Structural Lag

views updated


The concept of structural lag originally was suggested by the observation that in the late twentieth century there was a discrepancy between the growing number of older healthy people and the meaningful roles available to them. This simple empirical observation is only one instance of a more general phenomenon: a mismatch between the numbers and kinds of people of a given age and existing patterns in the social structures into which people must fit. This mismatch occurs because changes in people's lives and changes in social structures typically are not synchronic. When social structures fail to adapt to new cohorts with characteristics different from those of previous cohorts, there is a situation of structural lag (Riley et al. 1994).


How and why structural lags emerge and how they are dealt with can be better understood by considerating the underlying principles of age as both an individual and a social phenomenon and its relationship to social change.

  1. Age not only is a characteristic of people but is built into social structures in the form of criteria for entering or leaving social roles, expectations about behavior in those roles, and resources and rewards for role performance. Formal and informal rules govern the age at which children enter and stay in school, age patterns in the family such as the appropriate age at first marriage, and age of entry into and retirement from the work force. Age norms influence behavior and orientations in these roles, and conformity is buttressed by material rewards and social approval.
  2. Both the process of aging from birth to death and social structures related to age are subject to change. The aging process is not the same for all cohorts, since members of each cohort (those born in the same period) grow up and grow older under unique social, political, and environmental circumstances. For example, cohorts of people born around the beginning of the twentieth century differ from those born a half century later in level of education, exposure to illness, size of the family, job skills, the likelihood of being married and divorced, and attitudes and worldviews. Cohorts born at the end of the twentieth century will differ from their predecessors in still other ways. For example, the birth weight of newborns in the 1980s and 1990s was greater than that of babies born in earlier times, and this undoubtedly will influence the way that members of those cohorts develop. Further, as the more recent cohorts grow up, it is likely that they will to benefit from new medical advances. Age patterns in social structures have changed as well. To cite two examples, schools have raised the school-leaving age, and government and corporate policies have encouraged a decline in the typical age of retirement.
  3. Changes in patterns of aging and in social structures affect each other; they are interdependent. As an example, by altering long-standing employment practices, restructuring, downsizing, and mergers of large firms in the United States have led to a shift in the work lives of employees. Thus, compared to previous cohorts of workers, fewer workers now can look forward to lifetime employment in one firm; many have to make multiple career changes, and some have to make do with temporary and part-time employment at some time in their working lives. In turn, new patterns of careers over the life course are likely to have an impact on societal institutions. Firms are likely to reduce their commitment to training workers, with educational institutions assuming greater responsibility for training and retraining.
    While changing aging processes and social structures affect each other, the two processes of change are distinct, with each following its own dynamics. The aging process, while varying across cohorts, has a distinct rhythm, as people are born and then proceed through childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and old age. Social structures do not have a similar rhythm. The economy has ups and downs; political shifts follow their own paths; and cataclysmic events such as wars, depressions, famines, and epidemics affect all social institutions. Consequently, in any period there is likely to be a poor fit between lives and structures: an imbalance between what people of given ages have to offer, what they need and expect in their lives, and their motivations versus what social structures can accommodate or demand.
  4. Lags can occur in either direction. Sometimes people's lives lag behind changes in social structures. For example, many older people may be reluctant to learn and use new technologies, or adolescents may not be motivated to take the science courses that will prepare them for technological changes. At the end of the twentieth century, however, a key form of imbalance is the lag of social structures behind changes in people's lives. As the examples discussed below indicate, structural lag is pervasive, affecting people of all ages and many social institutions.


A focus on the fit or misfit between people and structures in three major age strata shows how these principles play themselves out and how structural lags have emerged.

The Old. The increase in the number and proportion of older people in the twentieth century is a dramatic example of a change in people's lives that has posed numerous problems for societal institutions. By the end of the century people 65 years old and over represented 13 percent of the U.S. population compared to about 4 percent at the beginning of the century. More than 70 percent of Americans now live to age 65, almost three times the proportion at the beginning of the century. These changes are in large part the result of public and private health care measures that reduced infant mortality decades ago, increasing the proportion of individuals who could survive to the later years. Reductions in infant and child mortality were followed by reductions in death rates among older people, partly as a result of public health and scientific and medical innovations and partly because of healthy practices in diet and exercise undertaken by individuals. Indeed, old people at the end of the twentieth century are a relatively healthy lot. Most report that they have no disabilities; even among those over age 85, about 40 percent report being able to function in daily life (Rowe and Kahn 1998). Thus, not only are more people growing old, they are aging well.

Social institutions have been slow to accommodate to the needs of this new kind of older population, a lag that represents not only lost opportunities for the old but a loss of the productive capabilities of older people to society. Consider the organization of work and retirement. Although 65 is the age of eligibility for full Social Security benefits, most people in recent years have been retiring before that age. This pattern of early retirement was facilitated by Social Security regulations, devised in an earlier period, that exact little or no cost for retiring before age 65. On their part, many employing organizations, driven by changing personnel requirements, offer financial incentives for early retirement. Also, in the process of restructuring their firms or merging with others, employers let many long-term employees go, many of whom retired early rather than face the uncertainties of the job market. If they are assured of financial security in retirement, some workers welcome the opportunity to retire early, perhaps because of their health or because of the onerous or stultifying nature of their jobs. Nevertheless, surveys find that a sizable proportion of older workers prefer not to sever their ties to the labor force completely (Burkhauser and Quinn 1994). However, few firms permit workers to continue at their old jobs under the more flexible working conditions many workers prefer. Available part-time or temporary jobs typically have few, if any, of the benefits of workers' former employment, and the pay is generally low. The result is that many older workers withdraw from the labor force completely—often unwillingly. Employing organizations thus lose the benefits that experienced workers can bring to their firms.

Paid employment is not the only way older workers can make productive contributions to society. A sizable minority of older people do volunteer work that has social value—in religious, charitable, and civic organizations, for example. Structural lag and resistance to new ideas and values consistent with a changed society may explain why more older persons do not volunteer. Volunteer organizations often do not have recruiting mechanisms to draw on the large pool of potential older volunteers. With respect to societal values, volunteer work is not accorded the same respect as paid employment (Kahn 1994).

Societal institutions are lagging behind the needs of an unfortunate sector of the older population: those in poor health who need support. Especially among the oldest old, there is a need for long-term care either in the home or in a nursing facility, but affordable arrangements for such care are inadequate. As a result some older people are not getting the care they need, and the burden for caring for them falls on their elderly spouses or their middle-aged offspring or other relatives. In such ways, structural lag in care institutions affects both the old and the middle-aged. Unless there are relevant structural changes in these care institutions and/or government programs to shore them up, there will be problems for the baby boom cohorts when they reach their later years. They will have fewer kin available to provide the needed support, since the baby boom cohorts were followed by relatively small cohorts.

Children. Children's lives also have changed dramatically; today they have vastly different growing up experiences than did earlier cohorts. As a consequence, children now differ from their predecessors in attitudes, capabilities, motivations, behaviors, and the choices they make. These dispositions will affect their paths of future development: their school careers, job choices and opportunities, and marriage and family decisions.

One development that has altered the lives of children has been the increase in single-parent families. On average, these families are poorer than two-parent families, and there are long-term consequences for children raised under conditions of poverty. Experiencing poverty as infants and young children (zero to 5 years of age) affects people's subsequent educational achievement and employability (Duncan, et al. 1998). The increase in single-parent families thus does not bode well for the future of their young offspring, many of whom will not be prepared to fill the roles available in a technologically advanced and constantly changing society.

There has also been a marked increase in families where both the father and the mother work outside the home. Unless they have high incomes, dual-earner families, share with single-parent families the problem of finding adequate child care arrangements. A small proportion of mothers cope with both work and taking care of children, and a similarly small percentage of fathers care for children while mothers work away from the home. In some cases, grandparents or other relatives care for children outside the children's home. The well off can afford paid babysitters, and about one-quarter of preschoolers of working mothers are in some form of organized day care. Many of these facilities, however, have been judged unsafe or unsanitary and do not offer a warm and intellectually stimulating environment.

While the long-term outcome of these new socialization environments for infants and children cannot be known yet, social structures outside the family clearly are not filling the gaps created by changed family arrangements. Most important, there has been no institutionalization of satisfactory nonparental child care arrangements; social structures outside the family are lagging behind changes in children's lives and changes in the family.

There is also a gap between the lives of school-age children and social structures. Consider institutions of public education. Among the many undertakings of public schools at the end of the twentieth century, there are two major tasks: educating students raised in changed family environments and preparing those students for a changed society in which people increasingly will need the ability to adapt to continual changes and more jobs will require high levels of conceptual thinking.

By and large, experimental programs and various changes in schools notwithstanding, schools are falling behind in meeting these challenges. For example, many teachers have inadequate knowledge of subject matter; curricula often lag behind new knowledge and are too often shaped by the nature of national or statewide tests; frequently there is administrative inertia and resistance to change; and students often are not challenged sufficiently in terms of, for example, the amount and nature of homework. These patterns militate against the goal of inculcating the kinds of thinking and other skills that will be needed in the next decades, when today's students will enter the labor force and take on adult responsibilities.

Adults. Structural lags affecting the old and the young have an impact on people in their middle years. It is those people years who must undertake the care of the young and the old when there are no alternatives, but it is precisely when people are in their prime years that they have heightened job and career responsibilities. Social structures are lagging in providing arrangements—such as flexible hours or flexible workplace settings and respite care from social agencies—that would ease the multiple burdens of those with career and family care responsibilities.

It is not only work organizations and social agencies that are not helping workers undertake their multiple responsibilities: Family structures are not adapting to the new realities either. It is women who typically bear the brunt of multiple burdens of work and family care. While most married women with children work outside the home, they still have the main responsibility for tasks in the home. More husbands—when they are present—are "helping" with household work than was the case in earlier times, but the norm of equal sharing has not been institutionalized. There is a gap between the changed lives of women and the way most families are structured.

Class, Gender, and Race Differences. There are differences within the several age strata (layers of people who differ in age and confront structures differentially appropriate for particular ages) in the degree of fit between changed people and changed institutions. The match or mismatch between people of given ages and institutions often depends on the gender, ethnicity, race, or class of the people involved.

Thus, the impact of structural lag is uneven. In some instances it is the most disadvantaged segments of the different age strata that are most likely to feel the brunt of the lag.


The gap between structures and the lives of the individuals in those structures creates tensions, inefficiencies, and other problems that are potent stimuli for change in both people and structures. Whatever the constraints, social structures tend to respond to these forces.

Social Structural Responses. Social structural responses to an increase in cohort size—a key source of pressure on structures—are illustrative. Beginning in midcentury, the pressure on social institutions came from the unexpectedly large number of people in the baby boom cohorts, whose large size created a lag in structures at every life stage. As Waring (1976) shows, social institutions coped with these large cohorts in myriad ways. When the baby boom cohorts were newborns, hospitals reduced the typical length of stay of new mothers and their babies to accommodate the flood of new births. When the baby boomers entered school, new schools were built and younger teachers were hired to compensate for the teacher shortage. In their college years, educational requirements were extended, with the result that entry into the labor force was delayed, helping to prevent a labor glut. These changes generally came piecemeal, but many of them, such as shorter maternal hospital stays, have turned out to be long-lasting.

As the number of old people has increased and as the baby boomers approach old age, there are signs that social institutions are making further changes. Indeed, as the changes made in many different institutional settings accumulate, new social meanings of age may arise. Age barriers to entry into a broad range of social roles are being relaxed and even breakingdown. For individuals this means increased opportunities to intersperse periods of education, work, family time, and leisure over the life course, unlike the more rigid pattern of education in youth, work in adulthood, and retirement and leisure in old age that has been the typical shape of the life course (Riley et al. 1999). Within institutions, as more roles become available to people of all ages, cross-age interactions are likely to increase. Also, the pool of human capital available to varied social institutions will no longer be limited by rigid age norms.

Mechanisms of Change. Changes, whether piecemeal or encompassing, do not come about automatically. A number of processes operate singly or in combination to bring about change.

Actions of policymakers. Some individuals and agencies are in a good position to make and implement policy—government officials and company executives, for example—because they have an overview of their organizations and can propose or institute policies that will reduce the gap between people and structures.

One of the portents of more flexible age criteria has been the opening up of colleges and universities to older students. Educational administrators have played an important role in this development. They saw an opportunity to expand the pool of prospective students and felt a responsibility to offer access to their schools to older people. They have devised special degree programs for older people along with a wide range of nondegree classes. On a less formal level, other organizational leaders have developed elder hostel programs that give older people a chance to combine education and recreation, programs that have expanded beyond college settings and beyond the United States.

Undoubtedly, these policy initiatives were influenced by the actions of older people who were seeking avenues for enriching their lives or for filling in gaps in their education. Indeed, people inside social structures often act as agents of change, sometimes engaging in purposeful action with others and sometimes acting independently, as in the case of cohort norm formation, another mechanism of change.

Cohort norm formation. As formulated by Riley (1978), cohort norm formation is a process that occurs when the members of a cohort, reacting independently but in like fashion to changes in society, create new patterns of behavior and attitudes. These changes often spread to the succeeding cohorts, contributing to the establishment of new norms.

The centurylong increase in women's labor force participation is a prime example of this process. Since the early decades of the twentieth century, in successive cohorts, increasing proportions of women have worked outside the home. They were, of course, responding to broad social forces that eased household burdens, facilitated control of family size, and introduced workplace technologies that women could manage efficiently. However, it was individual women who made the decision to enter and remain in the labor force after marriage. As they did so, norms for women's labor force participation changed. Early in the century the typical married woman did not hold a job outside the home and was not expected to, but as increasing numbers of women sought employment, it became acceptable for them to work for pay. At the end of the twentieth century, not only are high proportions of single and married women in the labor force, it is expected that women will have paying jobs regardless of their marital status. This norm was embodied in welfare legislation in the 1990s: Poor women were given time limits for welfare payments to support them and their dependent children. After that deadline, they were expected to be self-supporting.

Among older people at terminal stages of the life course, another set of norms has been forming (Riley 1990). Older people have been pressing for new norms that will help them avoid a prolonged, painful process of dying, provide palliative care, and give them more control of the way they die. New norms for the dying process and arrangements to implement them are being put in place. Hospice care that eschews heroic measures for those near death has been more widely accepted, more people are writing living wills detailing measures to be taken near the end, and hospitals have been forming medical ethics committees to deal with these issues. The "right to die" movement has gained power and, with it, some of the structural changes it supports. However, this movement has taken on a new cast as it has focused more on improving caretaking arrangements than on the psychosocial needs of patients (see "Death and Dying" in this encyclopedia).

What started out as individual but uncoordinated responses of numerous older people and others concerned about unacceptable practices in the American way of dying—an example of cohort norm formation—have taken on the shape of a social movement, a more organized effort to change customary practices.

Social movements. Social movements have played a role in effecting many age-related changes. These movements take several forms. They may involve organized groups exerting pressure for change or may entail collective actions that arise more spontaneously. Whether organized or not, they bring issues of concern to public attention. Sometimes their actions lead to conflicts with groups that have different interests and agendas.

Organized social movements encompassing large segments particular age strata have emerged relatively infrequently. Most noteworthy was the Townsend movement in the 1930s, which organized older people to work for a publicly supported pension program for the elderly in the United States. At its height it had organized groups in almost every state. It played a role in the eventual enactment of Social Security legislation.

Although broad-based movements involving age-related issues are difficult to organize, more limited movements for structural change crop up. In the recent past there has been the "right to die" movement with its shifting emphases, as noted above, and organizations focusing on the problems of older women. At the other end of the age spectrum there is a children's rights movement concerned particularly about neglected children. By bringing problems to public attention and by lobbying policymakers directly, these social movements are able to stimulate at least piecemeal changes.

At times, social movements can trigger conflict among age strata. In the 1980s, for example, some pressure groups attempted to pit younger people against the old with dire predictions of intergenerational conflict in the future. Those groups argued that the elderly receive undue advantages from U.S. government programs and that younger adults are unfairly burdened with supporting those programs. Such age conflicts have not emerged, however, and challenges from younger adults that might provide the impetus for changes in government policies seem unlikely. The cross-age support for Social Security suggests why this is so. Younger adults want to maintain the Social Security program to safeguard their own future as well as to protect their parents' present status. Apart from affection for their parents, self-interest is involved. Without publicly supported pensions, those under age 65 would have to bear an increased financial burden to support their elderly parents. Moreover, many adults under age 65 benefit indirectly from gifts and ultimately from inheritances made possible by the financial security afforded to the old by Social Security pensions. In short, the inevitability of growing old and the intergenerational bonds and exchanges within the family are powerful deterrents to conflicts between the young and the old (Foner 1974).

Obstacles to Change. Changing age-related components of social structures does not necessarily proceed smoothly. Long-held values, institutional rigidities, and the possible costs involved create impediments to effective change.

Proposals to make lifelong education a reality—not only educational opportunities for the old but also time off for retraining and sabbaticals for educational enrichment among those of working age—may seem simple to implement. However, many employers perceive that giving time off for sabbaticals is costly and often see no payoff from retraining mature workers when newly trained and cheaper young workers are available.

More equal sharing of household and child care responsibilities by young and middle-aged married adults can be thwarted by entrenched values about the appropriate roles of men and women.

Giving sick and dying patients increased autonomy in regard to their care does not comport with common practices such as rigid scheduling and beliefs of physicians and authorities in medical institutions that patients do not have the professional expertise needed to deal with their illness.

Unintended Consequences. Such obstacles notwithstanding, change does occur, but sometimes it has unforeseen results. For example, the spread of hospices that provide relief and palliative care for near-death patients has been a welcome alternative for people who do not want heroic—and often painful and expensive—measures. However, as the number of hospices and their patients has increased in the United States, federal regulatory agencies have found themselves hard put to monitor them and fraud has increased (New York Times 1998).

New norms about extending the work life will give healthy and eager older workers productive roles while at the same time addressing certain problems of the financial viability of the Social Security system. However, these new norms could undermine the right to retirement, discrediting those who are unable to work or those who need a rest after long years of toil. Further, an increase in the number of older workers in the labor market looking for good part-time jobs could lead to competition with young and female workers also looking for such jobs. One result could be depressed wages in this sector of the labor market.

Viewed in their particulars, changes in social structures do not always neatly adjust social institutions to the changed lives of people. The change may be only partial, some changes may work out well for some people but not for others, and new problems may emerge, calling for additional changes. Viewed in the long run, however, structural lag turns out to be a frequently unrecognized but powerful force for change.


The concept of structural lag as a force for change has a ring of familiarity. Many analysts have put forth theories about discrepancies among the several parts of the society that press for change.

Perhaps the idea seemingly most similar to structural lag is Ogburn's (1932) concept of "cultural lag." Ogburn conceived of culture as complex, consisting of interdependent parts. There is the material culture with its technology, raw materials, manufactured products, and the like, and the nonmaterial culture that includes folkways, mores, social institutions, beliefs, laws, and governments. Ogburn thought that changes in the nonmaterial culture generally were dependent on changes in the material culture and often lagged behind changes in the material culture, hence the notion of cultural lag.

While Ogburn's concept of culture includes many of the same components of social structure posited in the theory of structural lag, his approach to social change differs from the analysis of structural lag in a number of ways. Ogburn's emphasis is on the relationship among elements in the culture. The theory of structural lag introduces the lack of fit between people and structures. Moreover, not only are changes in the lives of people not synchronized with changes in social structures, people act as agents of change in trying to align structures with their changing lives. A related difference is that Ogburn views the motive power of change as residing in the material culture. By contrast, the analysts of structural lag consider changing lives and changing social structures as interdependent, with no claim for the priority of one over the other.

Others also have proposed that inconsistencies in social structures create pressures for social change. For example, Marx and Engels (1848) discussed contradictions within capitalism, and Merton (1938, 1957) analyzed the disjunction between culturally defined goals and socially differential access to the opportunity structure for achieving those goals, but these theories differ from the analysis of structural lag in a number of ways.

For Marx, change has its source in a fundamental contradiction of capitalism between private ownership of the means of production and the social nature of the production process, a contradiction that results in the exploitation of wage laborers employed by and dependent on capitalist employers. As workers struggle to improve their working conditions, their actions lead to fundamental change in the social relations of production. However, Marx's analysis of capitalist contradictions focuses on the crucial role of the productive sphere, whereas the analysis of structural lag does not give preeminence to any particular institution. Structural lag can and does occur in all societal structures, and pressures for change can emanate from all of them. Nor is social conflict the major mechanism of social change posited in the theory of structural lag, where, as was noted above, other mechanisms of change are generally more important.

In Merton's theory, the disjunction between goals and means leads to several modes of deviant adaptation, of which one, "rebellion", clearly augurs social change. In rebellion, one segment of the population rejects both goals and means as socially defined and seeks to replace them with a "greatly modified social structure" (Merton 1957, p. 155). Thus, this theory suggests a mechanism for changing the existing cultural and social structure. It is not concerned with the continuous entry into society of new cohorts whose changing lives confront social structures with the need for change, a central focus of the theory of structural lag.

In summary, the theory of structural lag, while rooted in the special qualities of age and aging as social phenomena—seemingly a narrow focus—is a broad theory that links age and aging to both social structures and social change. In its structural aspects, it views age as a key element with which social structures must cope. From a dynamic perspective, it sees social forces bringing about change in people's lives, with those changing lives in turn causing pressure for changes in social structures. Structural lag thus is both a consequence of social change and an impetus for further change.


Burkhauser, Richard V., and Joseph F. Quinn 1994 "Changing Policy Signals." In Matilda White Riley, Robert L. Kahn, and Anne Foner, eds., Age and Structural Lag: Society's Failure to Provide Meaningful Opportunities in Work, Family, and Leisure. New York: Wiley.

Duncan, Greg, J. W. Jean Yeung, Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, and Judith R. Smith 1998 "How Much Does Childhood Poverty Affect the Life Chances of Children?" American Sociological Review 63:406–423.

Foner, Anne 1974 "Age Stratification and Age Conflicts in Political Life." American Sociological Review 39:187–196.

Kahn, Robert L. 1994 "Opportunities, Aspirations, and Goodness of Fit," In Matilda White Riley, Robert L. Kahn, and Anne Foner, eds., Age and Structural Lag: Society's Failure to Provide Meaningful Opportunities in Work, Family, and Leisure. New York: Wiley.

Marx, Karl, and Frederich Engels. (1848) 1978 "Manifesto of the Communist Party." In R. Tucker, ed., The Marx-Engels Reader, 2nd ed. New York: Norton.

Merton, Robert K. 1938 "Social Structure and Anomie." American Sociological Review 3:672–682.

—— 1957 "Social Structure and Anomie," In Social Theory and Social Structure. Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press.

New York Times, May 10, 1998. "Hospice Boom Is Giving Rise to New Fraud" by Douglas Frantz, pp. 1, 8.

Ogburn, William F. 1932 Social Change. New York: Viking.

Riley, John, Jr. 1990 "Death and Dying." In E. Borgatta and M. Borgatta, eds., The Encyclopedia of Sociology. New York: Macmillan.

Riley, Matilda White 1978 "Aging, Social Change, and the Power of Ideas." Daedalus 107:39–52.

——, Anne Foner, and John W. Riley, Jr. 1999 "The Aging and Society Paradigm: From Generation to Generation." In Vern L. Bengtson and K. Warner Schaie, eds., Handbook of Theories of Aging. New York: Springer.

——, Robert L. Kahn, and Anne Foner, eds. 1994. Age and Structural Lag: Society's Failure to Provide Meaningful Opportunities in Work, Family, and Leisure. New York: Wiley.

Rowe, John W. and Robert L. Kahn 1998 Successful Aging. New York: Pantheon.

Waring, Joan 1976 "Social Replenishment and Social Change: The Problem of Disordered Cohort Flow." In Anne Foner, ed., Age in Society. Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage.

Anne Foner

About this article

Structural Lag

Updated About content Print Article