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Social Problems
Darryl Hall
Department of Sociology
University of Nevada, Reno

Aging and Inequality

• The life course refers to the socially constructed stages that people pass through as they live out their lives.

• Although people think of “growing old” and “growing up” in biological terms, sociologists argue that stages of life are socially constructed for two reasons:

1) The way people experience childhood or any other stage of life depends on factors such as their class, race, ethnicity, and gender.
2) The stages of life differ considerably from one society to another.

- The point in history when people are born also influences what people experience as they go through life. The term cohort refers to a category of people who share some trait, usually their age. Age-cohorts share similar experiences because they are influenced by the same economic and cultural trends over time.

Growing Old

Gerontology is a branch of the social sciences that deals with aging and the elderly.

• Although growing old involves biological changes, how this stage of life is culturally defined makes a great deal of difference in the reality of old age. In the U.S., the definition of “older” is age 65 and beyond; the origin of this arbitrary age is the Social Security Act of 1935, which established 65 as the age of retirement.

• In preindustrial societies, elders were seen as a social elite that should be viewed as wise and deserving of respect. Additionally, the oldest people own most of the land, giving them real power. Thus, preindustrial societies take the form of a gerontocracy, a social system that gives a society’s oldest members the most power, wealth, and prestige. In contrast, the great pace of cultural change associated with industrial societies led people to dismiss the knowledge and skills of old people as irrelevant to the lives of the young.


Population pyramids are a way of showing in graph form the percentage of a population in various age groups.

• In 1900, the U.S. population pyramid looked very much like a true pyramid: the base of the pyramid was large, indicating that most people were in their younger years, and the top of the pyramid was much smaller, showing that only a small percentage of the population was elderly. By the year 2030, the “pyramid” will look more like a pillar with the exception of the very top, which will reflect the large proportion of elderly people in the population.

Life Expectancy

Life expectancy refers to the number of years the average person can expect to live. Life expectancy has increased dramatically in the U.S. over the course of the last two centuries. In the earliest hunting and gathering societies, living to twenty meant reaching a “ripe old age”; today, however, twenty-year-olds are considered just reaching adulthood.

• The government reports that males born today can expect to live seventy-four years while females can expect to live eighty years. The 1996 sex ratio for ages 65 and over was 145 women for every 100 men; at age 85 and over, there were 257 females for every 100 males. Men die at an earlier age than women for both biological and sociological reasons—heart disease, stress, and occupational risk.

• Racial minority populations are projected to represent 25 percent of the U.S. elderly population by 2030, up from 13 percent in 1990. While the elderly white population is projected to increase 79 percent between 1997 and 2030, the elderly minority population is expected to increase 238 percent in the same time period. Although racial and ethnic minorities have a shorter life expectancy than whites, their increased numbers in the general population are responsible for their higher growth rates of the elderly.

• How long a person lives is influenced by his or her social class. In general, the higher the social class, the longer the person lives, the fewer the debilitating illnesses, the greater the number of social contacts and friends, the less likely to define oneself as “old,” and the greater the likelihood of success in adapting to retirement. Higher social class is also related to fewer residential moves, higher life satisfaction, more leisure time, and more positive self-rated health. In short, the higher one’s socioeconomic status, the longer, happier, and healthier one’s life.

The Graying of America

• By 1900, the 3 million seniors past the age of sixty-five made up just 4 percent of the population. However, that share doubled by 1950 and will double again by 2020, to about 55 million elders. This trend, by which the elderly population is increasing at a faster rate than the population as a whole, is called “the graying of America.”

The number of elderly is increasing for three reasons:
1) 76 million baby boomers born between 1946 and 1964 are getting older
2) Life expectancy has increased as a result of better medical care, sanitation, nutrition, and housing improvements
3) Lowered birthrates contribute to a higher percentage of the elderly

• By the year 2030, there will be 70 million elderly in the United States, making up 20 percent of the total population and more than two times the number of elderly in 1997.

Problems Associated with Aging

Ageism— prejudice and discrimination against people on the basis of age—is a social problem that particularly stigmatizes and marginalizes older people.

Age stratification refers to the inequalities, differences, and segregation between age groups that occurs throughout the life course. It is a determinant of how education, jobs, and other scarce resources and opportunities are allocated in society.

• Age stratification also limits roles and opportunities. People automatically assume that at age fourteen, a person should be in school; that at age thirty, a person should be married; and that at age sixty-five, a person should retire from full-time employment. Such perceptions about age may create problems for people in all age categories, but the problems typically are most pronounced among older people.

Social Security Crisis

• Social Security is the only source of income for about half of retired people and a major source of income for 80 percent of the people in the U.S. Since the introduction of Social Security in the 1930s, this program has been a significant aid to the elderly. Social Security has significantly reduced poverty among the elderly—from 35.2 percent in 1959 to 9.7 percent in 1999.

• Social Security also provides life insurance benefits to the survivors in cases of the death of a breadwinner and disability payments when a wage earner is unable to work. Social Security expresses the belief in society taking responsibility for the welfare of all its citizens.

• Despite its considerable strengths, the Social Security program has several serious problems that place a disproportionate burden on certain categories of elderly and on some portions of the workers paying into the program:

1) Not all workers are covered by Social Security. Some groups of workers are unable to participate because they work for states with alternative retirement programs. Other workers, however, are covered by neither Social Security nor other pension programs. Legislation has specifically exempted certain occupations (e.g., agricultural workers) from the Social Security program.

2) For those who are eligible for Social Security, there are wide disparities in the benefits received. The amount of benefits depends on the length of time workers have paid into the Social Security program and the amount of wages on which they paid a Social Security tax. In short, low-paid workers receive low benefits at retirement. Thirty percent of the elderly who depend almost exclusively on Social Security benefits are still below the poverty line despite these benefits.

3) The method of financing Social Security is not equitable because it disproportionately disadvantages lower-income wage earners. In other words, the tax is regressive: it takes a larger percentage from people with the lowest incomes. The Social Security tax has the following negative features:

a) It is levied at a constant rate (i.e., everyone, rich and poor, pays the same rate).
b) It applies only to wages and salaries, thus exempting income typical for the wealthy, such as interest, dividends, rents, and capital gains from the sale of property.
c) It starts with the first dollar of earned income, offering no allowances or exemptions for the very poor.
d) It is imposed up to a ceiling ($68,400 in 2000). Thus, in effect, in 2000 a worker making $68,400 and an executive or a ballplayer making a $5,000,000 salary paid exactly the same Social Security tax.

4) The overarching problem facing Social Security is how to finance it in the future. More people are living to age 65, and people live much longer after reaching 65 than in earlier generations. Average life spans are 14 years longer than they were when Social Security was created in 1935. Thus, the Social Security system pays out more and more to an ever-expanding pool of elderly who live longer and longer.

- Social Security is financed by a tax on workers and their employers. In 1950 there were 16 workers for each person on Social Security; in 1970 there were 3.7 workers; in 2000 there will be 3.2; and in 2030 there will be 2.1 workers for each person receiving benefits.

- Possible actions to deal with the pending Social Security crisis may include raising Social Security taxes, cutting benefits, raising the age of eligibility, or using other revenues.

Workplace Discrimination

• Despite the Age Discrimination in Employment Act that was passed in 1967 to protect workers age forty-five and above from unfair employment practices based on age, many subtle forms of age discrimination in the workplace remain. Employers may perceive younger workers to have fewer health problems, better motivation, and higher ability than their older counterparts.

• Despite the negative stereotypes of the elderly, some employers have found it profitable to hire older employees. Days Inns of America, a major hotel chain, began a program of hiring older people to work in its national reservation centers; the company found that older people quickly learned to use computers, stayed on the job three times as long, and booked more reservations than their younger counterparts did.

Elder Abuse and Victimization

• Although abuse may take place in private homes by family members, the elderly are particularly vulnerable to abuse when they are institutionalized in nursing homes.

• A 1989 federal report entitled “Board and Care Homes in America: A National Tragedy” details the investigation of facilities for the elderly. Researchers interviewed residents, visited facilities, and collected data on homes in nine states. The result was a list of 18 categories of victimization, including preventable deaths, negligence, overmedication and sedation, poor sanitary conditions, lack of medical care, mail censorship, restriction of movement, inadequate staff, safety violations, inadequate diets, theft of personal funds, and life insurance fraud. The study also cited evidence of sexual and physical abuse.

• Media exposure and heightened social awareness of such conditions and practices led to the definition of abused institutionalized elderly as a social problem and the passage of the 1990 Nursing Home Reform Act.

Dealing with Death

Euthanasia – the deliberate taking of an individual’s life at his or her request. This issue has received nationwide attention in reference to Dr. Jack Kevorkian, who has been involved in over 30 physician-assisted suicides at the patient’s request.

- 10,000 people in the U.S. are in a permanent “vegetative state.” Thousands face terminal illnesses that will cause horrible suffering.

- The Supreme Court has ruled that state law will apply in regard to euthanasia. As of 1998, only Oregon recognizes the right of physician-assisted suicide with its Death with Dignity Act.