Age Inequality Theories

  • Created by: nelliott
  • Created on: 14-12-20 10:54

Functionalism & Age Inequality: Talcott Parsons

  • Focuses on how inequality can be the 'victims fault'
  • The elderly and the young face inequality because they do not have the necessary skills that others have
  • Example: young people are paid less as they do not have the work experience, therefore they deserve less money due to having fewer skills and less experience
  • This view is spported by the New Right
  • The New Right claim inequality is a result of cultural causes
  • Example: blaming youth unemployment on a generation by calling them lazy and unskilled
1 of 21

Functionalism: Disengagement Theory

  • Cummings and Henry (1961) use this theory to explain that age inequality starts with the idea that all people die
  • A person's abilities are likely to deteriorate as they age, so there is a mutual need (for society and the individual) for the individual to be relieved of some of their responsibilities and roles
  • These roles must be fulfilled for social stability to be maintained
  • A process of disengagement 
  • Example: having a retirement age, allows a managed disengagement, allowing others to take on roles the elderly can no longer fulfil 
2 of 21

Functionalism: Disengagement Theory Evaluation

  • Not all elderly people deteriorate at the same age, or at all
  • These views are very optimistic and ignore the negative experience of ageing
  • Not all elderly people can take on a new role and stay happy and fulfilled
  • Not all youth will be successfully guided by the agents of socialisation
  • They may not leave deviant behaviour behind
3 of 21

Marxism & Age Inequality: Reserve Army of Labour

Reserve Army of Labour

  • Secondary source of labour and can be the young and the elderly, as the groups can be used at boom times or for flexible labour 
  • There is a growing market of zero-hour contracts where employees are only given work when it is available, but have to be free to work regardless
  • This tends to be the unemployed youth or the elderly who need income after retirement, showing age inequality is a social construction which benefits the rich and powerful


4 of 21

Marxism & Age Inequality: Evaluation


  • Focus on the need for capitalism
  • The youth provide new skills and cheap labour 
  • The elderly provide free childcare so parents can go out to work


  • Ignore that ageing does not always happen at the same rate for everyone
  • The studies take a macro approach, ignoring factors such as gender, nationality, disability and wealth 
  • With an ageing population there has been a growth of the ‘grey pound’, with elderly becoming consumers and therefore being an asset to the economy and the rich, rather than a burden
5 of 21

Marxism & Age Inequality: Legitimation of Authorit

Legitimation of Authority

  • Neo-Marxist Gramsci (1971) states the rich (bourgeoisie) maintain authority
  • He states 'false consciousness' explains that people do not realise their exploitation through the money they receive such as child benefits and pensions
  • They create a form of dependency and the elderly and young do not question their exploitation but keep accepting things like zero hour contracts


6 of 21

Marxism & Age Inequality: Political Economy Theory

Political Economy Theory

  • Phillipson (1982) believes capitalism needs to continually renew its workforce to make sure there is great profit by using young workers who are more productive
  • The elderly are made to retire so the needs of the economy are then met as younger employees take their place
  • The elderly then become dependent on society as they are denied access to work which lowers their status and causes inequality faced by elderly because of capitalism
7 of 21

Feminism & Age Inequality

  • Arber and Gin (1991) said that factors such as age affect a woman’s status and power
  • They said that older women face inequalities that older men do not
  • Men’s status is down to employment, while a woman’s seems to be linked to her reproductive cycle
  • Women feel immense pressure to fight the signs of ageing, which is capitalised on by many cosmetic industries, while ageing men do not seem to feel the pressure
  • Women are seen to have to comply with certain physical standards, but no expectations are placed on men
8 of 21

Feminism & Age Inequality: Evaluation

  • Feminists blame inequality on patriarchy, meaning they can miss the true causes, such as poverty
  • Not all women experience the same life chances as factors, such as wealth and social class, greatly impact on women
  • Males are also going through pressure to look young
  • Example: magazines such as FHM encouraging males to stay looking young and fight the ageing process
9 of 21

Social Action Theories & Age Inequality: Weberian

  • Weber felt to understand the complex nature of inequality; you need to look at three parts of life: class, status and party
  • Weber looked at the importance of someone’s market position, which could explain the low status of both the elderly and young
  • If someone does not have the skills required in the marketplace, then they will suffer low status
  • Example: elderly not having technology skills
  • However, if someone is upper class and becomes elderly, this will explain why they will not suffer the same loss of status
  • Their financial resources mean that they will not suffer the same loss of status as they can continue to live a comfortable life regardless of their skills
  • Example: the Queen is elderly and female, yet the fact she hasn’t lost her status and power is related to her social position and wealth
10 of 21

Social Action Theories & Age Inequality: Negativel

  • Parkin (1968) stated that ethnic minorities could be kept out of high-status privileged groups
  • This is due to social segregation, leaving them to suffer
  • The elderly are often socially segregated too
  • Example: in the media, employment, retirement and even in living arrangements (care homes). 
11 of 21

Social Action Theories & Age Inequality: Activity

  • Some interactionists believe that staying mentally and physically active will increase happiness
  • If we maintain these social interactions, it reduces the negative experience of ageing
  • Havinghurst (1961) published this theory in critique of disengagement theory
  • He argued the inequality is more about social interaction than just age
  • Statham’s (2011) research on grandparents providing childcare may mean that social interaction continues 
  • This could potentially change the inequalities faced by some elderly who are isolated
12 of 21

Social Action Theories & Age Inequality: Exchange

  • Turner (1989) argues age discrimination is actually best understood in terms of status
  • In Western societies, both the elderly and the young become stigmatised due to not having what it takes to gain high status
  • In a society based on consumption, high status is given to those who have material goods
  • If the elderly and young are least likely to have material goods, they will have low status
  • If they are dependant, they have low status
  • However, in some societies where power and age are linked, the elderly will have high status
  • This shows that status is relative to that society and age may be a factor that brings high or low status depending on the key values of a society
13 of 21

Social Action Theories & Age Inequality: Interacti

  • All interactionists question the social construction of inequality
  • Negative labelling and stigmatisation of both the elderly and the young by the media and other agents of social control and socialisation could be said to create a self-fulfilling prophecy
  • If the elderly are labelled as useless, lonely and unable to learn, then perhaps those stereotypes become reality
  • Could it be that people think the elderly are useless, so replaced them with the youth, which actually then makes the elderly become useless?
  • Stan Cohen (1972) looked at moral panics
  • This is relevant here to explain age inequality in the media
14 of 21

Social Action Theories & Age Inequality: Evaluatio

  • They still fail to recognise the structural causes of inequality such as patriarchy and capitalism
  • Activity theory is criticised for ignoring the institutional ageism 
  • This is at the basis of many laws and practices within society
15 of 21

Postmodernists & Age Inequality

  • Some postmodernists look at disparity of experience of the elderly
  • Others say old age is a time of inequality
  • Discussions of inequality suffered by youth often blame the media for the creation of ‘youth culture’
  • They agree with Stan Cohen and his work on ‘folk devils’ (1972)
  • As postmodernists study from a micro approach, there is no one single explanation for inequality
  • There are just lots of micro studies
16 of 21

Postmodernist Theories: Old Age as a Positive Time

  • A critique of social research on ageing is that it ignores many of the changes in society today
  • When we look at consumer culture it shows a different picture of older people being isolated from society
  • The ‘grey pound’ is very strong and advertisers focus on getting that money from older generations
  • Laczko and Phillipson (1991) researched early retirement and found that the inequality faced by some elderly people was due to lack of wealth, not ageing itself
  • This led to the idea that explanations of age inequality focus too much on imaginary boundaries of age
  • Many people who are wealthy enough to retire early show that it can be a positive experience
  • Blaikie (1999) states that the idea of ageing can be positive, with the idea of a fourth age filled with active but leisure-based pursuits
17 of 21

Postmodernist Theories: The Mask of Old Age

  • J.B Priestly stated that for him, ageing was like someone had kidnapped him and made him old, yet behind his appearance he had the same thoughts as when he was younger
  • These ideas have been seem as similar to wearing a mask: one thing on the outside, another on the inside
  • This shows the inequalities faced by the elderly are more to do with labelling than ageing
18 of 21

Postmodernist Theories: New Technology and the Fig

  • Not all people grow old gracefully
  • Some fight it with the use of technology and cosmetic surgery
  • Powell and Biggs (2000) wrote that this allows some to continually re-create themselves
  • While this may mean that age discrimination against the elderly is just based on the ‘mask’, it is impossible to tell
  • Those who can afford to re-create themselves may suffer less ageism due to other factors such as wealth
19 of 21

Postmodernist Theories: Globalisation

  • Postmodernists recognise the importance of globalisation as a key cause of social change
  • As Britain becomes more multicultural, ageism changes
  • In some cultures, being old brings high status, which shows that age inequality rests largely on culture
  • Similarly, in the UK children have high status due to families being child-centred, but in other cultures this may not be the case
  • Some children are even expected to take on adult roles such as working or fighting in the army
  • This shows that inequality could be caused by the norms and values within society, such as retirement age
20 of 21

Postmodernist Theories: Age is Complicated

  • Some believe age can result in inequality that is undeserved and based on labelling
  • Others believe that it is directly related to what someone has to offer to society
  • What is clear is the idea that similar age groups, all given the same high or low status, ignore differences related to ethnicity, social class and gender
21 of 21


No comments have yet been made

Similar Sociology resources:

See all Sociology resources »See all Sociological theory resources »