Aging Theory: Social-Conflict Analysis
The prominent theories of aging emphasize the involvement of the aging or elder individual in social activities and engagement in society. The social conflict perspective, however, criticizes these approaches because they do not take into account the effect of social structures, social stratification, and class on patterns of aging. Research has found that individuals from the upper classes tend to have better health and vigor and be less likely to be dependent in their later years than are individuals from the lower classes. More affluent persons typically have better or even greater access to healthcare, consistent access to food and medication, and can afford to have the help they need for necessary everyday activities than less affluent persons. Research has also linked incidence of physical disease in older persons with their socioeconomic status. However, contrary to the conflict perspective, the stigmatization of the aging and elderly occurs not only in capitalist societies but in socialist ones as well. The social conflict perspective also tends to oversimplify the complex relationship between welfare benefits, economic growth, and the labor market for the aging population.
Keywords Activity Theory; Age Stratification; Ageism; Baby Boomer; Class; Conflict Perspective; Disengagement Theory; Social Stratification; Society; Socioeconomic Status (SES); Status; Structural Functionalism; Symbolic Interactionism
There are a number sociological theories of aging that vary according to the perspective through which the phenomenon of aging is viewed. From the structural functionalist perspective, older people and society go through a period during which relationships are severed such as retiring from a job, decreasing community involvement, and reducing one's social networks. According to disengagement theory, this process is good for both the individual and for society. Individuals are benefited because this disengagement allows them to focus on end-of-life concerns. Society is benefited because it allows the next generation to take over the societal roles in a smooth manner that supports societal stability. In this view, aging and elderly individuals become increasingly disengaged from society, have reduced social roles, and become socially isolated. Partially in reaction to this theory, the symbolic interaction perspective on aging advocates that social interaction and activity are good both for the individual and for society. In activity theory, it is posited that older adults who remain the most active are the most well-adjusted. This theory posits that society benefits from older adults who continue to be contributing, valued members of society. From the point of view of activity theory and the symbolic interactionist perspective, older people need to continue to be active, although their social roles may change. As opposed to being socially isolated, this view sees the elderly as continuing to be involved with others, and often creating new networks (Schaefer, 2002).
However, neither theory completely explains the reality of the sociology of aging and elderly adults. Research findings about the positive effects of activity and social interaction well into later years have discredited disengagement theory to a large degree. Yet, activity theory, too, is not without its flaws. Although a great deal of research has been done that supports the positive relationship between social interaction and activity on the well-being of older adults, many of the details about why this occurs and under what conditions are still missing.
Social Conflict Theory
Social conflict theorists also criticize both these theories because they fail to consider the impact of social structure on patterns of aging. For example, conflict theorists point out that neither disengagement theory nor activity theory explains why the level or type of social interaction needs to change in old age, and criticize these theories because they fail to take into account the effects of social stratification and class on elderly persons (Turner, 1989).
The Class Advantage
In general, individuals who are in the upper classes have better health and vigor and are less likely to be dependent in their later years than are individuals from the lower classes. Although death comes to everyone and money cannot put off this eventuality, more affluent persons typically have better access to healthcare, consistent access to food and medication, and can afford to have the help they need for necessary everyday activities (e.g., meal preparation, shopping, housecleaning) than less affluent persons who often have to do these things themselves or do without them. Further, working class individuals are often at higher risk for job-related injuries or illnesses that make their later years more difficult or even shorten their lives. Although more affluent older persons may not see any change in their life styles except those necessitated by health-related issues, less affluent people may have to learn to live within the constraints of a fixed income and depend heavily on Social Security and Medicare. In the best of times, this is a less than ideal situation. However, in times of inflation and economic turmoil, this can be particularly difficult and seniors may find it a struggle just to pay for food, utilities, and the other necessities of life.
Conflict theorists also take note of the age stratification that can be observed in society. Older people are often the victims of ageism and unable to get jobs with the same income level as they had in their youth or forced to live on the fixed income from Social Security or a pension. As a result, they often are reduced in social status. In general, conflict theorists see the elderly as being victims of social stratification and capitalism (Turner, 1989).
Although caring for one's elders has always been a social concern, it is becoming increasingly so now that the baby boom generation is reaching retirement age. With modern improvements in medicine and health care, people are living longer than ever before. As of 2002, people over 100 years of age constitute the country's fastest-growing age group. As the number of individuals considered as senior citizens experiences population increases from both ends, it becomes increasingly incumbent upon social scientists to better understand the issues related to aging. In this regard, social conflict theory has a valid criticism of previous work in the area. General theories and high level observations about the social realities around aging are of interest. However, there are practical realities to be addressed as well. Although some of these need to be addressed politically (e.g., Social Security, Medicare), it is only if social scientists do the work necessary to understand the needs of this growing segment of the population that politicians will be able to develop and implement policy that will meet these needs of older Americans. Whether or not people need to disengage from society or re-engage is not the only social issue of aging and, arguably, may not even be the central issue. On a more practical level, work needs to be done to better understand the social implications of old age (Turner, 1989).
If one is not yet approaching the age of Medicare and Social Security benefits, it is easy to dismiss the problems of age stratification, lowered socioeconomic status, and reduced income as acceptable side effects of old age. Some people assume that elders would and should be taken care of by the family and that Social Security benefits (particularly in conjunction with retirement packages and pensions) and Medicare should be equal to the task of maintaining a comfortable life style for older people. However, many of those in the baby boom generation who took care of their parents do not have children to take care of them. Although Medicare benefits are regularly adjusted in an effort to better reflect the rising cost of health care, they are often insufficient for the medical needs of elders who now need more health care than earlier in their lives. Problems with the Social Security system make many people question whether or not it will still be viable when the majority of baby boomers are eligible for benefits, or if their children will see any benefits at all. Such concerns are important not only from a social conflict perspective, but also from the point of view of social justice. Research has found that older people from minority groups or who are socioeconomically disadvantaged are up to three times more likely to experience disability and concomitant physical, cognitive, and sensory limitations than other groups. Further, those elders who report such limitations have on average medical bills that are three times higher than other groups no matter their race or socioeconomic status. Half of the medical expenditures for people with disabilities are paid for by public health programs (Schoeni, Martin, Andreski, & Freedman, 2005, p. 2065).
According to Schoeni, Martin, Andreski, and Freedman (2005), recent statistics indicate that disability among older Americans is declining. During the 1980s and 1990s, average annual declines in limitations to performing instrumental activities of...
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