Aging Theory: Modernization Theory Research Paper Starter

Aging Theory: Modernization Theory

(Research Starters)

When applied to aging, modernization theory has much to say about the effects of modern society, specifically industrialization, on the quality of life for many older individuals. For example, the shift from preindustrial to industrial society automated many jobs previously performed by elders, changed the skills required for success in many careers, and necessitated higher education to acquire these skills. As a result, many elders have been marginalized and reduced in socioeconomic status. Further, because of industrialization, there has been a trend toward urbanization and a shift from extended families to nuclear ones. There has been a concurrent shift in the locus of authority from family elders to government officials, further marginalizing and decreasing the status of many elders as well as changing their source of support. However, although the observations of modernization theorists are of help in understanding the phenomenon of social aging in countries that are industrializing, the modernization perspective is not without its limitations when it comes to explaining the phenomenon of aging in postindustrial societies.

For social scientists, it is particularly interesting to hear firsthand accounts regarding the changes that industrialization, modernization, and information technology have -- and have not -- made in people's lives. In addition, it is interesting to observe the expectations of each generation and its progeny on each other not only as they age, but also as they become increasingly modernized. For example, geographic dispersal has created a need for the elderly to seek help from non-family members when they need daily assistance. In contrast, people who remained in one community could count on their friends, family, church, etc. to help them. The current geographic dispersal often makes it difficult for the elderly to remain in their homes.

In preindustrial societies, neighbors were widely dispersed, not particularly well-educated (with the highest level of education often a high school diploma), and focused on rural farming. In contrast, modern societies tend to be urban, literate, and industrial. In urban communities, there typically are sophisticated transportation systems (e.g., subway and bus systems). Families are usually nuclear in nature (e.g., a married couple and their unmarried children vs. the extended family of grandparents, parents, and children). Because of such characteristics of an urban society, the source of authority tends to shift from the elder in the home (because frequently there is no elder in the home) to the government or other official source.

Modernization Theory

Modernization theory looks at the differences that industrialization and technological advances make in people's lives not only globally but also within a society. When applied to aging, modernization theory has much to say about the effects of industrialization, urbanization, and bureaucratization on the quality of life for older individuals. It would be difficult to argue (at least from a Western perspective) that industrialization and modernization have not made lives in the twenty-first century significantly better than they were in the past. Certainly e-mail is a quicker mode of communication than the Pony Express, and a microwave oven is an invaluable aid for the harried career person in search of a hot meal after a long day at work. On the other hand, from a social perspective, industrialization and modernization are not without their drawbacks.

Negative Effects of Industrialization

Industrialization, according to modernization theorists, has resulted in ageism and negative attitudes toward the aging for many reasons. The industrialization of society following the Industrial Revolution in the latter part of the eighteenth and early part of the nineteenth centuries brought with it new sources of power to perform tasks, a dependence on mechanization to produce goods and services, and new inventions to facilitate agricultural and industrial production. This led significant numbers of people to move to the cities where the jobs were, so populations became more centralized into urban centers. Because of this trend, many societies go through an irrevocable transition from an agrarian economy to an industrial one. Industrialization brings with it factory production, division of labor, and the concentration of industries and populations within certain geographical areas and urbanization. It becomes no longer necessary for a single individual or even a single family to entirely produce a single product or service.

With the advent of industrialization, societies increasingly no longer revolve around the family, and many workers leave home in order to work in factories or other centralized places of employment. As villages and other small communities become increasingly less independent and rely on each other for the exchange of goods and services, the family loses its unique position as a source of power and authority within society. Because of the technology required as an infrastructure for industrialization, there is a need for more formalized education for many jobs in order to teach its members about its technology and to advance its technology. Although in preindustrial society, sufficient education can often be provided in the home on or the job, the level of education required by industrialization typically requires a distinct social institution separate from the family. This effectively shifts the focus of knowledge and authority away from the family and its elders and onto other, "official" sources. Further, in many instances, the wisdom of age becomes insufficient to earn the respect of younger generations as the knowledge necessary to use new technology continues to advance. This causes a further reduction in social status for the elders. This gap is further widened by the increased literacy and education levels of younger generations, with children often being more educated than their parents. Elders thus experience further social segregation and lowered social status.

Elderly Welfare

As regards the welfare of older individuals, industrialization and modernization bring with them a number of characteristics that impact the aging process and the role of the elderly within society. Advancements both in medicine and medical technology enable people to live longer than was previously possible. In addition, the aging of the baby boom generation means that the population of older Americans will continue to rise for the near future. As a result, senior citizens in general are one of the fastest growing groups within American society and people over 100 years of age are the fastest growing group. Because people are living longer, healthier lives, many are continuing to work longer than did their parents. In...

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