All knowledge is perspectival and hence is metaphoric. A metaphor is seeing something from the point of view of something else (in sociology, for example, society has been variously understood to be an organism, a marketplace of exchanges, a game, a machine). And what is to be the metaphor by which we grasp old age? Is it to be understood as some biological, lethal disease-like condition (Arlie Hochschild, in The Unexpected Community, referred to the elderly as society's "death lepers" as they, for the first time in history, are those most likely to die); a marathoner approaching life's final tape; or some psychological regression to childhood? Perhaps older persons can be likened to immigrants or pioneers in time, trailblazing a new life stage--not in covered wagons but in segregated retirement communities, senior centers, and nursing homes (where, by the way, less than 5% reside).  

To what extent is the "aging problem" a problem of aging per se as opposed to those who happen to be now old?  Listen, for instance, to Dr. Robert Butler, Dr. Donna Cohen, and Mary Casey discuss "How Are the Elderly Changing?" on NPR's Talk of the Nation (May 25, 2000; RealAudio required).  To approach such questions we need to think in terms of different kinds of time.


When you get right down to it, what really is age? Is it not but the experience of time, and time being but the experience of change? We run little risk in claiming that the entire gerontological profession pivots around the experiences and consequences of time. There are various temporal orders implicit within our biological development, our psychological maturation, the sequence and combination of social roles that we play, and in the pace and direction of social change. Unexpected variations can occur among any one of these "clocks," fundamentally altering people's biographies: 11-year-old victims of progeria and 20-year-old victims of Werner's syndrome die of biological old age; people may become psychologically "old" at age 30 following a major trauma, or they may remain psychologically "young" at age 70; there are grandparents in their twenties and 70-year-old fathers of infants; and sometimes history regresses as a culture is swept by nostalgia, or lurches into the future owing to major technological breakthroughs.

In Man, Time, and Society, Wilbert E. Moore developed how the increasing longevity of all classes in post-industrial societies has disrupted the centuries-old synchronization between the temporal order of social systems and the temporal order of biological man. Perhaps our contemporary ambivalence to old age and our anxieties toward death exist, in part, because we are now outliving the traditional lifespan "recipes" and no longer "know" how to grow old and die. Further, whereas the traditional liminality occurred after death, it now precedes it: One can now simultaneously be biologically alive and yet be socially "dead."

Such thinking in time has significant methodological implications when studying human aging. Consider, for instance, the proposition that individuals' political views become increasingly conservative with age. Looking at results from the 2000-2002 General Social Survey conducted by the National Opinion Research Center, we see that the older individuals are the more likely they are extremely conservative or conservative and the less likely they generally are to be extremely liberal or liberal.  But note that our hypothesis is not clearly supported.  Those most likely to be conservative are those in their late middle years, aged 58-65.  Those most likely to be liberal are those 18-25 and those 50-57.

When you think about it, these results are but a snapshot in time. If other snapshots were taken over the years we may observe different historical period effects. Note, for instance, how between 1974 and 2002, there has been a slight longitudinal shift to the political right. (Surveys were not taken during the missing years.) This historic shift varies, however, within various age groups. For instance, while in 1974 only 5% of those 18-25 years of age claimed to be politically conservative or extremely conservative, twenty-eight years later this had more than doubled to 12%. On the other hand, those 82 and older  became increasingly liberal, from less than 3% in the 1974-5 period to 12% in the 2000-2002 surveys.  In general, though, what is most noticeable is the remarkable consistency over time in the proportion of Americans falling into the different sections of the political spectrum.

In addition to the effects of age and historic period, another factor interwoven within the 2000-2002 age-political orientation graph above is birth cohort. Indeed, given their different intersections between biography and social history (e.g., "coming of age" during liberal versus conservative times), different cohorts age differently--biologically, psychologically, and socially. Perhaps why the relatively high liberalism of those 50-57 years of age owes to that the generation then moving into that age category: the notorious Boomers.  We observe that the trend toward increasing conservatism with age is stronger for the younger cohorts when young adults. Cohort differences, however, shrink during the middle years, and the general trend for all is increasing ideological conservatism with age--at least until the age of 65.

Bottom line when looking at political views (or rates of cancer, depression, divorce, volunteerism, or whatever):


Simone de Beauvoir, in The Coming of Age, observed how historically the status of the old is never won, it is always granted. Ours is a highly age-stratified society. We have norms and laws by which we consider if a person is too young to vote or, until a few years ago, too old to be working full time. Sociologists distinguish older persons from the statuses and roles they occupy and analyze the structural factors shaping the latter. As is developed elsewhere, we will investigate how older persons' places in society are shaped by the institutions of work, religion, politics, and the family.

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