Ageing is a social construct

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In this essay, I contend that the perception of ageing by various societies revolves around both fixed, chronological markers of time which invoke a particular meaning, along with contradictory and often fluid meanings given to the relativity of age. As Hazan contends, “age is conceived of in both absolute and relative terms” (1994). This presents various contradictions within modern societies, whereby the perception of ageing can be seen to comprise a biologically determined basis upon which precariously resides a socially constructed layer. I argue that it is this ever-changing layer which is so predominant in affecting our conceptual lens through which we shape our social reality of ageing. Using the experiences of the European companies of Heineken and Vattenfall AB Nordic as the empirical basis, I will contend that these contradictions are especially apparent in the economic domain whereby an individual’s age (and associated perception thereof), is a vital factor in contributing to older people’s (aged 50+) ability to remain within organisational structures which may or may not be skewed towards a predetermined concept of older worker abilities and retirement plans.

The theory that modernisation is a substantial contributor to the detrimental construction of ageing through the prism of social models and language (Cowgill 1986), I argue, is strongly compelling. Although clarification has been sought in the study of societies as to an accurate meaning of ‘modernisation,’ in the context of ageing, I contend that a synthesising of Parson’s (1964) viewpoint of modernisation in terms of ‘evolutionary universals’ that include, amongst others, bureaucratic organisation, with that of Waisanen’s (1968) changes in attitudes and values within a society (in Cowgill 1986), to be the most apt. In this sense, both these concepts consider the changing nature of a society “characterised by segmented individual roles and a cosmopolitan outlook which emphasises efficiency and progress” (Cowgill 1986) and the resulting decline of status and resources accorded to older people within its domain.

In a world that is becoming ever-more complex, it makes some sense that the state, the main force determining the trajectories of our life courses, use chronological age as an uncomplicated proxy for mobilising us in and out of bureaucratically organised institutions (Keith 1994). The social meaning given to chronological age in both modernised and ‘non-modernised’ societies is integral to how power and control are exerted over members. By this, I mean age is used as practically a non-negotiable determinant of both legal and social frameworks (Hazan 1994) that dictate the timing of certain ‘rites of passage’ and the implications these have on a person’s sense of identity. In the economic domain, the obvious example is that of mandatory retirement, whereby a combination of legal boundaries and social norms, both explicitly and implicitly pressure individuals to remove themselves, based solely on chronological age, from the realms of employment. All this although “chronological age is only a relative concept with respect to the individual’s capacity, flexibility and motivation” (Cremer 1994).

The casting of a cursory eye over relevant literature serves to indicate a subversive lean by Western societies towards an implicit segregation of people who are ageing. For instance, in the economic domain, some organisations offer a diminished level of training to workers over fifty, contributing to a reinforcement of a perceived obsoleteness attached to ageing. This is supported by the relatively modern concept of making an older worker cease his or her economic contribution to society solely based on the premise of age (Cowgill 1986). Indeed, as Cowgill notes, “In premodern non-industrialised countries, older people usually continue their normal work activities as long as they are physically able. Only in modern industrialised areas has retirement become a prevalent practice, and only in these societies do we find a general tendency toward disengagement on the part of the elderly” (1986).

This disengagement of older people from the workforce is an obvious technique by which modern societies create an “economically non-productive role” (Orbach in Cowgill 1986) for a large swathe of the population; the parameter relied upon being purely that of chronological age. This contrasts with many societies who, rather than promote the disengagement of older workers, elevate their social standing so they are relied upon to share their accumulated skills and wisdom with their community. In this way, older males in particular, are seen to be highly represented in such positions as elders, headmen, and chiefs of clans, thus extending their political role and power (Cowgill 1986).

But modern societies’ purposeful disengagement of older workers can be seen to occur much earlier in an individual’s economic life. In many areas of employment, older workers are directly experiencing the effects of a society whereby multinational capitalism has “deindustrialised, downsized, outsourced, deregulated and self-regulated” the employment landscape (Morganroth 2004). To this end, older workers, in particular, face myriad issues ranging from; downward pressure on wages, to the expectation to be available around the clock, through to the general insecurity of work and their roles within it. Older workers face all these issues on a global level, in both modern, industrialised societies, and some developing nations (Cowgill 1986).

Regarding conceptualising ageing within the workplace, I highlight two important areas that can both adversely or, alternatively, seek to support older workers; workplace training, and provisions to retire from the workforce. On the subject of the inclusion of older workers in organisational training programs, Schabracq argues that a combination of individual concerns, coupled with varying degrees of ageism by management, all contribute to older workers being ‘left behind’ in the wake of rapid organisational change. He contends that older worker’s individual perceptions of management imposing skill or development training on them, are influenced by suspicion, wariness, and even fear, including the fear of not being able to keep up, coupled with the perceived undervaluing of their accumulated skill and experience (1994). From an organisational perspective, Dutch research (Boerlijst 1994) conducted across ten organisations spanning a variety of industries, shows that whilst 16 and 20 percent of junior and medium-level management employees respectively, received little training in their own field of work, even fewer received training in other functional fields or personal development. This accumulation of a ‘concentration of experience’ (Schabracq 1994) not only made it difficult for older workers to gain new skills to benefit the organisation, but also put them at risk of redundancy if the organisation ever deemed their limited expertise obsolete. Boerlijst’s study also found that because of this exclusion from training, older workers’ wellbeing was compromised with higher levels of stress derived from perceived job insecurity, or increased anxiety occurring because of decreased job autonomy and job satisfaction (1994).

Nilsson’s later study (2011) of Swedish managerial attitudes towards older workers, found managers’ perceptions of older workers was still based on “stereotypical thinking about the low capacity, inadequate knowledge and negative disposition to change” despite an earlier study by the same author (2004 in Nilsson 2011)) finding older workers were generally described by their managers as being more “loyal, trustworthy, accurate, careful and reliable than their younger colleagues” (2011). Furthermore, this research found whilst these older workers believed they were still willing and capable of learning new skills to continue worthwhile contributions to the organisation, “many reported that, because of their age, they received less education, supervision or opportunities to work on new projects” (2011).

It must be noted, however, that not all organisations perceive the ageing process in the same way. For instance, a report commissioned by the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions in 1994 provides many examples of organisations that sustain ‘good practice’; the definition being “the employment of older workers consists of combating age barriers, either directly or indirectly, and providing an environment in which each individual is able to achieve his or her potential without being disadvantaged by their age” (1994). From a European perspective, the changing demographics of its population towards increasing numbers of people aged between forty-five and sixty-five (Paoli 1994), has seen many companies forced to reconsider their perspectives and approaches towards an ageing workforce. Ironically, in an age where modernisation has inadvertently marginalised many older people from the social and economic resources available to the rest of society, as in so many other areas of life, necessity is forcing society to reassess its perceptions. Many European companies are now re-evaluating everything; from their human resource polices to the design of workplaces (Paoli 1994), to assure the continuity of their ageing workforce.

With regards to providing training to older workers, one example is the Dutch beer-brewing company Heineken Nederland Beheer. With 49 percent of its workforce aged over forty years, this organisation invested in training programs for senior managers aimed to increase their “flexibility, mobility, employability and willingness to change” (Walker 1994). The two programs implemented were the Senior Management Workshop and the Advanced Management Course, both of which encourage participants to develop skills to deal with generational differences amongst their staff coupled with skills enabling participants to support staff in handling change. On a personal level, the courses emphasise the physical health of participants. In this way, the organisation not only considers it worthwhile to develop and utilise the skill set of their older workers in dealing with staff-related issues, but also considers it vital to provide guidance and support for their older workers’ health and wellbeing concerns.

To contravene societal preconceptions of mandatory retirement and keep its ageing workforce, of note is the longitudinal study of an ‘ageing worker management program’ undertaken by Swedish company Vattenfall Nordic AB (Mykletun 2011). Through this program, the company has sought to improve its retention rates of older employees, along with implementing an effective program promoting the intergenerational exchange of information and resources. The research determined that, contrary to society’s general inclination to undervalue and eventually segregate older workers, this organisation deemed it prudent to “replace myths about older workers with facts in areas like declining physical strength being met with compensating skills, lack of relationship between age and work performance, and flexibility and receptivity to change as a lifelong personal capability” (Mykletun 2011). 

In conclusion, therefore, I contend that even working within the broad confines of the conceptual framework of modernisation theory, it is apparent the social constructs of ageing within Western societies are neither consistent nor predictable. In fact, whilst chronological age is fixed, the meanings assigned to them are relative to the context in which we view them. Using the empirical bases of older workers’ abilities to access appropriate training along with facing the pressures of mandatory retirement, we can see various contradictory interpretations of the validity, inclusion, and abilities of ageing competing within the employment domain. This unpredictability complicates the ability for any universal conceptual paradigm to develop and be applied to the social construction of ageing in a global context, as chronological ageing oscillates between fixed and fluid meanings – depending on context. To this end, ageing in western societies is a social construct of which there is no assurance either of its direction or outcome. Nevertheless, precisely because of this fluctuation in meaning, it can be considered that the social construction of ageing is something at our disposal – ready to be moulded by both necessity and valued meaning.


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