Age and the Life Course in Contemporary Society
During the twentieth century, life expectancy steadily increased as industrialized nations developed better water and sewage systems, improved nutrition, and made tremendous advances in medical science. However children today are often viewed as an economic liability; they cannot contribute to the family’s financial well-being and must be supported. In industrialized and postindustrial societies, the skills necessary for many roles are more compass and the number of unskilled positions is more limited. Consequently, children are expected to attend school and learn the
necessary skills fur future employment rather than perform unskilled labor. Further, older people are typically expected to retire so that younger people can assume their economic, political, and social roles. However, when economic crises occur and many jobs are lost, age-based inequality tends to increase. For example,t he current trend to close down businesses and layoff wo kers, or to otherwise “downsize” the work force, has contributed to the unemployment of some older workers who would have liked to continue their employment for additional years and to the forced retirement of others. Many employers believe that they can save money by offering early retirement packages to older workers, thereby saving their company money}’ and preserving jobs for younger, lower-paid workers. Such “early retirement” is not always voluntary and may pose Significant economic risks for individuals who find that they cannot live on their Social Security and existing retirement plans or who find that their health benefits have been reduced. However, even for the financially secure, retirement often presents emotional
issues, as Jack Cu berg explains:
When you suddenly leave [the corporate jungle), life is pretty empty. I was Sixty-five, the age people are supposed to retire. I started to miss it quite a bit. The phone stops ringing. The king is dead. You start wanting to have lunch with old friends. At the beginning, they’re nice to you, but then you realize that they’re busy, they’re working. They’ve got a j09 to do and just don’t h;lve the time to talktb an};body
where it doesn’t involve their business. I could be nasty and say, “Unless they can make a buck out of it”-but I won’t …. You hesitate to call them. (qtd. in Terkel, 1996: 9-10) As Culbergs statement indicates, people tend to think of age in narrowly defined categories, and people beJieve that reaching “retirement age” places many of them out of the economic and social mainstream of society. In the United States, age differentiation is typically based on categories such as infancy, childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, middle adulthood, and later adulthood. In Chapter 4 (“Socialization”), we examined the socialization process that occurs when people are
in various stages of the life cou rse. However, these narrowly defined age categories have had a profound effect on our perceptions of people’s capabilities, responsibilities, and entitlement. In this chapter, we will look at what is considered appropriate for or expected of people at various ages. These expectations are somewhat arbitrarily determined and produce age stratification-inequalities, differences, segregation, or contlict between age groups (Atchleyand Barusch, 2004).Wewill now examine some of those age groups and the unique problems associated with each one.