Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Age and Identity

Source: 3rd Edition Ken Browne: Sociology For AS AQA

Age and identity

The social construction of age
How old you are is not simply, or even most importantly, a matter of biological development. There is also a social dimension to ageing, and there are often different norms, values and expectations of behaviour associated with different ages. Age is a social construction, in the sense that the identity and status allocated to people of different biological ages is created by society and social attitudes, and not simply moulded by biology.

There can be wide biological difference between people of the same age, which may impact on how others see and define them, and attitudes to age vary between cultures. In some societies old people have high status as the ‘elders’ of a community, while in modern Britain older people generally tend to lack status and authority, though this can vary between ethnic groups.

In the Asian community (relate to topic area Ethnicity & Identity) , for example, elderly people are still often held in high esteem.

Social attitudes to people of different ages can change over time. Philippe Ari├Ęs (1973) showed that in medieval times childhood did not exist as a separate status. Children often moved straight from infancy, when they required constant care, to working roles in the community. Children were seen as ‘little adults’. They did not lead separate lives, and dressed like, and mixed with, adults. ‘Childhood’ was certainly not the specially protected and privileged time of life we associate with children today, with their legal protection, extended education and freedom from work.

Age groups and identity
The social construction of age means that we tend to think of people in terms of age groups in contemporary British culture, such as ‘infancy’, ‘childhood’, ‘teenager’, ‘youth’, ‘young’ and ‘mature’ adulthood, ‘middle age’ or ‘old age’.

The age group to which we belong can have important consequences for identity and status, particularly for the young and old. For example, our age influences whether we can get employment, or keep employment, go into pubs, clubs and films, and whether it is legally possible to marry or socially acceptable to have sex.

There are often broad cultural stereotypes and assumptions about the lifestyles of some of these age groups, and different norms and expectations of behaviour associated with them which can help to mould the identities of those in these groups. For example, behaviour considered appropriate for a child might be regarded as very odd in a middle-aged man. These age groups are therefore a form of social identity and may be a source of individual identity as well. In other words, how old you are can have a direct impact on your own sense of identity, how you behave and how others see you.

For example, being a ‘teenager’ involves a frequently difficult period of transition between childhood and adulthood, and the teenage identity may be seen as confusing, troublesome and angst-ridden for the individual, and ‘trouble’ for others.

Bradley (1995) sees age as an important aspect of identity for individuals. She recognizes that it tends to be a short-lived and changing identity as people spend only a short period in a particular age group (though this may be changing for the retired elderly, with growing life expectancy).

Bradley says that age becomes a particularly significant aspect of identity in two main age groups – the young (teenagers and 20-somethings) and older people who are retired from work.

Youth and identity
Young people in contemporary Britain face an extended period of time between leaving childhood behind and becoming independent adults. Dependency on parents, often living with them well into their 20s, and extended periods of education mean that many young people find difficulty in establishing a clear adult identity. Functionalist writers suggest this leads to status frustration, with youth subcultures emerging as one way of dealing with the extended transition from childhood to adulthood.

Youth subcultures enable young people to carve out an identity for themselves as they make the transition to the establishment of an independent adult identity. Over the last fifty years, a whole range of youth subcultures has emerged. Teddy Boys, mods and rockers, skinheads, punks, Goths and Rastas have all emerged as very distinctive youth identities, with related styles of dress, appearance, behaviour and music.


With greater life expectancy, retired people may be in the ‘older’ age group for perhaps longer than in any other age group. Retirement brings with it a loss of identity that arises from work, as well as the income. Older people today are healthier and more affluent that they have ever been, but there is still widespread poverty among the old, particularly among working-class widowed women and / or those without occupational pension schemes. Even relatively well-off pensioners will face a substantial drop in income compared to those who are working, and this makes it harder for some older people, especially the poor, to establish alternative identities through their leisure and consumption patterns (discussed later in this chapter).

In mid-2005 one in three people in Britain were aged 50 or over, and one in six aged 65 or over. The ‘grey pound’ (older people’s spending) is very important to businesses and, increasingly, new businesses are opening up that market to older people and are dedicated to their needs, such as SAGA.

Despite being a significant proportion of the population and a major market for business, older people often suffer prejudice and discrimination, with negative stereotyped assumptions that they are less intelligent, forgetful, ‘grumpy’ and ‘moaning’, in poor health, incapable and dependent on others and so on – simply because they are old. Older people, particularly, are likely to encounter ageism.

Ageism can have detrimental effects on older people, and they may face being called derogatory names and having negative media images (‘dirty old man’, ‘boring old fart’, ‘grumpy old woman’), being infantilized (treated like infants / children), being denies a sexual identity, facing barriers to proper medical treatment (such as not being referred to a consultant for being too old) and losing jobs or facing obstacles to getting jobs on the grounds of being too old. Old age might be regarded as an example of a stigmatized identity, which prevents older people from establishing identities other than that of simply being the ‘old person’ found in negative stereotypes.

Questions to go with the information above:

  • Suggest ways that the law enforces age-related identities.
  • Explain what is meant by ‘ageism’, and suggest three ways that both older people and younger people experience ageism.

  • Suggest four reasons why the peer group might be particularly important in establishing the identities of young people.

  • Suggest reasons why both ‘old age’ and ‘teenager’ might be regarded as stigmatized identities.

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