(Mooney, Knox, & Schacht, 2000 pp. 144-145)
Mooney, L. A., Knox, D., & Schacht, C. (2000). Understanding social problems (2nd ed.). Cincinnati, OH: Wadsworth.
Three sociological theories help explain age inequality and the continued existence of ageism in the United States. These theories--structural-functionalism, conflict theory, and symbolic interactionism--are discussed in the following sections.
Structural-functionalism emphasizes the interdependence of society--how one part of a social system interacts with the other parts to benefit the whole. From a functionalist perspective, the elderly must gradually relinquish their roles to younger members of society. This transition is viewed as natural and necessary to maintain the integrity of the social system. The elderly gradually withdraw as they prepare for death, and society withdraws from the elderly by segregating them in housing such as retirement villages and nursing homes. In the interim, the young have learned through the educational institution how to function in the roles surrendered by the elderly. In essence, a balanced society is achieved whereby the various age groups perform their respective functions: the young go to school, adults fill occupational roles, and the elderly, with obsolete skills and knowledge, disengage. As this process continues, each new group moves up and replaces another, benefiting society and all of its members.
This theory is known as disengagement theory (Cummings & Henry, 1961). Some researchers no longer accept this position as valid, however, given the increased numbers of elderly who remain active throughout life (Riley, 1987). In contrast to disengagement theory, activity theory emphasizes that the elderly disengage in part because they are structurally segregated and isolated, not because they have a natural tendency to do so. For those elderly who remain active, role loss may be minimal. In studying 1, 720 respondents who reported using a senior center in the previous year, Miner, Logan, and Spitze (1993) found that those who attended were less disengage and more socially active than those who did not.
The conflict perspective focuses on age grading as another form of inequality as both the young and the old occupy subordinate statuses. Some conflict theorists emphasize that individuals at both ends of the age continuum are superfluous to a capitalist economy. Children are untrained, inexperienced, and neither actively producing nor consuming in an economy that requires both. Similarly, the elderly, although once working, are no longer productive and often lack required skills and levels of education. Both young and old are considered part of what is called the dependent population; that is, they are an economic drain on society. Hence, children are required to go to school in preparation for entry into a capitalist economy, and the elderly are forced to retire.
Other conflict theorists focus on how different age strata represent different interest groups that compete with one another for scarce resources. Debates about funding for public schools, child health programs, Social Security, and Medicare largely represent conflicting interests of the young and the old.
Symbolic Interactionist Perspective
The symbolic interactionist perspective emphasizes the importance of examining the social meaning and definitions associated with age. The elderly are often defined in a number of stereotypical ways contributing to a host of myths surrounding the inevitability of physical and mental decline.
Media portrayals of the elderly contribute to the negative image of the elderly. The young are typically portrayed in active, vital roles and are often over represented in commercials. In contrast, the elderly are portrayed as difficult, complaining, and burdensome and are often underrepresented in commercials. A recent study of the elderly in popular 1940s through 1980s films concluded that "[O]lder individuals of both genders were portrayed as less friendly, having less romantic activity, and enjoying fewer positive outcomes than younger characters at a movie's conclusion" (Brazzini et al., 1997, p. 541).
The elderly are also portrayed as childlike in terms of clothes, facial expressions, temperament, and activities--a phenomenon known as infantilizing elders (Arluke & Levin, 1990). For example, young and old are often paired together. A promotional advertisement for the movie Just You and Me, Kid with Brooke Shields and George Burns described it as "the story of two juvenile delinquents." Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in Grumpy Old Men get "cranky" when they get tired, and the media focus on images of Santa visiting nursing homes and local elementary school children teaching residents arts and crafts. Finally, the elderly are often depicted in role reversal, cared for by their adult children as in the situation comedies Golden Girls and Frazier.
Negative stereotypes and media images of the elderly engender gerontrophobia--a shared fear or dread of the elderly, which may create a self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, an elderly person forgets something and attributes his or her behavior to age. A younger person, however engaging in the same behavior, is unlikely to attribute forgetfulness to age give cultural definitions surrounding the onset of senility. Thus, the elderly, having learned the social meaning associated with being old, may themselves perpetuate the negative stereotypes.