Social aspects of aging

With life expectancy generally increasing, the elderly will continue to make up an ever-larger proportion of the world’s population. The way society regards them is suggested by the terminology used to describe them. In the West, where old people do not necessarily look or behave as if they are old, the terms ‘senior citizen’ and ‘citizen of pensionable age’ are used. Some of our leading political, scientific, artistic and business figures are over 70 years old. In some respects, however, Western society reveres youth more than it does old age: the media focus on youth as a symbol of health and beauty.

Retirement from the working world

In the times when our society was mainly agrarian in character people normally participated in the running of the farm, usually jointly owned and worked by one family, until they were physically incapable of doing so. But even after that time their expertise and experience remained of great value to the business. However, various developments have contributed to the fact that today people withdraw increasingly early from the working world. For instance, the type of work has changed considerably over the past century The agrarian business, characterized in particular by its physical nature, nowadays still offers work to only a small minority of the population. It has been replaced by the industrial, administrative and service industries. The ever-increasing training required to do this kind of work has lead to the fact that in this regard elderly people are more rapidly ‘aged’ than in former days. Apart from that, the measure in which this occurs is of course very different in the various branches of industry. There are retired persons who still perform part-time work, either so as not to loose their social contacts com- pletely or to provide additional income.

Contact inside and outside the family

Family life used to be organized in a household that accommodated three generations. Within this community aging relatives took up a full or even dominating place. Such a family, characterized by a great deal of respect for the elderly, is found nowadays only in the non-Western world. In Western countries this large family has more and more given way to the family as we know it at the present moment, consisting of parents and children.

As a result the social position of the elderly has been drastically changed. Frequently the parents are left behind by the time they have reached middle age. The nature of the relationship between parents and children has changed, and it has become necessary to find a new attitude towards the children. In this context it is important to what extent the aging parents are granted a grand-parental role with their children’s children. Apart from a greater remoteness from the children because of the age gap, it is simultaneously significant that the older one grows the more old friends and acquaintances one will loose. Moreover, a possible worsening physical handicap will reduce the opportunities to keep up old contacts and may make it even more difficult to make new friends. One becomes dependent on transport and the readiness of others to enter into a friendship.