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Age Integration and Age Segregation


There are two distinct but related meanings of "age integration." First, it means breaking down age barriers; people's ages are not used to dictate what positions or roles they can hold or must give up. The second meaning of age integration is "cross-age interaction": people of different ages doing something together, such as working, learning, or having fun. These two aspects of age integration are related because more of either type is likely to be accompanied by the other. For example, when a work organization welcomes people of many different ages, it is likely to have a mix of ages working together. Still, these are distinct meanings of age integration, because an organization or society with one type of age integration would not necessarily have the other type. For instance, people can choose to be friends with people their own age even in a company that has broken down formal age barriers.

Matilda White Riley and John W. Riley, pioneers in the study of age integration, have developed a chart that depicts the life course in both an age-segregated society and an age-integrated society. It depicts ideal types, or extremes, which do not actually exist, but it is useful for thinking about age integration. The left-hand side of the chart depicts three life roles that are reserved for people of particular ages. Young people get education, middle aged people devote themselves to work, and leisure is reserved for older people. In the age-integrated model at the right-hand side of the chart, activities are no longer dictated by age. People may move in and out of education, work, and leisure over the course of their lives. When there are no longer rigid age norms to say what people can do at certain ages, people of different ages engage in the same activities.

Age integration is a concept that can be applied to all levels of society. At any given point in time, some societies are more age integrated than others, and the amount of age integration in a particular society will probably change over time. Institutions, organizations, groups, and individual lives can also be discussed in terms of age integration. At the institutional level, we might discuss higher education, and conclude that U.S. colleges and universities are far more age integrated than in the past. At the organizational level, many high-technology and companies hire mostly young people, whereas other kinds of companies are more age integrated. At the group level, the family is where people of different ages typically interact on a daily basis. At the individual level, some people live highly age-integrated lives as they move in and out of particular rolessuch as workover the course of their lives.

Historical changes in the level of age integration

The United States used to be a society in which people of different ages mingled throughout the day and across organizations and groups. The family farm and the one-room schoolhouse are historical examples of age integration. Until the 1970s most people did not retire to leisure. Retirement was primarily a safety net for older workers faced with ill health or unemployment (Henretta).

Then there was a long period of increasing age segregation. More and more parts of people's lives involved being with others of their own age. Industrialization brought increased specialization of all kinds, and age was an important category used to sort people. Society expected teachers to be experts on a particular age group, family members to specialize in different kinds of work, and people to move through major life roles in a fixed pattern. The labor force participation of older women and men declined, and was replaced by leisure retirement. Martin Kohli argues that over the course of the twentieth century, age was increasingly used to assign people to or prohibit them from particular activities. The result was a tendency toward a rigidly fixed life course. According to Riley and Riley, this tendency toward age-segregated structures began to approximate the age-differentiated "ideal type" structure in which people gain their education when young, work in middle-age, and enjoy their well-earned leisure time when they are old. Age-based grades, teams, jobs, and leisure activities seemed normal; people were expected to spend major portions of their days and lives with people of their own age.

One major problem with the age segregation of roles is that the gender division of labor that was the foundation of the industrial era and the age-segregated life course is almost extinct as the twenty-first century begins. Women have become permanent participants in paid work, which means that for most people, the middle years are now taken up with both paid work and family work. This has led to distress, conflict, and exhaustion as people try to juggle family and paid work responsibilities. At the same time, many older people don't have enough to do. In fact, retirement has been called a "roleless role." Many of the oldest members of society give up important activities such as paid work, caregiving, and community involvement.

The social problems caused by age segregation could be solved by a trend back toward age integration, though in a way that fits the realities of twenty-first-century life. Riley and Riley contend that there are already trends toward greater age integration as the third millennium begins. First, more and more people are living longer and longer. Researchers expect this trend to continue. When people live longer, it brings more chance for diversity over the course of their lives. There are more opportunities to take on new roles at various life stages and a greater chance that this will mean interacting with people of different ages. It also means that there are more cohorts of people born in different historical periods alive at the same time. Because growing up in particular historical periods shapes ideas, skills, and attitudes, there is more age-related diversity in a given year. In the year 2000, cohorts of people who are now old have lived through the Great Depression, World War II, the calm of the 1950s, and the struggle for racial and gender equality in the 1960s. Cohorts of people who are now young are growing up with sophisticated computer technology, less community involvement, relatively little agitation for major social change, and more serious crime. There are many cohorts in between who have been variously shaped by the major events of their childhoods, adolescences, early adulthoods, and beyond.

Second, there have been major changes in the work careers that typically anchored the middle stages of adult life. It used to be that the average worker "signed on" to a particular career in a given organization, and that was how he or she spent the middle period of his or her life. But the single work career is quickly becoming a relic of an earlier era. People cannot count on having their work life set for the middle years. Fast-paced technological change and globalization of the economy have resulted in a turbulent labor market. According to Robert Kuttner, employers now buy labor only for as long as they need it. Thus more and more people face periods of unemployment during the traditional work years.

This increasing age diversity has brought changes in the ages at which people enter different roles or phases of their lives. Matilda White Riley points out that we can no longer think of the course of people's lives as having clear-cut phases. Some people are having children late in life and some are retiring really early. In the United States, higher education is no longer reserved for adolescents, and continuous learning has become the norm.

Advantages and disadvantages of age integration

When age barriers that keep older people from productive activity are removed, both society and old people benefit. Social life is enriched by elders' talents, wisdom, and expertise. In turn, elders enjoy the esteem and well-being that come from contributing to society. There are demonstrated health benefits of active participation in social life.

Both older and younger age groups can benefit from reciprocal socialization and learning. In the year 2000, there is every indication that technology will continue to develop, and more and more aspects of life will require use of computerized systems. Young people know this new technology through both formal instruction and play. Many older people have had little experience with computers. The young can teach their elders this new skill. They can also expose older people to new ways of thinking, or get them interested again in an issue that they once cared about passionately. Peter Uhlenberg notes that society benefits when its young learn the importance of giving to others, and service to elders would be an important way to accomplish this. The elders, of course, can pass on the benefit of their life experience. Current examples include retired businesspeople who provide expert assistance to small businesses, organization-based groups of retirees who take on particular community service projects, and mentoring programs that pair "grandparents" with youngsters. As older people pass on their wisdom and become known as individuals to younger people, ageist stereotypes are apt to lessen. When biases against older people are diminished, it will free them to make many more important contributions to society.

As people of different ages work, learn, and enjoy themselves side by side, this fosters solidarity across the generations, which can be important for policy making. As the baby boom cohort ages, it is clear that they will be a tremendous burden on younger people unless age integration gives elders the chance to help minimize that burden (Riley and Riley, 2000).

If age integration means that we no longer have to have our activities defined by age, then older people can participate more fully in all aspects of life and people can cut back on paid work whenever their family demands are greatest. A more age-integrated life course could address work-family conflict across the socioeconomic spectrum. For example, if people were no longer expected to get all or most of their education when they were young, then poor teenage mothers (and their children) might not be fated to forever trying to "catch up" (Loscocco).

Yet there are also disadvantages to a more age-integrated model of social life. One obstacle is the amount of change that such a trend brings with it. Many people resist change, feeling more comfortable leaving things the way they are. Some would surely be upset by changes that seemed to force them into or out of particular life roles. Those who have the most to gain from an age-graded life course might put up barriers to further movement toward an age-integrated society.

Diversity of any kind often brings tensions. People of different ages have been reared differently, and have lived through different historical forces and fads that have shaped them. People often hold tightly to age-based values, passions, and ideals. They may not be especially interested in learning about new perspectives or ways of doing things. Thus bringing age groups with differing perspectives together may cause conflicts that are absent in same-age structures and groups.

Nor are different generations apt to readily share resources or to modify the current generational contract in which those in the middle years support older cohorts with the promise that younger generations will support them. The economist Lester Thurow warns that age may supplant class as a basis of conflict in U.S. society in the third millennium. It may cost younger age groups too much to pay for programs that benefit the oldest members of society. This problem will be greatest during the years when the baby boom generation reaches its latest years. Still, as of the year 2000, the "age wars" that were predicted by some economists have not materialized (Foner). Young and middle-aged people have not challenged policies that appear to benefit the growing numbers of older people at the expense of other age groups. Foner contends that this is partly because there are demonstrated economic benefits to younger family members when their elders are protected or enriched by public policy. Also, aging is inevitable, so people are reluctant to challenge a program that they know they will need someday.

Serious age integration would require a fundamental shift in standard of living and social values. In the United States, for example, a premium is placed on productivity and material rewards. Economic institutions dominate all others. People would have to be willing to make do with less and companies would have to restructure reward systems. These appear to be daunting obstacles. Yet there is evidence in the year 2000 that many people want more simplicity and greater balance in their lives (see Loscocco for citations). Similarly, many more companies are beginning to accommodate people who do not conform to traditional work patterns that require employees to place work time above all else.

Prospects for the future

As Matilda White Riley argues, age integration is already under way in U.S. society at the dawn of the third millennium. Many retirement communities have sprung up near or on university campuses, with the express purpose of bringing people from different age groups together. Numerous community-based and national programs attempt to bring older people and children together (see Newman et al.). Most such programs are aimed at using the wisdom and experience of older people to benefit the young. This can be especially advantageous in poor communities where the parents may be unable to give their children the attention, teaching, and emotional support that they need. But there are benefits to the older people, too, as discussed earlier.

The early retirement trend had abated as of the mid-1990s (Quinn). Improved health among older people and the tremendous hole that will be left as the baby boom cohort enters retirement age suggest this trend will continue for the first few decades of the twenty-first century at least. Cohort improvements in health and longevity may lead to a rethinking of age categorieswith people in their seventies being considered middle-aged rather than "old," for example. People's expectations of themselves and those of potential employers may change accordingly.

However, it is impossible to predict what will happen in the future on the basis of past or current trends. The trend toward increased longevity could be slowed by the cumulative effects of increased pollution or new and more resistant diseases. Widespread economic and technological changes could fundamentally alter the way societies organize work. If age integration becomes much more widespread, it is possible that it will fuel conflict between age groups. For these reasons, greater age integration cannot be prescribed as a sure antidote to future social ills. Still, as age barriers are lifted and the benefits are realized, it is unlikely that society would return to age discrimination. At the turn of the third millennium, age integration offers considerable promise.

Karyn Loscocco

See also Age Discrimination; Age Norms; Life Course.


Bengston, V. L., and Achenbaum, W. A., eds. The Changing Contract Across Generations. New York: Aldine DeGruyter, 1993.

Foner, A. "Age Integration or Age Conflict as Society Ages?" The Gerontologist 40 (2000): 272275.

Henretta, J. C. "Recent Trends in Retirement." Reviews in Clinical Gerontology 4 (1994): 7181.

Kohli, M. "The World We Forgot: A Historical Review of the Life Course." In Later Life: The Social Psychology of Ageing. Edited by V. W. Marshall. Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage, 1986. Pp. 271303.

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Thurow, L. C. "The Birth of a Revolutionary Class." New York Times Magazine, 19 May 1996, pp. 4647.

Uhlenberg, P. "The Burden of Aging: A Theoretical Framework for Understanding the Shifting Balance of Caregiving and Care Receiving as Cohorts Age." The Gerontologist 36 (1996): 761767.

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