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Age Stratification: Variation Between Cultures

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  • 0:01 Age Stratification
  • 1:06 Sources of Power
  • 3:56 Modernization
  • 5:52 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Older adults in one culture can face discrimination, and in another culture, they can be revered. But why is there variation in cultural views of late adulthood? In this lesson, we'll examine age stratification across cultures.

Age Stratification

Laila is 72, and she's concerned about what's happening around her. When she was a girl, in a small village in the old country, her grandparents and their peers were revered. Being older was something to look forward to, and older people were powerful.

But Laila doesn't feel powerful. She feels invisible. People ignore her, she's put at a table in the back of the restaurant, and those who do notice her talk to her like she's a child who doesn't understand. She feels like no one listens to her ideas. She feels powerless.

Age stratification is a system of conferring power and respect onto certain age groups. For example, in some cultures, older adults are given power and respect, like Laila's grandparents in the old country; in others, older adults are looked down upon, like Laila in America. Let's look closer at the social and cultural aspects of age stratification.

Sources of Power

Cultures vary in the way they view older adults. For example, in America and many other Western, industrialized nations, age stratification has older adults lower than adults in middle age. In America, infants and children have the least power and status, followed by older adults and adolescents, followed by other adults.

But in some cultures, older adults are at the top of the age stratification. For example, in many non-Western, non-industrialized countries, older adults are given even more respect and power than middle-aged adults. Laila's grandparents are a good example of that: In their tiny village, they were revered and seen as powerful.

To people who grew up in modern America, seeing older adults as powerful might seem a little odd. After all, they are not physically as strong as younger adults. So, what makes them powerful? The power of older adults tends to rest on a few key resources that they control. These include:

  • Traditional skills and knowledge: When there was an outbreak of a rare disease in Laila's old village, the elders of the village knew what it was and how to treat it, because it had struck the village many years before, when the older adults were still children. Their traditional skills and knowledge helped save lives, which in turn gave them power and status.
  • Security of property rights: In the old country, property was owned by the elders of a family and then passed down when they died. As long as Laila's grandparents were alive, her parents didn't own any land or the family home; they lived in it, but it still belonged to the grandparents, which meant that they had power.
  • Civil and political power: The head of the village was always an older adult, and the elders of the village made decisions about what would be done in times of great need. This was linked to their traditional skills and knowledge: When the illness came to the village, for example, it was the village elders that decided what needed to be done to prevent deaths.
  • Control and distribution of resources: In the old country, the elderly women provided child care and education, while the elderly men decided how to distribute common resources. For example, when there was a drought and the village's well was running low on water, the elders of the village decided how much water each family could take each day.

Essentially, the thing that dictates whether a culture places older adults high on the age stratification hierarchy is whether their knowledge is valued enough to give them civil and political power, and whether they have property rights and control and distribution of resources. The more of those things are true, the higher status older adults will have in a culture.

Modernization

As we've seen, cultures vary in the way that they value (or don't value) older adults. In many ways, this is due to the older adults' sources of power. For example, in the village where Laila's family is from, the elders of the village are very powerful and well-respected. But, why isn't that true everywhere? Why do elders in some places and cultures have access to power that they don't in others?

The modernization theory of age stratification says that as a culture becomes more modern, urban, and industrialized, the less access to power older adults have. Why is this? In industrialized countries, the focus is on the future and technology. In that case, traditional knowledge and skills aren't needed as much.

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