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Status of Older People: Modernization


The nineteenth and twentieth centuries were marked by sweeping technological advances and rapid social transformations, particularly in Western Europe and North America. The proportion of older people in national populations grew, slowly at first, and then more rapidly as fertility behavior changed and public health measures contributed to increases in longevity. These socioeconomic and demographic changes created the context for the formal study of aging and old age, as historians and social scientists undertook systematic research in social gerontology after World War II.

One way researchers have sought to understand the effects of widespread social change on older people has been by researching aging and old age in the context of modernization. As a conceptual framework, modernization embraces the notion that large-scale social processes, like technological advances and changes in modes of production, create new roles and statuses for people (including older people) and their families. As a theoretical model, modernization theory involves a series of formal statements that can be tested with evidence and that specify how specific social or technological changes create particular socioeconomic effects for older people (and others) as societies modernize over time.

The modernization story

The term modernization came into popular use after World War II. It was used to describe the set of interrelated processes that occurred as Western societies were transformed from the agrarian, rural societies of the seventeenth century to the modern industrialized nations of the twentieth. Although the social changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution caused temporary social displacement as social institutions and individuals adapted to massive change, most modernization theorists believed such displacements were temporary and tolerable, given the progressive nature of modernization. Once a society had modernized its institutions, it was believed, it could fully embrace new scientific knowledge that would resolve remaining social and technological problems, creating a progressively wealthier and more stable society. This romanticized notion of the transformation of Western societies became a foundation for much social research in western Europe and North America.

In the postwar years, many argued that non-industrial societies would proceed toward development along approximately the same lines as the advanced industrial Western countries. The expectation was that the developed countries would encourage development in nonindustrial societies through the export and diffusion of investment, education, technology, and values. Modernizing nonindustrial countries would replace their traditional institutions, practices, and beliefs (which were viewed as impediments to modernization) with Western practices and values. This perspective viewed Western practices and values as liberating, and the potential modernization of traditional societies was viewed, optimistically, as a progressive step likely to enrich the lives of all members of modernizing societies. There was a belief that transforming traditional, agricultural societies into modern industrial societies would replicate the path to wealth and stability experienced by modern Western countries.

Modernization theory and the study of aging

Modernization theory was formalized in social gerontology mainly through the work of sociologists. In 1972, Donald Cowgill and Lowell Holmes developed a theory of modernization as it related to aging and old age. Their position was that as societies modernized undertaking the shift from farm and craft production within families to a dominantly industrial mode of productionrepercussions of modernization would diminish the status of older people. Cowgills later theoretical refinements (1974) identified four key aspects of modernization that undermined the status of older people: health technology, economic and industrial technology, urbanization, and education.

According to Cowgills theory, improved health technology, including advances in both medical practice and public health, has positive effects of improving health and increasing longevity, but it also has negative effects for older people. When people live longer, there is more competition in the labor market. Employers in industrializing societies prefer younger workers with new occupational skills to older workers, forcing older workers out of the labor market into retirement. Once retired, according to modernization theory, loss of income, prestige, and honor arising from labor market participation lead to a decline in the status of older people.

Modernizing advances in economic and industrial technology create new occupations in factories located near transportation and services. Younger people acquire the skills for new occupational slots and join the industrial work force, relegating older people to less prestigious and increasingly obsolete jobs. This often leads to retirement, reversing the roles of old and young. In traditional societies, older family members control family production, and younger ones are dependent on the old. When older people are excluded from the industrial labor market, they become dependent on the young, losing social status.

Factory locations in urban areas are a magnet to young workers. The process of urbanization leaves older family members behind in rural areas, undermining the traditional extended family and the prominent position of older members within them. The new family form in modernizing societies is the nuclear family, and both social and spatial distance are increased between the young and the old, changing intergenerational relations. Modernization theorists viewed upward mobility of the young as being accompanied by downward mobility among the elders in their families.

Increased literacy, emphasis on the superiority of scientific over traditional forms of knowledge, and education targeted toward children can all create inequalities in the knowledge base among family members of different generations, making the generation gaps between young and old even wider. Developments in science and technology render much of the traditional knowledge and many of the skills of older people that previously contributed to their high social status obsolete, since direct contribution to an industrialized economy becomes impossible.

This general model of the relationship between modernization and aging predicts a linear relationship between the status of older people and the degree of modernization experienced in a given society. According to this theory, the more modernized a society becomes, the more the status of older people declines. Modernization thus inevitably affects the entire social structure of newly modernized societies, including the position customarily held by its elderly community, regardless of when or where it occurred.

The institutionalization of modernization theory as one of the foundational theoretical approaches to the study of aging gave impetus to further study. Not long after Cowgill and Holmess original work, Erdman Palmore and Kenneth Manton used data from thirty-one countries to test modernization theory. Their findings suggested a refinement to modernization theory that involved taking the phase of modernization into account when exploring status changes among older people. Palmore and Mantons results showed that in the early stages of modernization, older peoples social status was relatively lower, but that the decline in status leveled off and even rose somewhat after a period of modernization.

In both its original and more elaborate variants, modernization theory provided a springboard to theorizing and research into the relationship between aging and social change. Some researchers sought to improve modernization theory by refining it. Others contended that modernization theory was too flawed to be a useful general theory explaining the relationship between social change and aging.

Critiques of modernization theory

Critics of modernization theory have observed that the theory was based on faulty assumptions about the historical status of older peoplethat it represented an oversimplification of the effects of modernization and ignored important variations arising from cultural variations, family forms, and social statuses other than age. According to sociologist Jill Quadagno, historical evidence demonstrates that significant variation occurred in the treatment of older people across and within different societies and over time, that older people have not always been universally revered, and that modernization has both positive and negative affects on older people.

Researchers have refuted modernization theory on a number of fronts. They have challenged the inevitability and uniformity of the effects of modernization by providing an historical view of the roles of aged family members and their political and economic power, of elder health and longevity, and of cultural attitudes toward older people. Historians and sociologists have used historical evidence from Western countries to challenge assumptions built into the modernization model, while anthropologists have provided evidence from crosscultural studies to demonstrate that there is no uniform, linear outcome determining aged peoples status in modernizing societies.

In 1976, British historian Peter Laslett challenged the universalist portrayal of the aged embodied by modernization theory, contending that theorists perpetuated a mythical world we have lost syndrome. He identified four aspects of the golden age myth: (1) before and after processes connecting the social outcomes of aging to modernization (i.e., that after modernization, older peoples social status inevitably declined); (2) traditional societies regarded and bestowed on older people universal respect; (3) specified and valued economic roles existed for older people in traditional societies; and (4) the assumption that older persons were cared for by their relatives living in multigenerational households. He contended that modernization theorists mistakenly incorporated these myths into a formal theory of aging.

American historian David Hackett Fischer (1977) agreed with modernization theorists that the status of older people had declined over time, but argued that, in the United States, this status decline began long before modernization and industrialization could have been the cause. Fischer identified a the period of decline during the years preceding American industrialization. He argued that the cultural transformation in the status of older people occurred as Americans picked up on the ideals of liberty and equality in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries influenced by their own experiences as founders of a new nation and by the ideals of the French Revolution. New cultural beliefs about equality destroyed the hierarchical conception of the world on which the authority of age had rested, while the ideal of liberty dissolved their communal base of power. Consequently, older Americans were displaced from their previously high status positions.

W. Andrew Achenbaum (1978) differed with Fischer in terms of the timing of negative cultural perceptions of older people in the United States. Achenbaum identified the postCivil War era as the period during which negative views of older people became prominent. Elders were still called on for advice and were seen as moral exemplars of health and longevity until the 1860s, according to Achenbaum. Despite disagreements about timing, these two historians identified cultural factors, not the socioeconomic changes emphasized in modernization theory, as most influential in determining the social position of older people in U.S. society.

Other critiques of the modernization model examined its foundational assumptions. For example, modernization theorists assumed that the extended family form represented the typical family in pre-twentieth-century, nonindustrial societies, and that its displacement by the nuclear family contributed to the decline in the status of older people. Yet studies by John Demos (1978) and Peter Laslett (1976) have shown that extended multigenerational families were less common than other family forms, and that elder Americans and English people preferred living in primary residences rather than with their children. More recent work by Emily Abel (1992) also questioned modernization theory assumptions about family life. Abel found that rural elders living in the 1800s did not necessarily enjoy high social status and that intergenerational living arrangements often caused problems for the children and their parents.

In 1994, Tamara Hareven critiqued the linear modernization approach to understanding social change, emphasizing the importance of an historical and life-course approach to studying old age. Her review of historical changes in generational relations in American society demonstrated that individual and familial experiences and specific historical circumstances were of utmost importance in understanding generational relations. She emphasized the importance of taking race and ethnicity, class, and family form into account when studying intergenerational family relationships.

Peter Stearns (1977) and Jon Hendricks and C. Davis Hendricks (1978) provided evidence that challenged the view that pre-industrial Western European societies valued old age and were tolerant of old people. Thomas Coles (1992) cultural history of old age in the United States and Georges Minoiss (1987) history of old age in Western culture both demonstrated ambivalent and evolving perceptions toward, and varied statuses experienced by, older people.

Researchers have also challenged the assumption in modernization studies that non-western societies would mirror changes Western countries experienced as they industrialized. Ellen Rhoads (1984) argued that culture was a more important factor than modernization in explaining the status of older people. From her work in Samoa, a modernizing society, she found little evidence to support the idea that individuals lose status as they age. If a society has a tradition of revering its elders, she argued, this tradition would likely persist even as the society becomes more modern.

In 1984, Ann Foner warned against assuming that the status of all older people deteriorates when nonindustrial societies begin to change. According to Monica Wilson (1977), under British colonial rule, the status of elderly African men actually increased. African elders in Nyakyusa remained chiefs and held offices much longer than they would have in precolonial times. More recently, York Bradshaw and Michael Wallace (1996) found that elder Africans are still deeply respected and never without the company of family members. Africans see Westerners as too quick to dispose of an older and wiser generation.

The historical status of older people varies according to race, gender, social class, and culture. Modernization theory overlooked the diverse positions of older people across different societies and the diversity of elders across gender, racial and ethnic groups, and economic classes within societies. For example, in 1990, Susan De Vos examined the extended-family household situations of elderly people in six Latin American countries. She found a larger number of elderly people living in extended households compared to Western nations, however, this was usually because they needed special support. Women were especially likely to live in extended families because they traditionally had been more economically dependent and emotionally closer to their kin than their male counterparts. De Vos found little difference between urban and rural residents in the likelihood of living in an extended family, undermining the modernization proposition of rural extended families and urban nuclear families. Among others, James Thorson (1995) identified economic status as an important variable in understanding the status of older people, since status is often gauged by relative income. The relative status of older people has improved in modernized societies as their relative economic position has improved.

Clearly, modernization theory created a growth industry of refinement and critique among social gerontologists. Modernization theory has been challenged in the decades since its original formulation for offering an over-simplified, linear explanation of inevitable decline in the status of older people in industrializing societies. Critiques of modernization theory have developed threads in social gerontological research that are attentive to issues of timing and pace of change, the evolution in family forms, cultural values about aging and old age, and the multiple statuses that people enjoyand that endureas they age in a modern world.

Modernization theory and social gerontology

The social processes involved in societal modernization have profound effects on all people living in modernizing societies, including people of advanced age. Industrialization changed the way goods and services were produced and where production occurred. The rise of mass education expanded literacy and exposed people to new ideas and practices in science and technology. Family forms, cultural values, and other social institutions were not immune from changes resulting from modernization processes. Despite its shortcomings, modernization, as a conceptual framework, provides a useful way to understand some of the processes and effects of the social transformations of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. By considering the interrelationships between various types and paces of change, important insights about the potential effects of broad social transformations on societies and the people living in them have been gained.

Formal modernization theory provided a platform upon which historians and social scientists could ask research questions designed to better understand how older people fared under rapidly changing social circumstances. While it is a valid critique that modernization theory alone oversimplifies the complex processes and interactions that condition the status of older people in their social worlds, it is also true that modernization theory spurred thoughtful and sustained research designed to prove or disprove its assumptions. This research, building on the pioneering work of modernization theorists, has provided key findings that have clarified our understanding of the myriad and evolving roles of elderly persons in modern and modernizing societies. It has helped us to understand the complex interactions between changes in a societys social structure and peoples racial, ethnic, gender, and cultural positions, and the outcomes that these complex social relationships generate.

Debra Street Lori Parham

See also Gerontocracy; Population Aging; Theories, Social.


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