"Since it is the Other within us who is old, it is natural that the revelation of our age should come to us from outside - from others."
-Simone de Beauvoir

A maximum of social psychology goes as follows: what we think about a person influences how we will perceive him; how we perceive him influences how we will behave towards him; and how we behave towards him ultimately shapes who he is. And on what bases do we think about older people? Because of social patterns of age segregations in our society (we are tracked through time with our age mates: in school, from kindergarten through high school and often college; in youth organizations, such as from Cub through Eagle scouts), the young and old rarely have meaningful interactions outside of the family. A mid-1970s study by the Center on Aging at the University of Maryland found that children of all ages had limited knowledge and negative attitudes about old people. In fact, only 39 of the 180 children surveyed were able to name an older person they know outside of the family. As a result, the young are inclined to view the old stereotypically--and to not think about their own aging. The irony is that of all age groups there is the greatest heterogeneity among older persons.

Kenneth J. Gergen and Mary M. Gergen's "The New Aging: Self Construction and Social Values"

Listen to NPR's "One Hundred Years of Stories monthly series about American centenarians, including the reminiscences  of Margaret Byrd Rawson, a pioneer in dyslexia research, and of Roy Larkin Stamper, a 103 year-old preacher and former cowboy.


Elsewhere is developed the potency of labels that we apply to others. If consistently employed by the broader culture and by significant others, labels can become self-fulfilling prophecies.

In Fountain of Age Betty Friedan noted a Harris Poll that reported only 8 percent of Americans over 65 finding the term "old" being an acceptable label for describing themselves. A majority also objected to "older American," "golden-ager," "old-timer," "aged person," even "middle-aged person." Barely half accepted the terms "senior citizen," "mature American," or "retired person" for themselves. Friedan noted how some senior citizen clubs fine their members if they use the word "old."

Not surprisingly, there is considerable cultural significance to the labels employed to describe the old. David Hackett Fischer, in Growing Old in America, describes how at the close of the eighteenth century there was a cultural shift from veneration to condescension. In this new world without eldership or primogeniture there emerged new language by which contempt for the old was expressed. New connotations were applied to old labels: gaffer (which had been a title of respect, even of endearment); fogy (which before 1780 had meant a wounded military veteran); old guard (was worn like a decoration by Napoleon's soldiers, by 1880 was an American expression used to describe reactionary, corrupt, aged politicians). New words were invented: codger (probably derived from verb "to cadge", or beginning in 1796 in the Oxford English Dictionary had come to mean "stingy, miserly old fellow:); old goad (lecherous old man), fuddy-duddy (pompous old man) granny (weak old man), mummy, geezer (eccentric old man), galoot (uncouth old man), bottle-nose (old alcoholic) (pp. 91-92).

In this era of Political Correctness and doublespeak, one of the newest self-referents employed by older persons is "chronologically gifted"!


Dear Dr. Brothers: I'm a healthy, happy 78-year-old, and many of my friends also are active senior citizens. What troubles me and them is that often younger people treat us as if we were mindless, helpless children. If there's someone around nearer their own age, they treat us as if we weren't in the room. This happens even if the younger person is less informed, less educated and less intelligent. Is there anything we can do about this? -- O.W.
--Joyce Brothers, "Ignored Elders Found a Solution," Aug. 10,1993

The American public holds a fairly consistent image of what it's like to be old and what the typical older person is like. The consistency is significant considering the old are the most heterogeneous of any age group as we all age differently biologically, psychologically, and sociologically. It is significant that the old share this same homogeneous stereotype even though generally perceiving themselves to be exceptions. Consider the following results of the AARP's 1994 "Images of Aging in America" survey of American adults (n=1,200), wherein individuals were asked the following two series of questions:


Fear of crime 69% 37% 32%
Not enough $ 55% 12% 33%
Loneliness 46% 6% 40%
Poor health 57% 15% 42%
Being needed 41% 8% 33%
Keeping busy 26% 4% 22%

These findings bring to mind Richard Kalish's notion of the New Ageism:

It stereotypes the elderly in terms of the characteristics of the least capable, least healthy, and the least alert of the elderly ... it perceives the older person as, in effect, a relatively helpless dependent individual who requires the support services of agencies ... it encourages the development of services without adequate concern as to whether the outcome of these services contributes to reduction of freedom for participants to make decisions controlling their lives. ("The New Ageism and the Failure Models: A Polemic," The Gerontologist, 19, 1979:398)

Interestingly, when analyzing the same questions from the 1974 Louis Harris/NCOA "The Myth and Reality of Aging in America" (n=4,254), I found the same pattern of responses and found that the life satisfactions of older Americans were significantly higher if they believed that other older persons were worse off than themselves. Ironically, there may well be positive personal effects if older individuals hold New Ageist stereotypes.

Since the mid-1980s, there is evidence that the "poor old Dear" stereotype of older persons is being replaced by an equally misleading and dangerous "greedy geezer" (to quote Senator Alan Simpson [R-WY]) one: carefree; to be found either on the golf course, on vacation, or in their their plush Florida condos; and living off the working masses. This image is finding its way into the popular culture, evidenced on the cover of Megadeth's "Youthanasia" album where an older woman literally hangs the young out to dry.

In the 1994 AARP survey, Americans were asked if they agreed or disagreed that "when older persons support policies that benefit themselves, this creates conflict with younger residents." Interestingly, the rate of agreement increased with age, from 46% of Americans under the age of 50 to 71% of Americans 75 and older. And when asked "Right now, do you think the elderly are getting more than their fair share, less than their fair share, or about their fair share of local government benefits?", less than 4% of those under 50 thought they were getting more.

Linda Woolf's ageism page (Webster University)
Natasha More's "Ageless Thinking: Creating Positive Transhuman Attitude"


Far from being a homogeneous group, older persons comprise probably the most heterogeneous of all age groups.  What subgroups do they, themselves, recognize?

From's Senior Internet Community, National Organizations
Gay and Lesbian Association of Retiring Persons
the Older Women's Network


One maxim of social psychology's role theorists holds that social actors are but the roles they play. Roles shape the identities of their occupants and shape the orientations of those with whom they interact. For instance, the lead in line at cocktail parties-- "What do you do?"--implies that by knowing another's work role one can infer the other's values, world view, lifestyle and primary motivations.

Role opportunities, in turn, are shaped by individuals' social status, which, in turn, are determined by such factors as social class, gender, race, and age. With modernization, statuses have decreasingly been ascribed (e.g., individuals' social coordinates being determined at birth) and increasingly based on merit. Concurrently, as the life-cycle increased, a number of ontologically-distinct life stages (e.g., childhood, adolescence [including the "teenager" phase], early adulthood, early and late middle adulthood, young old age, and old-old age) came into being, in part legitimated by psychological developmental models detailing age-related changes in motivation and orientations toward others, in ego strength and integrity.

In addition, over the past one hundred and fifty years, roles became increasingly age-graded, with few allowing for life-long occupancy. Thus, in addition to the "what do you do?" question, age has become the second major piece of information that we enter into our calculations of where another "is coming from." With chronological age becoming the socially-standardized basis for demarcating personal epochs, age has become the criterion by which role complexes have become linked together. The emerging model of our life course pathways depicts our passage through time as a series of age-graded roles which we fulfill both simultaneously and sequentially. Each role has its own "social clock" for adjudging the age- appropriateness of various role performances, such as the "right" time for getting married, starting a family, "peaking" in one's career, or retiring. Together, these age-linked stages of life provide for the individual a standardized timetable by which one can gauge the "correctness" of one's life trajectory in terms of being "on time." Being creatures of comparison, we temporally contrast our present selves with our former selves and with the biographies of significant others when they were at a similar stage.

Lost in this new life game plan are the traditional continuities provided by life-long roles (e.g., the one life-one career and the one life-one marriage imperatives of the past). New synchronizations of role careers emerged. For instance, instead of beginning careers and families simultaneously, many contemporary middle-class Americans now postpone marriage and childrearing; mothers in their early forties now find themselves with preschoolers at the same life point where their mothers were experiencing the "empty nest syndrome." The cost, according to some, has been an evaporating sense of biographical continuity and comprehensibility. Hence, since the 1970s, we've seen a proliferation of popular and professional literature addressing the perceived discontinuities of the self. We are informed by such popular works as Gail Sheehy's Passages that the sensation of periodic crises associated with the unfolding of personal biographies is no longer pathological but normal, regular events requiring "typical treatment." Whereas in the past such disjunctures of the life course were managed through collective rites of passage, nowadays they are to be resolved either by the individual or treated by medical and psychiatric therapists.

So how are we to conceptualize the status and roles of older persons? Some, like Kurt Back, claim that theirs is a life-cycle stage characterized by roleless and precarious roles (like emeritus professor or "retiree"--roles largely granted by the broader society, rarely earned by the individual. Disengagement theorists focus on role loss, claiming that there is a mutual parting of ways between older persons (with diminished ego strength and emotional investments in the broader society) and society (which needs to provide space for younger persons to engage themselves in the positions vacated by the old, and which needs to diminish the social disruptions occasioned by people dying in role). By virtue to their proximity to death and given the taboo status of death and its medicalization in modern society, the one existent role available to the old is the sick role. As Talcott Parsons noted in The Social System, "the sick role is ... a mechanism which ... channels deviance so that the two most dangerous potentialities, namely group formation and successful establishment of the claim to legitimacy, are avoided." Thus, like the Soviet's incarceration of political dissidents into mental asylums, older persons (who do not fit into capitalism's demands for youthful activism, competition, and future time orientation) are segregated into retirement communities and nursing homes. By "treating" them as being sick, the social order can avoid the problem that old age does not "make sense" in the context of life-cycle meanings. Finally, there is the thesis of Arnold Rose, who argued that, by virtue of being in a situation where the broader society provides no recipes for appropriate behavior and goals, older persons form their own subculture replete with distinctive norms, values and lifestyles.


Who are Americans' role models in this new stage of the life-cycle?  The answer is in large measure a function of individuals' generation and age.  When I posed the question to my undergraduates two decades ago, mentioned were such individuals as Maggie Kuhn, Walter Cronkite, Vladimir Horowitz, and Eric Severeid.  Four decades ago, I suspect that students would have mentioned Picasso, Albert Schweitzer, and Grandma Moses--the latter two totally unknown by my 2000 class.  Television nowadays is certainly void of models.  In fact, the only agreed upon personage in my class at century's end was Jimmy Carter.

What follows is a rough typology of admired older individuals mentioned by my middle-aged peers.  For each category there are institutionalized and non-institutionalized role variations.

So who is your older person role model? Why?

Since this question was posed a new site came to my attention in 2001: The Living Century, which features the   Centenarian of the Month.


Rites of passage are those rituals which symbolically recast individuals' social identities during times of significant biographical change, when there are considerable discontinuities between past and future role expectations: puberty, childhood, marriage, childbirth, graduation, old age, and death. Through these rites, social systems transform these events which are personally-unique into events which are socially-typical, thereby making them socially meaningful and personally less frightening. When such role changes correspond with biological change, such as when initiation into "manhood" correspond with puberty, they seem more "natural," legitimate and "real." In sum, these public rituals help reorganize the social matrices and make new identities public.

Much of our thinking about these rituals is shaped by the turn-of-the-century works of anthropologist Arnold van Gennep. Van Gennep saw regeneration as the law of life and of the universe: the energy which is found in any system gradually becomes spent and must be renewed at intervals. As summer spends itself out only to be renewed in spring, so individuals become worn out and must be ritually "recharged," be given the opportunities to shed their used-up selves and be reborn. This is accomplished through three ideal-type sub- rites, still evident in the case of marriage: the rite of separation (where the old self ritually dies, such as in the bachelor/bachelorette parties--which are, in effect, funerals for the single self); the rite of transition (where the self is ritually transformed into a new self, as in the marriage ceremony itself); and the rite of reincorporation (where the new social self is incorporated into society, as in the wedding reception, where the community is informed of its newly-created members).

To be between roles or in some way outside of them is to be socially polluting, as is the case of contemporary "teen-agers," who belong neither to the world of "children" nor that of "adults." People in such positions are often seen as having uncontrolled, dangerous and disapproved powers. As Mary Douglas wrote in Purity and Danger, "It seems that if a person has no place in the social system and is therefore a marginal being, all precaution against danger must come from others" (1966:117). This condition calls for rites that will incorporate the individual into the group and returning him or her to the customary routines of life.


To what extent is the status of older persons a function of the cultural value placed on history? Observes Daniel Callahan in Setting Limits: Medical Goals in An Aging Society:

What is it that only the old can provide the young, that which is irreplaceable in their contribution? Only the aged can provide a perspective the young need if they are properly to envision their own lives: that of the cycle of the generations and its import for the living of a life. The young may be indifferent to that perspective; the elderly may have to struggle to make it known. What the old know, though too poignantly at times perhaps, is that the generations come and go and that time unceasingly marches on, and on, and on, all too soon passing us all by.

The unique capacity of the elderly to see the way the past, present, and future interact provides the foundation for the contribution they can make to the young and to future generations. "Society," Edmund Burke wrote in Reflections on the Revolution in France, is a "partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead and those who are to be born." ...[The Old] should know that they have their own debt to the past and that from that debt springs their own obligation to the future. ...If we value our own life at all, then we should value and feel some obligation toward those who made that life possible, our own families and the past societies which supported them. We owe to those coming after us at least what we were given by those who came before us, the possibility of life and survival (1987:45,47).

To what extent is the status of older persons a function of their perceived lesser investment in the future in future-oriented cultures?


Though throughout most of the animal kingdom the female is the longer-lived sex, in many modern human societies old age is often doubly stigmatizing for women. Developing the "humiliating process of gradual sexual disqualification", where women are perceived to be sexually "obsolete" earlier than men, Susan Sontag ("The Double Standard of Aging," in J.H. Willians (ed.), Psychology of women, Norton, 1979) observes how traditional femininity involves incompetence, helplessness, passivity, and non-competitiveness--qualities that are decreasingly valued with age. Given how thoroughly interwoven ageism is with sexism, it is not surprising that feminists such as Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Friedan have directed their attention to old age. On the Web, women are mounting challenges to this double-standard of aging, such as in the Hens Co-op's Growing Old Disgracefully.  Concepts to explore: matriarch, grand dame, dowager.

And what about the interactions between ageism, sexism, and racism? Is it one strike against you if old, another if female, and another is one is a person of color? Click here to see if there is a triple-jeopardy of aging: what is the relationship between happiness by age, sex and race?  

Resources on how the challenges of aging are compounded by ethnicity, race and generation American:

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