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Within sociology, the subfield known as ‘Ageing in the Life Course’ is used to help give a better understanding of the development of human lives and changing social structures and how these interplay with each other. The human development is viewed as being a complex framework of multidirectional and multidimensional phenomenon, this views how societies structures influence ageing and the life course.
This theory identifies multiple stages which every human goes through, and each society varies in terms of the meanings of old age and each stage of the life course. For example, in western culture, teen and youth culture is recognised. However, it is disregarded in eastern culture. When examining western culture there are multiple stages which are identified, childhood is the first and is socially constructed. Teen and youth sub-culture can be seen as the passage of rite that signifies the transition to adulthood. Young adulthood is used to characterise those in their 20s and early 30s, mature adulthood refers to the ageing population. Later life is the final stage; it refers to older people of society. Later life will be used as a focal point within this essay, sociologists have uncovered issues in relation to ageing and the life course.
Functionalism is used as a way of portraying age differences as functioning parts within society. Functionalists such as Talcott Parsons would suggest that age is an aspect of social stratification, similar to how gender and ethnicity are influential factors. The ideas put forward from Parsons are helpful in explaining that a disruption in society can be caused from the physical decline of the elderly. Parsons proposes the idea that for society to move forward with little disruption, the aforementioned elderly must disengage from their positions of responsibility and power, assuming they move onward to volunteering roles within society. However, Parsons fails to propose on how this would be done.
Parsons says by doing this, the elderly can take up voluntary jobs which allow young people to take their positions, the assumption that the decline in health is associated with ageing, therefore social roles must be considered.
Overall, Parson’s views are criticised as having an overemphasis on conformity, it can be argued that not everyone will disengage at the same time. Parsons chooses to ignore this, as well as neglecting the idea of inequality and not everyone has the exact same experiences during their lifetimes and therefore may not have the financial capability of doing so. .
From the work of Parsons came the disengagement theory by Elaine Cumming and William Henry, this concept believes that the disengaging of elderly members from social roles is functional for society. Disengagement is viewed as being beneficial as it means the standard of job will not be jeopardised from the deteriorating health, jobs will open up for younger generations and there will be little frustration. Disengagement is seen as being inevitable and universal, however, the Office for National Statistics published that in July 2019, 72.7% of people aged 50 to 64 were in full time employment. This shows that not all people disengage at the same time and at the same rate.
This criticises the disengagement theory as it makes the basic assumption that older people want to disengage or have the financial stability to do so, in addition, this theory does not consider that some elderly people may be the best in their fields and by removing them there would be more damage for society.
Not only is disengagement different for each society, but also for the individuals within that society. A study within The Guardian newspaper was published. Within the article statistics displayed that since 2010, an increase of 137% of men aged over 70 are still in work, this equated to around one in nine men. In addition, an interview was conducted where Catherine Seymour, head of policy at Independent Age stated that many elderly people working into their seventies are doing so out of necessity to pay rent or to heat their homes. This goes against the theory of disengagement as it shows that not everyone can simply let go of the working role.
Away from the consensus theory of functionalism, the political economy of old age offers a different viewpoint. This conflict perspective explores the interrelationship between government organisations as well as the economic structure; in this case the labour market and the social structure being social class.
According to Bond, Briggs and Coleman age is an aspect of social stratification, therefore, an individual’s age is a significant factor, similar to how gender or ethnicity would also be considerable factors. They argue that society rewards people for their current work, rather than their previous occupations, therefore, it does not reward the elderly. Bond et al argue that this is discriminating the elderly, they reinforce this by stating that economic and social policies are used to benefit the well-off or young people in employment.
This discrimination is exemplified through a case study by Centre for Ageing Better, an elderly woman called Valerie, 77, described her retirement which was due to a various number of long-term conditions she faced. Valerie suffered from deep vein thrombosis, diabetes and osteoporosis. These multiple illnesses accompanied by other pressures such as taking time off work pushed Valerie to enter retirement.
Furthermore, Bond et al go onto mention that poverty in old age is a result of little resources available to them, as well as restricted resources through their life cycle. This is shown in a report from Age UK (2018), pensioners aged 65 and over were asked questions relating to material deprivation. When asked if they could replace a cooker if broken, 9 answered ‘no’, additionally giving the reason they had no money to do this. Moreover, a further 4 responded ‘no’ about being able to pay regular bills or afford to heat their homes.
Further to this, is the views of Townsend (1981). Townsend states there is a clear link between poverty, old age and social class. A survey conducted by the Financial Conduct Authority (2017) showed that 31% of adults had no private pension, subsequently, 26% said they were unable to afford setting one up.
This highlights Townsends points and shines light upon the inequalities between different social classes and the detrimental effects of poverty on older age and how different social classes are impacted.
Likewise, Vincent (1982) puts forward the idea that life chances are shaped through age and differentiation. Vincent resides age along the same lines of class, ethnicity and gender, as well as how age interrelates with each of these.
Vincent argues that the introduction of private pensions has pushed the divisions further for those in their retirement years. Furthermore, Vincent views retirement itself as a social construction in which forces the elderly to become dependent on the state. Compulsory retirement ages alongside the provision of welfare services forces the elderly into being dependent; whether they like it or not.
Vincent would argue that this dependence is seen as an inequality, which is also linked to other forms of inequality such as class status or gender.
Inequality can be seen in many places, as pointed out by the Age UK (2011) that older people may be seen as a burden. A survey was produced which looked at different age populations within different sectors of society. One area was elderly people in employment, results showed that younger people (aged 30) were more acceptable as a boss than a boss who was 70 years-old; around 49.7% agreed with this statement.
Furthermore, it was commonly agreed that people over 70 were less likely to be seen as contributing to society economically than those in their 20s.
One case used to exemplify this was Eileen Jolly; an 88-year-old NHS secretary. Mrs Jolly was dismissed by her employer for failing to use a computer system. Prior to Mrs Jolly’s dismissal, there was an internal investigation which was brought against her for the quality of her work, this found that there was a fundamental misunderstanding of her role.
However, during this investigation, Mrs Jolly alleged that she was subject to age discriminative comments, this was not taken seriously by the Trust. Furthermore, the Tribunal found that Mrs Jolly’s dismissal was inf act tainted by discrimination and was therefore seen as being unfair. Although it was understood that Jolly misunderstood her role, there was no offer for IT training. Moreover, it was found that there was a general dismissive attitude towards Jolly during this investigation, as well as the senior figure at the Trust; Michael Eastwell was said to be very harsh towards Jolly. This was due to her inability to attend meetings due to medical appointments. This study perfectly conveys the inequality which age can bring to an individual.
Interpretive perspectives on age focuses on the meanings attached to age and the different impacts which these have; in relation to status and power. Prout and James (1990) propose the interpretivist approach, this views age categories as being entirely social constructs; this has led onto the questioning of the commonly thought idea which is that old age is a time where the individual’s quality of life begins to deteriorate.
Also, Hockey and James (1993), link the meaning of old age towards childhood; through the idea of dependency. In the same way a child is dependent on parents – or someone more abled – as do the elderly. In addition, elderly people are often thought of and treated as children. These meanings which are ascribed to these different age groups also lead to differences in influence. Subtle interactions towards these groups somewhat discriminate against them. This is exemplified in a report by the Kings Fund organisation (Roberts, 2000), stated that some services within the National Health Service (NHS) operated with upper age limits. The survey produced showed that age limits were used in around 40% of programmes.
From this viewpoint is the idea of personhood, an individual’s work and family duties shape their individuality and essentially defines them. The concept of being accepted within society; and treated as one, depends whether or not the individual is accepted as an adult. This puts forward the argument that in older age, a person is likely to lose their personhood; no work commitments, deteriorating health, no longer looking after dependent children. In essence, they become dependent; whether it be on the state or more capable adults.
Within society the media is tremendously influential, this perspective argues that the media reinforce the infantilization of old age. This is when a person of authority interacts with an elderly person as if they were a child; using secondary baby talk is the most common form. Secondary baby talk is seen as being very patronising as they are spoken down to. (Hockey and James, 1993).
As Goffman (1974) claims through frame analysis, an individual’s life is played out as actors with front and back regions; the front is shown when impressions are trying to convey a convincing performance, the back region refers to behind the stage where the actor is not seen. This is useful as it is possible to imagine that caregivers are expected to follow a script when dealing with patients, however, may express anger or dislike to other colleagues.
One study conducted aimed at measuring elderspeak; another term for infantilizing communication. This was a secondary analysis study of 80 video-recording transcripts of staff-residents communication during daily care activities such as dressing and mealtime. The study involved 52 staff members and 20 residents who suffered from dementia. These residents were aged between 69 to 97 years-old; the mean age being 82.9.
The studies measured for diminutives, these are terms of endearment seen as being inappropriate as they are commonly used in baby talk. These diminutives represent a culture emphasizing dependency and lack of respect, from care staff to residents.
Diminutives come in various forms such as collective pronoun substitutions, for example, “Are we ready for our breakfast?” relays the message that the individual has no independence, this is inapt as they are not eating together. In addition to this, tag questions are also used. These ask a question but also aim towards a desired response, “You’re ready for your bath now, aren’t you?” is an example of this. This form of question restricts the person’s choice and thus controls behaviour.
The results from the study showed that 84% of the transcripts contained at least one example of infantilizing speech, the most common was pronoun substitution; which occurred in 69% of transcripts. In addition, a total of 18 different terms of endearment were found. (Gerontol, 2018).
Moreover, this infantilization reinforces the idea of dependency, especially within care homes; next to no free will, washed and dressed by staff; undermines their cognitive ability to do so themselves. Furthermore, all of these encourage social dependency which is linked to their loss of personhood. This further underpins the idea that dependency is also intertwined with childhood.
Nevertheless, Hockey and James believe it is possible for the elderly to reject their inferior status in society and can be done so in three ways; by attaining alternative sources of power, taking up roles which make them feel younger and to mock the way they are treated by society.