Age inequality


Age and life chances

  • Debate whether bage should be discussed chronologically or as a life course
  • Laslett(1991) suggest it was better to see age in 3 ages of life approach 1). first age: a period of socialisation 2) second age: a time of work+ childrearing 3). third age: a time of indepedence
  • Milne et al's (1999) study agrees w/ other sociologists whose research shows the idea of one homogenous group - the elderly - masks the reality
  • Used term 'grey power' to refer to the consumption habits + patterns of those 65+. Pilcher also  argued there should be a division when discussing the 'young old' which stated was 65-74, the 'middle aged old' between 75-84 + the 'old old' which is 85+
  • Concept of life chances used by Weber in relation to social class but it can usefully be applied to a range of social groups including age groups
  • Social inequalities experienced by different age groups, e.g. child poverty can ultimately affect life chances
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Age and work and employment: Youth

  • Being young may affect employment chances; restrictions on when + where you may work, restrictions on min you can be paid + restrictions on chances of an employer choosing to employ you
  • If you are 14/15 you cannot work more than 12hrs in a school week, under 13 cannot work
  • 16 yr old min wage £4.05 whereas adults (21+) is £7.05
  • Seems like employer may hire someone older b/c they are more experienced, young people are cheap labour, so being young may have advantages in workplace
  • Unemployment rate 16-24 rising, at 16%, since 2004, seems to be changing
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Age and work and employment: Elderly

  • Elderly life difficult once someone leaves work + can lead to age discrimination + subsequent financial issues
  • Survey by MORI found 38% of discrimination cases filed after 2006 cited age as the reason
  • Legislation surrounding retirement age felt by some to be possible area of prejudice + discrimination - when you retire receive state pension if you've been a working citizen in UK, paying NI for 30yrs
  • State pension 65 for men, less for women - female age steadily rise to 65, equalise to men 2018, then reach 66 by 2020, 67 2026 + conclude 2028
  • Structuralists argue it is society that determines retirement age, not individuals choice
  • Retirement age is far from being the same for everyone; some can take early retirement; for a lot it is not financially viable; research shows this is an area where there is disparity of old age
  • Those who have financial security will not grow old in same way as those who work until they drop; ageing pop, by 2021 33% pop will be 55yrs+; demographic time bomb; if there are more people over 65, there will be repercussions e.g. housing, health care + social care
  • Risks of dependency assume all elderly will be poor + need lots of care; evidence suggests many old people working post retirement b/c they cannot afford to retire
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Age inequalities in wealth, income and poverty

  • Middle age is a time associated w/ independence + financial security - childhood + old age time of financial uncertainty or poverty
  • Child poverty
  • Currently 3.5m children living in poverty in UK - almost 1/3 all children
  • In UK 63% children living in poverty in family where someone works
  • Child Poverty Action Group note child poverty affect education, health + community they live in
  • W/ as many as 1 in 5 children in UK growing up in poverty, campaigns such as End Child Poverty seek to target areas w/ children most at risk + offer solutions
  • Growing up in poverty means being cold, hungry, often ill + struggle w/ getting to school
  • CPAG predicts child poverty will keep increasing - child poverty regional
  • The elderly
  • Risk poverty among older people in UK disproportionately high - 16% pensioners in UK live in poverty - described as being akin to living in dark ages
  • Fuel poverty concern to Age UK  as older people have to spend 1/10 income on fuel - can be a financial strain
  • While pensioners do live in low-income households, they are not the poorest in society or most likely to live in povery; those are working age, single w/ dependents
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Age and disparity of experience

  • Postmodernists such as Hepworth + Featherstone (1990) state all these discussions on inequality need unpicking - groups of elderly + youth are far too simplistic
  • Marsh + Keating (2006) note different cultures attach different cultural meanings + values to different age groups
  • Gender, social class, nationality, ethnicity, religion + actual age amongst other factors affect one's experience of youth or old age
  • Age inequality is social constructed, changes due to different factors in society
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Age and gender

  • Youth
  • Young females suffer from inequality not suffered by males; Advocates for Youth 'harmful practices, including female genital cutting/mutilation, femicide, gender based violence, + early marriage + damage to girls' physical being + self worth by reinforcing gender marginalisation'
  • Often govs such as Pakistani gov state education is the right of all, yet stats show disparity in gender + schooling
  • Activists such as Malala Yousafzai cont to fight for equal ed
  • Similarly other rights are gendered according to culture, whether it be right to work, go out w/o chaperone or drive; experience of youth thus affected by gender, culture, religion, nationality
  • Elderly
  • Stats show there is disparity of experience among elderly when looking at gender, wealth, culture, religion + nationality
  • Females more likely to be worse off than males
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Age and cultures around the world

  • Globally, life chances + treatment of elderly shows disparity of experience
  • Ideas vary from culture to culture - age is socially constructed, not based just biologically
  • Historical/cross cultural evidence reveals differences - some societies have system of gerontocracy (older people rule) e.g. Saudi Arabia, Saud family have all power, largely all being in 80s and above. The death of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz at age 90 saw power change to his 79yr old relative, Salman
  • In Kenya, Samburu where power is w/ elders - elderly males have priority choosing wives
  • Kagan (1980) observed old tended to remain socially/economically active as far as physically possible throughout old age - did not constitute gerontocracy, but still respect elders
  • In nomadic societies, elderly are burden to society when they are unable to follow nomadic lifestyle - old fequently neglected/killed once they become hindrance - in some societies elderly have higher status, geronticide/senicide occurs in parts of Tamil Nadu southern India
  • Gentleman (2009) outlines a day in a care home in Ipswich - shows how even w/ good care/ safe environment, lack of visits from relatives make it unpleasant
  • 'The scene of torpid, joyless inertia is very dispiriting - but it isn't really the fault of the nursing home managers. The staff here are kind, the rooms are bright, the care is thoughtful and attentive .... a place where elderly people are left by their family to die'
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Age and cultures around the world


  • Difficult to summarise any global picture of status of youth - different communities have very different socially constructed ideas
  • A comparison of a tribe where a boy of 3 is given a knife + allowed to hunt w/ a child in the UK who cannot be convicted of a crime until age 10 show there are huge differences
  • It is evident that religion + culture dictate the treatment of youth - some differences are merely differences in culture, such as rites + responsibilities, while other differences are more about poverty, war and exploitation of the weak rather than age discrimination
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Age and the digital generation gap

  • Consideration of growing gap between young + old must include discussion of 'digital divide'
  • Gap between young + old causes problems for employment, as older people might be less comfortable using tech than young who have grown up w/ it
  • Gap can hinder young + old understanding of each other, as most young culture online - 'elderly feel they are becoming strangers in their own land' (Dowd 1986)
  • Often feel unable to cope w/ changes such as paperless banking, lack of understanding of popular conversations + activities or even difficulty texting
  • Marks a cultural separation of young + old - growing phenomenon of 'silver surfers' shows 2 things: there are those 65+ accessing + using digital tech '+ that as new generations grow up w/ tech skills, the digital gap may change + the pop will be technologically informed
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Age, Consensus and Functionalism

  • Talcott Parsons (1977) states through interconnected roles, the importance of institutions in society is to maintain social stability - certain age groups have norms + values that threaten stability e.g. rebellious youth/dependent elderly
  • Parsons focuses on society's role in managing these issues - e.g. youth as rebellious
  • Parsons and Eisenstadt (1956) focus on youth being a time for ind to grow up + learn new adult roles, which are imperative for stability - analogy of youth being a bridge from childhood to adulthood. This explains why some youth behave in a way that may be dysfunctional e.g. students may experiment w/ deviant activities - institutions in society, such as formal/informal agents of social control set up to deal w/ actions
  • A young person sanctioned for truanting school; teaches them to attend work on daily basis
  • Some elderly people become less physically able to maintain their roles in society specifically in the world of work - Parsons view this in terms of social roles + social stability. As elderly may need to change roles they can no longer fulfill, new roles are to be acquired
  • In UK elderly become invaluable source of free childcare for many families, w/ grandparents caring for grandchildren
  • Eisenstadt agreed, that differential age groups learn new roles that lead to further cohesion + solidarity in society
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Age, Consensus and Disengagement theory

  • Cummings and Henry (1961) take a similar consensus approach to explaining age inequalitiy, look specifically at elderly
  • Talk about how all people will die - w/ ageing a persons abilities are likely to deteriorate, as this happens there is a mutual need for the ind to be relieved of some responsibilities + roles
  • A functionalist recognises people leaving their role in society causes gap that must be filled for social stability to be maintained e.g. having retirement age allows a managed disengagement, allowing others to take on roles that elderly cannot fulfill


  • Assumption of homogeneity when looking at society + inequality - not all elderly people deteriorate at same age, or at all - others claim these views always look at the brightside/ignore the negative experiences of ageing; not all elderly people able to take on new role + stay happy + be fulfilled + not all youth will be successfully guied by socialisation/not stop deviance
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Age, Conflict and Marxism

  • Reserve Army of Labour
  • Marx stated a reserve army of labour was a necessary part of capitalism - the basis of the idea is that some members of society are secondary source of society; this was either unemployed or under-employed - applied to young + elderly
  • Media discussions show there is a market of 'zero hours contracts' where employees only give work when it is available, but have to be free to work regardless - sick pay/pensions not given
  • Those in reserve for work more likely to take up contracts, such as elderly + young
  • Phillipson (1982) claim elderly have historically been used as reserve army of labour, but that this role has grown in recent years - age inequality social construction to benefit bourgeoisie
  • Legitimation of authority
  • Neo-Marxists such as Gramsci (1971) discuss importance of how bourgeoisie maintain authority - his work on political society + civil society can be applied to understanding inequality faced by different age groups
  • False consciousness explains people do not realise exploitation through concessions they receive - argued that child benefits + pensions act like this
  • This creates form of dependency, legitimating need for powers of authority - thus elderly not question exploitation through labour market, accepting zero hour contracts
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Age, Conflict and Marxism cont

Political economy theory

  • Focus on inequality as meeting needs of economy - Townsend (1981) and Phillipson (1982) use these ideas to explain inequality faced by elderly. Phillipson argues this places elderly in negative position as burden on economy.
  • Capitalism needs to cont renew its workforce to ensure greater profit using young workers who may be more productive. This means having a system where elderly are institutionally marginalised - happens through institutional dependency e.g. elderly being made to retire, young then take place. Forced dependency occurs, lowers status, inequality helps capitalism

Evaluation of Marxim and neo-Marxism

  • Ignores lack of homogenous experience of age - studies take a macro approach, ignoring class, gender, ethnicity, disability + wealth, which affect experience e.g. in many inds + jobs, elderly are not systematically marginalised + able to work in old age e.g. PMs
  • With an ageing pop, there has been growth of 'grey pound' w/ elderly as consumers, become asset to bourgeoisie + economy
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Age, Conflict and Feminism

  • Arber and Ginn (1991) wrote that when looking at women + inequality, factors such as age will affect their power + status - older women face inequalities that older men do not
  • Itzin (1990) claim women face double standard - men's status related to employment, whereas women's is linked to reproductive cycle. In patriarchal society women's status devalues after childbearing age - older women have lower status regardless
  • Thus older women face pressure to fight signs ageing - capitalized. Daly (1979) wrote this had similarities to many global practices that women are made to comply with, such as genital mutilation, in that women are expected to conform to certain physical standards

Evaluation of feminism

  • Feminist work on explaining age inequality always from perspective patriarchy as cause - real causes can be poverty etc.
  • Macro nature of much feminist work ignores the fact that females, old or young, are not a homogenous group + factors such as wealth/social class fragment females life chances
  • Examples of both young/old women that don't face discrimination
  • Males also face cosmeticization FHM encourage males to stay young (Currie 1990)
  • Cosmeticization is a voluntary process
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Age, social action and Weberian theory

  • Weber's (1864-1920) looked at inequality + felt you need to look at; class, party + status
  • Weber looked at importance of one's market position, could be used to explain low status of both elderly + young - if someone does not have skills required in marketplace, such as elderly who do not have necessary tech skills, then will suffer low status
  • Though if someone is upper class + becomes elderly, this will explain why they will not suffer same loss of status e.g. the queen is elderly, female, but doesn't lose status b/c wealth + social position
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Age, social action and negatively privileged socia

  • Parkin (1968) when writing about ethnic minorities + inequality, discuessed idea that some suffer in negatively privileged status groups
  • This means EM can be kept out of high-status privileged groups due to social segregation
  • Elderly often socially segregated, in media, through invisibility from positive portrayal; in employment, through retirement + even in living arrangements. often in care homes
  • Easy to find examples of how this theory can relate to age as well as ethnicity
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Age, social action and Activity theory

  • Some interactionists believe that staying mentally + physically active will increase one's happiness
  • Looks at what happens when social norms withdraw social interaction from individuals
  • Maintaining social interactions reduces negative experience of ageing
  • Havinghurst (1961) published this theory as a critique of disengagement theory, arguing inequality is more about social interaction that just age
  • Statham's (2011) research on grandparents providing childcare may mean that cont social interaction may change inequalities faced by some elderly who are isolated
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Age, social action and Exchange theory

  • Turner (1989) argues age discrimination best understood in terms of status
  • In Western societies, both elderly + young become stigmatised due to not having what it takes to gain high status; i.e. do not control social resources thus suffer low status
  • In consumer society, high status given to those who have material goods; if both young + old least likely to have material goods, they'll have lower status
  • Using 'reciprocity-maturation curve of ageing' it's simple to see that if groups are dependent then they have low status
  • In gerontocracy where power + age are interlinked, elderly will have high status - thus inequality due to values of society also
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Age, social action and Labelling theory

  • Negative labelling + stigmatisation of both elderly + young by media + other agents of social control + socialisation could create self-fulfilling prophecy
  • Victor 1994 - if elderly labelled as 'useless, lonely, dependent and unable to learn' then this could become reality - media might think this + replace old people w/ young people
  • Stan Cohen's (1972) work on moral panics relevant in this explanation for inequality young face in the media

Evaluation of social action theories

  • These ideas attempt a micro approach, considering effects of other factors like wealth + ethnicity, still fail to recognise structural causes of inequality such as patriarch/capitalism
  • Criticised for ignoring the insititutional ageism that is at the basis of many laws + practices within society, + structuralists question what conclusions can be drawn from such ideas
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Age and postmodernism

  • Lots of micro studies make up postmodernism
  • Old age as a positive time of life - some research suggests elderly are marginalised, though looking at consumer culture shows different picture - spending the kids inheritance and grown-up urban professionals show stereotypes might be changing; grey pound getting stronger
  • Laczko and Phillipson (1991) researched early retirement found inequality faced by elderly people due to wealth + not ageing. Featherstone + Hepworth (1993) argue there's too much focus on imaginary boundaries of age. Blaikie (1999) discusses idea of positive ageing, which agrees w/ idea of 4th age filled w/ active but leisure based pursuits
  • The mask of old age - Powell (2001) Priestley stated that for him, ageing was like someone had kidnapped him + made him old, had same thoughts as when he was younger - suggests inequalities more due to labelling than ageing
  • New technology and the fight against ageism - not all people grow old gracefull; fight it w/ use of tech/surgery. Powell and Biggs (2000) argues this allows some to recreate themselves, while this may mean age discrimination against elderly based on mark, it's impossible to tell, as those who recreated themselves suffer less ageism due to wealth
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Age and globalisation

  • Postmodernists recognise importance of globalisation as key cause of social change - as G more multi-cultural, ageism changes
  • Some cultures are a gerontocracy where instead of elderly feeling marginalised + useless, their age brings them status
  • Experience in Kenya different to Britain - may mean that the cause of age inequality resists largely on culture - similarly, the high status children have in UK + child centred families counted w/ reference to cultures where a child has low status or expected to take on adult roles
  • Norms + values within that society, such as retirement age, causes inequality

Age is complicated stratum for explaining inequality

  • Some believe age can result in inequality that is an undeserved social construction based on labelling others believe that it is directly related to what someone has to offer society
  • Clear that idea of homogenous age groups all given same high/low status ignores differences related to ethnicity, social class and gender
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