We organize much of our social lives based on age, with access to opportunities and relationships among individuals constrained by the formal and informal rules of age stratification systems. This reality, which we share as part of our culture, comes to be a system by which society organizes itself and through which individuals develop their lives. Just because it is socially constructed does not mean it isn’t a powerful force. When someone encourages an individual to “act their age”—regardless of whether that age is 6 or 66—you are witnessing the power of age as a social construct in operation.
It is not simply for individuals that age is significant. Social life would be chaotic if we lacked some rules and orderliness of events and relationships imposed by the social construct of age. We rely on the rules of the system and build it into our social planning in complex ways. It is unlikely that a completely “age irrelevant” society is on the horizon. Nonetheless, many of the distinctions we make today, between someone who is 16 and 18 or between 63 and 66, for example, are subject to serious question.
We recognize the power of aging as a concept. Individual and large-scale planning, as we face an aging society, must include flexibility. Social scientists do not have a very good track record of predicting trends far into the future, and the aging of society is one of the most potent trends we face today.
Even if age is a socially constructed phenomenon, and thought by some people therefore to be “unreal,” we must recall that such phenomena are real in their consequences. We have constructed as part of our social world a complex understanding of aging and what it means that extends far beyond the physical parameters and changes experienced by individuals. So, the process of aging is not just an individual phenomenon, but also a societal force, developing within a political/historical/economic context that both shapes individuals and their cohorts and, in turn, is shaped and altered by the passage of those age cohorts through the society. The study of aging is an attempt to capture an everchanging process that affects us all as we move through our individual lives, through the domains of family, work, and politics. Our aging is not like that of our parents and grandparents. The dynamic interplay between social change and the aging of cohorts, including my cohort, guarantees that aging in the future will be different socially, economically, and (to some degree) physically. Predicting the forms that those differences will take, however, is a difficult task.
The physical environment and conditions of life affect the way at which individuals and populations age. These are, of course, profoundly affected by social factors (e.g., social class, behaviors, and networks) and require social institutions to address them. But in developing and highly developed societies alike, it is within the context of families that the care of needy family members is negotiated, and it is here that commitments to providing care, especially at home, will be sorely tested in the coming years.
The challenges of family life and care in the later years raises difficult but important questions about the expectations and responsibilities of siblings, children, grandchildren, and other relationships in a “post-traditional” society. The concept of a post-traditional society refers to a new social order, one in which rapid social change and modernization have left people with more choices and fewer constraints on their lives – but also with more risks, as the choices they make are perceived to be of their own making and there are fewer safety nets to protect them. Unlike traditional societies, in which values, practices, and social institutions more strongly structure opportunities and decisions, post-traditional societies lack well-established social norms and rules for expectations and obligations and, consequently, place greater emphasis on individual action and choices. The freedoms of a post-traditional society have in part created the extraordinary breadth in family forms that exists today. Now we know little about what the strengths and vulnerabilities of these family forms means for the aging of their members, or what normative expectations and obligations their members have for giving and receiving care. Traditional definitions of family, especially the two-parent nuclear family, have become outdated in the face of a wide variety of family or family-like forms and relationships. This variety is driven by many factors, including multiple divorces and remarriages across generations, multi-partner fertility and nonmarital fertility, nontraditional partnerships, the co-survival of multiple generations over many decades, and the presence of four and even five generations at any single moment in family life. The growing physical distance from immediate family members also creates role ambiguities about filial obligations and consequently strains support systems. Together, these and other changes might lead us to envision societies that are relatively kinless, for lack of a better phrase, characterized by fragmented or superficial family ties and limited or uncertain support to family members in the face of poor health, economic distress, and other needs. Of course, we might equally envision that the kin and kin-like relationships that are actively chosen and voluntarily nurtured within these very same conditions might be stronger and more meaningful than those in more traditional societies. Either way, it is unclear how these new or complex configurations of relationships are supposed to function or feel, and who is responsible to whom and for what. Such role ambiguity, for example, may carry significant consequences for the quality of relationships as family members grow old. Who should provide care, or is expected to provide care, when family relationships are tenuous or fragile – and even when they are not? Curiously, we lack rigorous multi-method studies about how adult children and aging parents make decisions regarding health care, living arrangements, and financial management. Many factors clearly come into play in these decisions, including the number and gender of siblings, their history of relationships with one another and with their parents, work-related issues, other family demands, and so on. Systems theories are but one example of the sort of heuristic device that can help us understand decision-making processes in families. For these reasons, it will become necessary to determine how informal mechanisms of support might be augmented (and in an extreme scenario, replaced) by formal sources designed to ease the potential dependency burden of care and to improve the quality of life for everyone involved.
Sociologists of aging are well positioned to inform policymaking in an aging society, particularly in determining how inequalities in income and wealth are connected to age and cohort, gender, and race and ethnicity and in anticipating the consequences of alternative policy options on various groups. Consider, for example, the raising of the age-of-eligibility for retirement pensions and social security. What are the various possibilities for strengthening economies to support aging societies? Who will be protected, weak, or fall through the racks? How do retirement policies perpetuate privilege or further disadvantage women and members of other minority groups whose work lives cannot or will not match policy criteria? What conditions are necessary for generating broad public support for social security reform?
We also have much to learn about how social institutions can be designed so that, older people will be best prepared to handle expected (and nonexpected) changes. How will the current economic crisis affect the magnitude of public transfers, such as social security, or private transfers within families, for future generations? In addressing issues like these, sociologists can begin to uncover the lifelong effects of economic decline and growth on an aging population and society and provide information to help determine how available resources can be allocated in a socially productive and responsible way.
We have much to learn also about the moral dimensions of end-of-life care – for example, who should help and be helped in the end of life, how they should be helped, and who should pay. There is a need for studies to assess barriers to health care service use, especially those that stem directly from policies. An aging society simultaneously brings an increased need for hospital and home health care services, but also to find innovative ways to contain the growth in expenditures for the care of older people and maximize the use of less expensive community supports. These innovations must take into account a range of cultural differences, social trends, and moral issues, as well as changing economic realities.
In addition, research needs to examine the ethical considerations of competing costs for families and societies. When should one cease heroic life supports, and who makes that decision? Is it based on cost or on quality of life? The practical issues of curbing rising health care costs raises a serious moral dilemma related to the rationing of expensive life-saving interventions. How much should be spent on older people, Who will win and lose in the game of support? What are the tradeoffs of supporting the old versus the young as the ratio of old-to-young increases? The ethical and moral dimensions of caregiving have been in large part glossed over, leaving a window of new opportunities wide open for fresh ideas to address the support systems of an aging society for generations to come.
These are some of the topics we discuss in this book. One of the main things we learn for future research of aging social dimensions is that we should keep social forces and factors front and center in our inquiries. It is especially important to keep in focus the implications of our aging society – and the demographic parameters that produce it (mortality, morbidity, and fertility) – for our society, families, and individuals. As we try to go further into social spaces and attempt to take them into account, our research becomes more difficult. Yet the tendency in individual-based disciplines, such as psychology or biology, to dismiss external forces as being too unwieldy to measure or as already represented in lower-order measures, means that we must, as sociologists, make them visible, which will also require advances in our measures and methods.