The Effect of Modernization on the Roles of Elders in Traditional Societies

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  • 0:02 Old Age
  • 1:14 Historical Views
  • 2:57 Modernization Theory
  • 5:03 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.

What do technology and discrimination against older adults have in common? In this lesson, we'll explore the modernization theory, and how it tries to explain the differences in how the elderly are treated in modern societies versus traditional ones.

Old Age

Esperanza is excited. She just turned 80, and she's really happy that she's lived this long and looks forward to many more years to spend with her family. But there's a problem. Lately, Esperanza has noticed how she doesn't seem to be treated the same way that she was in the past. In fact, she's not even treated the way her grandparents were.

Instead of the reverence and respect that Esperanza's grandparents experienced, she doesn't feel like society values her at all. In the media, older adults are shown as being out-of-touch with reality, silly, or just plain mean. Younger people that she knows, including her own grandchildren, aren't interested in listening to what she has to say.

Esperanza is in late adulthood, or the time of life after age 65. Many people in late adulthood experience something similar to what Esperanza is experiencing; that is, they feel that they are not valued in society. But, is that the way it's always been? Let's look closer at the historical views of older adults and how the modernization theory explains how treatment of them changes according to society.

Historical Views

Esperanza is getting on in years, and she yearns for the good old days when elders were respected and revered. But, did those good old days actually exist, or is Esperanza just imagining that things were better years ago? In pre-industrial societies, which were mostly before the 19th century, there were issues with the way older adults were treated. Sometimes they were portrayed as being silly or stupid, and sometimes they were abused.

But in pre-industrial societies, older adults also generally had more power than they do today. They were valued for what they had to give society, including traditional skills and knowledge, property, and civil and political power. These contributions were earned when they were younger, and in many ways they were an older adult's insurance that they would be taken care of later in life.

That might not sound very different from today. After all, even today, people try to acquire property and power when they are younger so that when they are older they are taken care of. Esperanza herself bought a house when she was younger and saved a lot of money in her retirement accounts.

What is different between today and pre-industrial days is the fact that in pre-industrial societies, older adults were often in charge of important tasks. Many older women were in charge of child care, for example, and many older men were in charge of distributing the resources of the village. If there was a shortage of grain, everyone in the village would have to go to the village elder to receive their fair share. As a result of these important roles in society, pre-industrial cultures tended to view older adults more favorably than industrialized ones.

Modernization Theory

So, what happened to change the way we view people in late adulthood, like Esperanza? Some sociologists believe that the change in views of aging can be explained by the modernization theory, which says that as society moves from pre-industrial to industrialized, traditions are valued less. As a result, older adults lose political and social power.

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