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Status of Older People: Modernization

Modernization Theory And The Study Of Aging

Modernization theory was formalized in social gerontology mainly through the work of sociologists. In 1972, Donald Cowgill and Lowell Holmes developed a theory of modernization as it related to aging and old age. Their position was that as societies modernized—undertaking the shift from farm and craft production within families to a dominantly industrial mode of production—repercussions of modernization would diminish the status of older people. Cowgill’s later theoretical refinements (1974) identified four key aspects of modernization that undermined the status of older people: health technology, economic and industrial technology, urbanization, and education.

According to Cowgill’s theory, improved health technology, including advances in both medical practice and public health, has positive effects of improving health and increasing longevity, but it also has negative effects for older people. When people live longer, there is more competition in the labor market. Employers in industrializing societies prefer younger workers with new occupational skills to older workers, forcing older workers out of the labor market into retirement. Once retired, according to modernization theory, loss of income, prestige, and honor arising from labor market participation lead to a decline in the status of older people.

Modernizing advances in economic and industrial technology create new occupations in factories located near transportation and services. Younger people acquire the skills for new occupational slots and join the industrial work force, relegating older people to less prestigious and increasingly obsolete jobs. This often leads to retirement, reversing the roles of old and young. In traditional societies, older family members control family production, and younger ones are dependent on the old. When older people are excluded from the industrial labor market, they become dependent on the young, losing social status.

Factory locations in urban areas are a magnet to young workers. The process of urbanization leaves older family members behind in rural areas, undermining the traditional extended family and the prominent position of older members within them. The new family form in modernizing societies is the nuclear family, and both social and spatial distance are increased between the young and the old, changing intergenerational relations. Modernization theorists viewed upward mobility of the young as being accompanied by downward mobility among the elders in their families.

Increased literacy, emphasis on the superiority of scientific over traditional forms of knowledge, and education targeted toward children can all create inequalities in the knowledge base among family members of different generations, making the generation gaps between young and old even wider. Developments in science and technology render much of the traditional knowledge and many of the skills of older people that previously contributed to their high social status obsolete, since direct contribution to an industrialized economy becomes impossible.

This general model of the relationship between modernization and aging predicts a linear relationship between the status of older people and the degree of modernization experienced in a given society. According to this theory, the more modernized a society becomes, the more the status of older people declines. Modernization thus inevitably affects the entire social structure of newly modernized societies, including the position customarily held by its elderly community, regardless of when or where it occurred.

The institutionalization of modernization theory as one of the foundational theoretical approaches to the study of aging gave impetus to further study. Not long after Cowgill and Holmes’s original work, Erdman Palmore and Kenneth Manton used data from thirty-one countries to test modernization theory. Their findings suggested a refinement to modernization theory that involved taking the phase of modernization into account when exploring status changes among older people. Palmore and Manton’s results showed that in the early stages of modernization, older people’s social status was relatively lower, but that the decline in status leveled off and even rose somewhat after a period of modernization.

In both its original and more elaborate variants, modernization theory provided a springboard to theorizing and research into the relationship between aging and social change. Some researchers sought to improve modernization theory by refining it. Others contended that modernization theory was too flawed to be a useful general theory explaining the relationship between social change and aging.

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