged 65 years and over
  • By 2038 it is protected that around one in every four people (24.2%) will be aged 65 and over.

Population Pyramids

These are a nice way of demonstrating Britain’s changing population structure:

The UK’s Age Structure in 1998

The UK’s Age Structure in 2038 (projected)

If you look at the above two population pyramids, you can clearly see a ‘bulge’ around age 30 in 1998, which has disappeared in 2038.

The age structure in 2038 is a much more even, and less like a pyramid.

This is simply a result of people getting older and fewer babies being born (the declining birth rate over the last few decades).

The Dependency Ratio

The Dependency Ratio refers to the number of people of working age in relation to the number of people of non-working age. The later group includes children and people of pensionable age, in 2020 that means everone aged over 65. In the 1990s there used to be

The Office for National Statistics uses this measurement, which is the number of people of pensionable age in relation to those aged 16-64 (working age) per thousand.

The old age dependency ratio was 300:1000 (3.3 workers to each pensioner) in 1992 , it is project to increase to 400:1000 (2.5 workers to each pensioner) by 2067.

The problem of the increasing dependency ratio

Every pensioner in the UK is entitled to a state pension and a range of other ‘free at the point of use’ public services, mainly health-care. These are paid for by taxes on the income of current workers, and the fewer workers to pensioners, the more each worker has to be taxed to pay for pensions and services used by pensioners.

All other things remaining equal, taxes are going to have to increase by 25% based on the above change in the dependency ratio.

One possible way of combating this problem is for more people of pensionable age to work, and in fact this is already happening – the economic activity levels of the over 65s has doubled in the last few decades:

An increased strain on public services

Increasing numbers of pensioners puts a strain on the NHS because pensioners use health services more than younger people.

With increasing numbers of pensioners ‘sucking money’ out of the welfare state’ there is less left for everything else – services for the young are being cut to compensate

This is because healthy life expectancy is not keeping pace with life-expectancy, and there are increasing numbers of people in their 80s who spend several years with chronic physical conditions such as arthritis, and also dementia both of which require intensive social care.

While the ageing population presents problems, there are solutions – such as improving education about how to stay healthy in later life, changing ideas about working so that people are able to work for longer could be part of the solution.

Problems for younger people

People in their 50s have become a ‘sandwich generation’ – they are now caught between having to provide care for their elderly parents, while still having their 20 something children living at home.

However, things are even worse for today’s teenagers – the retirement aged has now been pushed back to 68 – young people today are going to have to retire much later than their current grandparents.

While the ageing population presents problems, there are solutions – such as improving education about how to stay healthy in later life, changing ideas about working so that people are able to work for longer could be part of the solution.

Arguments against the view that the ageing population is a problem

We ned to be careful not to exaggerate the extend to which old people are a ‘burden’ on society, these often come from stereotypical ways of thinking about age. Not all old people are incapable or in poor health! Most older people live healthy lives into old age and increasing numbers of the over 65s are economically active.

Effective long-term planning and forward-looking social policy changes today can help reduce some of the problems associated with the dependency ratio, such as raising the state pension age.

Marxists think attitudes to old age are influenced by capitalism. Marxist suggest that age groups are defined by the capitalist system. For example, adults are people of working age, and the elderly are told old to work. Philipson (1982) capitalism views the elderly as burden on society. This is because their working life has ended, and they usually have less spending power. Therefore, old age become stigmatised in society.

Postmodernists argue attitudes to age are changing. Magazine, advertisers and the media generally often portray “youthful” old age – old people enjoying holidays, sport, wearing fashionable clothes etc. People can also mask their old age through plastic surgery. The strict identity of old age no longer exists.


Related posts

The aging population is a consequence of the declining death rate, and the increasing dependency ratio is a consequence of this plus the declining birth rate. Hence these two posts might be worth reviewing:

For some extension work, you might like this: The consequences of an ageing population – summary of a Thinking Allowed Podcast from 2015 which focuses on the challenges of a future in which increasing numbers of people will be aged over 70.

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Who uses New Media?

What are the patterns of new-media usage in the UK by age, social class, gender. Is there still a digital divide?

Statistics on New Media usage reveals that young people use new media a lot more than old people, men more than women and the middle classes slightly more than the working classes.

In 2019, almost nine in ten (87%) UK households had internet access, and adults who use the internet spent, on average, 3 hours 15 minutes a day online (in September 2018) (1)

Around 70% of UK adults have a social media account and about one in every five minutes spent online is on social media (1)

The number of households connected to the internet and the use of New Media has increased rapidly in the last decade, but statistics from OFCOM clearly show that there are still differences in new media usage by age, social class and gender.

For an overview of what the New Media are, please see these two posts:

The generation divide

New media usage varies significantly by age.

This is especially clear if we contrast the youngest age groups (as classified by OFCOM) of 16-24 year olds with the oldest of 74+

The differences are less marked, but still clear if we look at a wider variety of age groups. I’ve deliberately selected two consecutive age groups below (45-54 and 55-64) because there appears to be quite a significant drop off in new media usage between these two age categories.

AGE 16-24s45-54s: 55-64s: AGE 75+
93% have a social media profile; 1% do not use the internet76% have a social media profile; 7% do not use the internet

58% have a social media profile; 19% do not use the internet

20% have a social media profile; 48% do not use the internet

The social class digital divide

Working-age adults in DE socio-economic group1 households are more than three times as likely as those in non-DE households to be non-users of the internet (14% vs. 4%). (1)

The contrast is best shown by comparing the highest socio-economic group (AB) with the lowest socio-economic group (DE):

Socio-Economic Group AB:

  • 97% use a mobile phone
  • 73% watch on-demand or streamed content
  • 74% have a social media profile
  • 57% correctly identify advertising on Google
  • 6% do not use the internet (2)

Socioeconomic Group DE:

  • 93% use a mobile phone
  • 46% watch on-demand or streamed content
  • 56% have a social media profile
  • 37% correctly identify advertising on Google
  • 23% do not use the internet (2)

The digital gender divide

  • In 2017, women (81%) continue to be more likely to have a profile/ account, compared to men (74%). (4)
  • Women are more likely than men to say they have ever seen content that upset or offended them in social media over the past year (58% vs. 51%). (4)
  • (50%) of men say they are ‘very’ interested in the news (50%) compared to only a third (34%) of women. Twice as many women (15%) as men (8%) are not interested. (4)
  • A quarter of men (24%) play games online, compared to 9% of women. (4)

Is there a significant new media digital divide in the UK in 2019?

  • While there does seem to be a very significant generation divide between the very youngest and oldest, the differences between young adults and those in their early 50s is relatively small.
  • There does appear to be some evidence that those in class DE are less well connected than those in class DE with nearly a quarter of adults in class DE not being connected to the internet.
  • There also appear to be quite significant differences by gender: women are more likely to have social media profiles while men are much more likely to take an interest in the news.
Signposting and Relevance to A-level Sociology

This material is mainly relevant to students studying the media topic as part of A-level sociology.

  1. OFCOM – Online Nation 2019 –
  2. OFCOM – Media Use and Attitudes Report 2019 –
  3. OFCOM’s Interactive data link.

Applying material from the item, analyse two reasons why younger people are generally less religious than older people

This is one possible example of a 10 mark ‘with item’ question which could come up in the AQA’s A level sociology paper 2: topics in sociology (section B: beliefs in society option). 

Read the item, and then answer the question below.


Older people are more likely to both attend church and express religious beliefs than younger people.

Some sociologists have suggested that this is due to changes which occur during the life-course. Other sociologists believe this trend is more about social changes resulting in generational differences.

Applying material from the item, analyse two reasons why younger people are generally less religious than older people

The first reason why older people are more religious is that as they come to the end of their ‘life course’, they are simply biologically closer to death which means they start to think more about what happens after death. This is something which all religions deal with, and so it could simply be that older people become more religious because they find a suitable explanation to their questions about the afterlife in religion.

This could be especially the case today, as modern society is obsessed with ‘youth and life’ and so religion is one of the few places people close to death might find solace.

A related life course related factor is social isolation. As people enter retirement, they lose their work place connections, and are more likely to see their friends die. Attending church could be a way of making up for these lost connections.

The second possible reason is social changes – meaning that each successive generation is less religious than the previous generation.

The church has gradually become disengaged from society and so has less influence over social life: thus children today are much less likely to see religious authority being exercised in politics, and religion has also lost its influence in education: RE is now somewhat watered down compared to what it used to be: presenting religion as a choice rather than a necessity.

Also, now that society has become more postmodern, it emphasizes, fun, diversity and choice, all of which traditional religion at least doesn’t offer as much of: people would rather spend Sunday relaxing rather than in church, and this is very much normal today.

As a result of all the above, parents are much less likely to socialize their children into religious beliefs and practices, which explains the decline in religion across the generations and between younger and older people today.