Age Inequality Summaries

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  • Created on: 14-06-21 09:41


Talcott Parsons (1977) believes stability in society is important. 

Certain age groups have norms and values that could threaten society e.g. rebellious youth or dependant elderly.Parsons believe these issues should be managed and felt youth was a time where we learn to grow up and learn new adult roles, which make society stable. 

He uses an analogy of a bridge to explain this with youth culture being a bridge from childhood to adulthood, e.g. young people may experiment with deviant activities, but through formal and informal social control, they then learn to deal with these actions to show young people how to behave. This stage in life allows for mistakes to be made and lessons to be learnt.

When elderly people become less able to maintain their roles in society, their roles change to maintain stability. 

Currently in the UK, elderly people have become a source of free childcare for many families. Eisenstadt says different age groups learn new roles to further solidarity in society. 

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Disengagement Theory

Cummings and Henry (1961) use this theory to explain age inequality starts with the idea that all people will die. 

A person’s abilities are likely to deteriorate as they age, so there is a mutual need (for society and individual) for the individual to be relieved of some of their responsibilities and roles. 

These roles must be filled for social stability to be maintained. 

A process of disengagement e.g. having a retirement age, allows a managed disengagement, allowing others to take on the roles that the elderly can no longer fulfil

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Consensus Theories Evaluation

Not all elderly people deteriorate at the same age, or at all. 

These views are very optimistic and ignore the negative experience of ageing- not all elderly people can take on a new role and stay happy and fulfilled, and not all youth will be successfully guided by the agents of socialisation and may not leave deviant behaviour behind.

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  • Youth are an assets to capitalism, technological skills and cheap labour
  • Elderly offer free childcare.
  • Reserve army of labour – Young and elderly whose labour can be used in times of boom as flexible labour such as zero hour contracts.
  • They don’t qualify for sick, holiday and pension pay.
  • Phillipson 1982 claimed the elderly had been used as a reserve army of labour and had grown in recent years.
  • Age inequality is a social construction used to benefit the bourgeoisie. 
  • Gramsci said false consciousness explains why people don’t realise they are being exploited and pensions/child benefits are an example of this
  • Townsend 1981 and  Phillipson 1982 (political economy theory) argues the elderly are made to be seen as a burden on the economy as capitalism needs to continually renew its workforce for greater profit by using young cheaper workeers.
  • The elderly are made to retire and younger people take their jobs. 
  • Reality = elderly forced to retire and made to be dependent on society.
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Marxism Evaluation

The assumption of homogeneity (we are all the same) when looking at society and inequality.

Ignore factors such as wealth, gender, nationality, class, disability and so on. 

In many industries the elderly are not systemically marginalised and are able to work into their old age e.g. Judges, MPs.

Grey pound – elderly are consumers and an asset to the economy.

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Arber and Gin (1991) said that factors such as age affect a woman’s status and power and that older women face inequalities that older men do not.

Itzin (1990) Men’s status is down to employment, while a woman’s seems to be linked to her reproductive cycle. Also, women feel immense pressure to fight the signs of ageing, which is capitalised on by many cosmetic industries, while ageing men do not seem to feel the pressure. 

Women are seen to have to comply with certain physical standards, but no expectations are placed on men. 

Daly (1979) said this had similarities to many global practices that women are made to comply with such as genital mutilation

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Feminism Evaluation

Feminists blame inequality on patriarchy, meaning they can miss the true causes, such as poverty.

Also, not all women experience the same life chances, factors such as wealth and social class greatly impact on women.

Another criticism is that males are also going through pressure to look young, with magazines such as FHM encouraging males to stay looking young and fight the ageing process!

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  • Weber: class, status and party.
  • Weber looked at the importance of someone’s market position, which could explain the low status of both the elderly and young.
  • If someone does not have the skills required in the marketplace, then they will suffer low status, e.g. elderly not having technology skills.
  • However, if someone is upper class and becomes elderly, this will explain why they will not suffer the same loss of status, as their financial resources mean that they will not suffer the same loss of status. e.g. the Queen
  • Negatively privileged status groups: Parkin (1968) stated that ethnic minorities could be kept out of high-status privileged groups due to social segregation, leaving them to suffer.
  • The elderly are often socially segregated too: in the media, employment, retirement
  • Exchange Theory Turner (1998) Western societies the elderly and young become stigmatised due to not having what it takes to gain high status.
  • High status is awarded to those who have material goods and the young and old are least likely to have these.
  • Reciprocity-maturation curve of ageing  - if groups are dependent then they have low status.
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  • Activity theory Havinghurst (1961) staying mentally and physically active will increase happiness.
  • If we maintain these social interactions, it reduces the negative experience of ageing.
  • Havinghurst (1961) published this theory in critique of disengagement theory, arguing the inequality is more about social interaction than just age.
  • Statham’s (2011) research on grandparents providing childcare may mean that social interaction continues and could potentially change the inequalities faced by some elderly who are isolated. 
  • Interactionists: Labelling Negative labelling and stigmatisation of both the elderly and the young by the media and other agents of social control and socialisation could be said to create a self-fulfilling prophecy.
  • If the elderly are labelled as useless, lonely and unable to learn, then perhaps those stereotypes become reality.
  • Stan Cohen (1972) looked at moral panics and this is relevant here to explain age inequality in the media. 
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Some postmodernists look at disparity of experience of the elderly, while others say old age is a time of inequality.

Discussions of inequality suffered by youth often blame the media for the creation of ‘youth culture’, agreeing with Stan Cohen and his work on ‘folk devils’ (1972).

As postmodernists study from a micro approach, there is no one single explanation for inequality, but lots of micro studies.

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Social Action Theories Evaluation

They still fail to recognise the structural causes of inequality such as patriarchy and capitalism.

Activity theory is criticised for ignoring the institutional ageism that is at the basis of many laws and practices within society.

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