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ageingthe chronological process of growing physically older. However, there is also a social dimension in which chronology is less important than the meanings attached to the process. Different cultural values and social expectations apply according to gender and age group, and therefore there are socially-structured variations in the personal experience of ageing.
EISENSTADT (Generation to Generation, 1964) studied the political role of age groups and argued that age stratification is an important stabilizing influence in societies where:
- two sets of values coexist within the social structure – the particularism of family ties and the universalism of the public division of labour (here age groups act as buffers between the public and the private domain and give members solidarity and support as well as orienting them to the adult world of work); and
- the opportunity for the young to have full participation in adult society is blocked by systems of KINSHIP and DESCENT (here the age group becomes the basis for status and also power struggles between the generations).
In DEMOGRAPHY the terms ageing society and youthful society are used to indicate the age composition of the population. A youthful society is one in which there is a preponderance of people in young age groups (under 15 years) because of a high BIRTH RATE and low LIFE EXPECTANCY. An ageing society is one in which reductions in the birth rate and greater longevity have resulted in a rising proportion of the population belonging to the older age groups. For example, CENSUS data for the UK shows that in 1911 men over 65 years and women over 60 years comprised 6.8% of the population, whereas in 1981 they comprised 17.1%.
The growing proportion of older people in the population, and the spread of early retirement, has led to age being perceived as a social problem. Older people are subject to negative stereotyping and diminished SOCIAL STATUS. Even academic discourse promotes negative imagery through such terms as ‘burden of dependency’ and ‘dependency ratio’, which refer to the number of economically inactive older people in relation to the number of economically active younger people whose labour provides the services consumed by the older generation. In the US, AGEISM has become a political issue through the emergence of movements, such as the Grey Panthers, determined to safeguard the citizen rights of older people and counter the negative imagery of old age promoted by the commercialization of youth. See also MIDLIFE CRISIS, YOUTH CULTURE.