Age identities and Socialization

Sociologists point out that age is largely socially constructed rather than just being the result of biological characteristics.

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Concept of Age

As with the concept of gender, different age groups have clear cultural norms and values with regard to identity. People are socialized into the cultural norms and expected behaviour for a particular age group. In our society, for example we can identify four very broad cultural groupings based around age, namely:

  • Childhood
  • Youth - rebellion, restrictions, resisteance, learning, fun
  • Middle age - Fulfilment, new directions, reflection, money, enjoyment
  • Old Age - Dependence, Loneliness, ill health, opportunities, restrictions
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Concept of Age (continued)

Laslett (1991) challenged the use of these categories and suggested an alternative three ages of life approach. These were

  • First age is the period of socialization
  • Second age is the phase of work and childrearing
  • Third Age is the time of independence

It has been suggested that Fourth Age now needs to be added as life expectancy continues to increase.

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Creation and reinforcement of age identities throu


The family plays an important role in age identity because an individual's position within the family can influence how others see them or how they see themselves. For example, people usually consider their parents to be part of a different generation to themselves, so depending on the way they identify themselves may influence how they identify their parents. This will be passed down from generation to generation. For example, if a child is socialized into thinking that their 60 - year - old grandparents are 'old', then they are likely to consider this the norm. Old age is seen as social problem in many ways. The stereotype of old people as a social problem often stems from within the family. A common theme with many sociological studies is that the family's members assume that the older relative will need and want more care than they actually do. This identification of old age within primary socialization is likely to have a lasting influence on age identity.

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From the time of first starting school, age is a determining factor in children's lives. The month a child is born will determine their year group and their postion within that year group as 'old' or 'young'. This remains with the child until they leave school/college. Identification with age boundaries at such a young age is likely to have a lasting impression on how people understand the aeging process.

The Hidden curriculum will also contribute to age identity. By using phrases such as 'he was an old man when he died', the identification of age as a social category is reinforced.  

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Peer Group

Clearly, the peer group is particularly influential during the period of youth. Studies show how peer group pressure is a key factor influencing the norms, value and culture of young people. Most studies of youth culture agree that the role of the peer group is crucial in the identification of a youth identity. Shain (2003) studied how groups of Asian girls developed distinct identities in a secondary school - the Gang Girls, the Rebels, the Survivors and the Faith girls - as a way of coping with school. Their peers were crucial in who the girls identified with.

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Much sociological evidence would suggest that religion in the UK is declining, and this is the case for all age categories. Evidence would suggest that the elderly are more spiritual than younger generations. McKingsley (2001), however, found that religion was used as a coping sratergy in his sample of those aged 85 and over.

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The Media

The media represents different age categories in stereotypical ways. Youths are over represented as deviant and troublesome (Muncie, 2004), middle age is represented as a time of crisis and old age as a time of dependency and loneliness. These representations are important because they influence popular culture so heavily. Thornton (1996) argued that the media are largely responsible for the creation of youth culture and range of youth identities in the contemprary UK. From music to adverstising, there is a clear associations of style with youth. In recent years there has been a more positive representation of older icons in media. Helen mirren is a good example of someone who gains extensive media coverage for her talent and her 'active aeging'. Old age identity in this sense may be changing.

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The workplace

Clearly, retirement does coincide with the identification of 'old age' to some extent. In this sense, the workplace can be considered as the site which prepares people for for this potential change in their status. At the other end of the spectrum, the minimum wage for those aged 18 and over creates an age categorisation for young people. The workplace is the most likely site for age discrimination in the UK.

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