Most observers agree that the elderly suffered a loss in status during the periods of modernization and industrialization in the 18th and 19th centuries. According to modernization theory, older members of society failed to maintain their economic standing in the nations that were developing economically during this time, as new skills and technology replaced more primitive forms of production. These nations mainly include those on the European continent and the United States, which were transforming their economies during that time from agriculture to industrial manufacturing. These changes led to an emphasis on factory labor, which required long hours, fixed working schedules, manual dexterity, and often great physical endurance. Elders were not well equipped to compete for these jobs or to remain in good health under that stress. Modernization theorists believe that these trends led to widespread poverty among the elderly during this time, thereby giving rise to age-based prejudice as younger people sought to replace older people in the labor market.
Another suggestion is that in the United States, elders lost their traditionally venerated status prior to industrialization, when the young sought to reverse social standing based on age in the interests of equality and free enterprise. Historians have identified several trends indicating that old age was becoming a less-desirable condition (such as the enactment of mandatory retirement ages for judges and the rising popularity of clothing styles that accentuated youth); many of these trends predate the U.S. industrial era. Critics of this perspective charge, however, that because it is not known exactly when these trends began, modernization as the cause cannot be dismissed.
The financial situation only worsened for elders in the decades following industrialization. In the absence of centralized public pension systems, most of the older people worked as long as their health allowed. When they became out of work and poor, they relied on family and local welfare services. In the midst of the Great Depression, Congress passed the Social Security Act of 1934, which offered some hope for the future well-being of the aged in the form of public pensions granted to workers who retired at the age of 65. Although some European nations had already initiated such programs, U.S. leaders had been reluctant to enact social welfare programs because of their perceived potential to undermine the capitalist incentive to work for a living. In a political compromise, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt supported a plan that rewarded only those elderly retirees who had contributed to the system through compulsory salary deductions for a period of at least 10 years.
Eligibility for U.S. public pension benefits expanded in the 1940s and 1950s to cover not only the old but also the disabled and the children and living spouses of deceased workers. Private pensions also grew immensely during this time. Public health insurance became available to the elderly and the disabled in the 1960s with the passing of Medicare and Medicaid; Supplemental Security Income offered welfare checks to elders and people with disabilities who did not have an adequate work history for regular Social Security benefits but were poor. Cost of living increases to Social Security pensions improved in the 1970s, and the regulations concerning mandatory retirement for the collection of benefits were relaxed by the end of the 20th century. By this time, the Medicaid program had also begun paying for about half of the costs incurred by the rising nursing home population.
These increases in government spending on senior benefits and services drastically reduced the proportion of elders living in poverty. Historical data from the U.S. Census Bureau indicate that the percentage of people over 65 below the poverty line was approximately 35 percent in the 1960s. By 2000, that proportion dropped to about 10 percent. Still, many elders continue to suffer from financial constraints that persist because of the rising costs of housing, health services, and pharmaceuticals. Women tend to experience these problems more than men do, because their higher life expectancy makes them more likely to become widowed and to live on their own in old age.
During the 20th century, it became clear that lower death rates and lower birth rates would soon mean that most nations of the world would experience exponential growth in the age of their populations. Many demographers and economists believe that aging populations will be prone to economic crises as they experience a shortage in the availability of working-age people and an abundance of older people who are dependent upon their labor. In response, many nations have begun to formulate plans to restructure their old age pension, insurance, and health benefit plans or to seek greater efficiency in these programs through privatization.
Critical aging theorists believe that the recent interest in privatizing or restructuring these senior health benefits actually represents a political movement to curb further increases in spending on programs that benefit the elderly. By implying that economic crisis is an inevitable result of population aging, the proponents of these spending cuts are believed to be seeking a political foothold to foster more conservative spending reforms. Although they face fierce opposition from their politically active elder constituents and advocacy groups for the aged, their efforts have so far led to the introduction of incremental reforms, such as the increase in the retirement age for full Social Security benefits. The prospect for more severe cuts in social welfare programs for the aged may depend upon both the nature of the public’s image of the elderly and the ongoing extent of age-based prejudice.
- Cowgill, Donald O. 1974. “The Aging of Populations and Societies.” Political Consequences of Aging. Annals of the American Academy of Political Social Science 415(1):1-18.
- Estes, Carol L. and Associates. 2001. Social Policy and Aging: A Critical Perspective. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Federal Interagency Forum on Aging-Related Statistics. 2004. “Older Americans 2004: Key Indicators of Well-Being.” Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
- Fischer, David H. 1978. Growing Old in America. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.
- Hummert, Mary Lee, Teri A. Garstka, Ellen Bouchard Ryan, and Jaye L. Bonnesan. 2004. “The Role of Age Stereotypes in Interpersonal Communication.” Pp. 91-114 in Handbook of Communication and Aging Research, edited by J. F. Nussbaum and J. Coupland. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
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