The Use of Cohorts in Gerontology

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  • 0:01 Gerontology
  • 0:54 What Is a Cohort?
  • 2:31 Why Use Cohorts?
  • 5:00 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.

How do people change and grow as they age, and how can sociologists study this growth? In this lesson, we'll examine cohorts, including why gerontologists use them, and the difference in age-related change and cohort differences.


Liza loves her grandparents and is very interested in how their lives are different from hers. For example, they remember life before cell phones and answering machines, when a person had to actually be home to answer the phone. As a result, they don't understand why Liza sometimes lets her phone go to voicemail when she's busy; to them, if a phone rings, you'd better answer it!

Liza has decided that she's going to enter the field of gerontology, or the study of aging and older adults. Social differences between generations, like the phone call thing, and biological changes as people age, like the effects of deteriorating health, are both part of gerontology. Let's look closely at one way that gerontologists study aging: cohorts.

What Is a Cohort?

The way Liza has grown up is very different from the way her grandparents grew up. For example, when her grandparents were kids, it was very uncommon for a mother to work. The dad went off to work, and the mother stayed home with the kids and took care of the house. Going out to eat was rare; after all, mom was at home to cook every day.

Liza, though, grew up when both parents commonly worked. Grabbing food from a fast food joint or going to a restaurant was something that often happened several times a week. And children learned really quickly how to take care of themselves when they were home alone. Liza and her grandparents are in different cohorts, or a group of people born in the same year. For example, Liza is in the cohort of people born in 1994, while her grandparents are in the cohort born in 1934 - their experiences are very different!

Gerontologists often study older adults by looking at cohorts. This helps them get a good view of what the average person of that age is like. After all, some people in the 1934 cohort had two working parents, but the majority did not. If a gerontologist only looked at an individual person, and that person grew up with two working parents, the gerontologist might assume that all people born in 1934 had two working parents. To get a more accurate picture of what people in a cohort are like, gerontologists look at many people from that cohort, not just one or two.

Why Use Cohorts?

So, sociologists look at cohorts to figure out the differences in older adults and younger adults. But, why bother with cohorts? Why not just look at older adults and younger adults and say, 'Oh, here's the difference?' To understand why cohorts are so useful, let's go back to Liza and her grandparents for a moment. For Liza, it's perfectly normal to let a phone call go to voicemail. After all, she grew up with answering machines and voicemails, and it was common to leave a message and return a call later.

But her grandparents grew up when a missed phone call was a missed phone call. There weren't any answering machines or any way to know if someone had called, so they always answer their phones, no matter what. Liza is interested in studying older adults, and she's noticed this difference. She's young and screens calls; her grandparents are older and always answer. So, does that mean that she will always answer her phone when she is her grandparents' age?

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