Age & Aging: Crash Course Sociology #36

We’re getting old. That’s true on a personal level, of course
– every second you’re sitting there surfing the
internet, you’re getting one second older. But it’s also true in a global sense. The average age of humanity is going up, and
going up pretty rapidly, especially in North America,
Europe, and many parts of Asia. A report from the United Nations shows that
the median age of the world population has risen
from 23 in 1950, to 30 as of 2015. And by 2050, the median age for the entire
world will be 36. In more developed countries like the United
States, these trends are even steeper. The median age has increased from 23 in
1900 to 30 in 1950 and finally up to 37 by
the time of the 2010 Census. The population of elderly Americans, those 64 or older,
is expected to more than double by 2060, going from
about 46,000 as of 2014 to 98,000 in 2060. That’s a huge change. So, we owe it to ourselves to ask: Why are
people getting older, and what will that mean
for how our society works? [Theme Music] The aging of the world population comes from
two facts: people are living longer, and they’re
having fewer babies. Social scientists use a model of
demographic transition to explain that the process
of moving from a young, growing population to an older, stable population is tied to the economic
and technological development ofa society. In this model, a country starts with really
high birth rates and really high death rates, resulting in a population with a lot of very young
people, but not much overall population growth. Then, agricultural and technological advances
improve the standards of living. Access to food, water, housing, and medical
treatment all improve, which reduces the number
of people who are dying at a young age. People are still having a lot of children,
but they’re living longer, so this leads to a
larger and older population. But then, in the next phase of the model, as the
probability improves that a child will live into
adulthood, families begin having fewer children. So their country reaches the final stage of
demographic transition: low birth rates and
stable death rates. And if there are fewer babies, that means
there are fewer young people to pull down
the average age. The total fertility rate, which is a projected estimate of the number of children an average woman of childbearing age will have over her lifetime, has been declining for most countries for a while now. For the United States, total fertility rates were at
a peak of 3.7 births per woman in the late 1950s,
but are now at only 1.8 births per woman. All of this means that we’re looking at
a future with a few more gray heads in society
than past generations have had. So what does that mean for society? Before we can answer that question, let’s
look at some of the ways that sociologists
understand “aging”. Aging is a biological, psychological, and
cultural experience. The biological part you probably already know
about. Aging increases risk factors for many diseases,
particularly chronic diseases such as arthritis,
heart disease, and diabetes. 78% of Americans age 55 and older have at
least one chronic condition. As infectious diseases like smallpox or tuberculosis
become a thing of the past in high-income countries, chronic diseases have become the
leading cause of death in those countries. That said, it’s not like everyone over the
age of 55 is teetering on the brink of the grave. As life expectancy increases, the age at which
people first experience chronic illnesses is often
also postponed. This compression of morbidity, a term coined
by doctor and professor of medicine James Fries, means that most people in high-income countries
live healthy lives for the majority of their lives, and then experience rapid health declines
compressed into the end of life. Which, I guess, is good? But there’s a lot of variation in illness
and mortality rates across demographic groups. Wealthier elderly people are less likely to
face health challenges than the poorer elderly. Women tend to live longer than men, but that
also means they’re more likely to suffer from
chronic disabilities like arthritis. Why we age and how we age are still major
questions within biology, genetics, and medicine. Senescence is the process of becoming old
– which includes all the physical or mental
deterioration that comes along with age. There are two main schools of thought in modern
biological theories as to why senescence happens:
Error versus Programming. Error theories, also known as wear-and-tear
theories, focus on ways in which damage to
cells and tissue accumulate over time, and explore how aging is a result of damage
to or deterioration of key cells in the body. Programming theories, also known as aging-clock
theories, focus on how the body switches on or off
certain biological processes as you reach a certain age. For example, the immune system is at its peak
during puberty and slowly declines as you age, meaning that it’s harder for your body
to fight off new diseases when you’re older. Along with the biological changes that
people experience as they age, there are also
psychological changes. Older adults are at a higher risk for dementia,
including Alzheimer’s disease, and other types
of cognitive impairment than younger adults. Thankfully, old age doesn’t mean drastic
psychological decline for most people. Only about 7% of adults over the age of 70 suffer
from memory loss or more serious mental deterioration. While the biological and psychological parts
of aging are pretty well known, it’s the cultural
part of aging that I want to highlight today. How is aging perceived by society? Does being older mean that others see you
as a wise elder or a washed up dinosaur? Like race or gender, age is a trait that influences
a person’s social position in the world. Age stratification is the unequal distribution
of wealth, power, and privilege among people
at different stages of life. And of course, different cultures value their
older citizens differently. Historically, if we were to compare hunter-gatherer
societies – where survival relied on physical strength – with agrarian societies – where food could be
stored up – the elderly may be more likely to be
seen as a burden in the former than the latter. But once it’s possible to build up wealth, some
people may be able to accumulate money and
power over time, leading to greater privilege for
an older person than a younger one. A gerontocracy is a form of social organization
in which the oldest members of society have
the most wealth, power, and prestige. As nations industrialize, however, the main
source of income shifts from land ownership
to income from work. And many older people move out of paid labor
– whether it’s by choice or because it becomes
more difficult to find a job as you age. Only about 18% of Americans over the age of
65 report being employed either full or part time. Nowadays, rapidly changing technology means
that many older workers are finding it harder to
compete with younger workers. Some of this is simply due to changes in what types of
jobs are available, which may make the job experience
of older workers less relevant in today’s economy. But companies may also be less willing to hire
older workers because of ageism, or prejudice
and discrimination based on age. Employers may unfairly generalize about the
abilities of older workers, thinking that all older
workers will be less productive or less up to date
on the skills needed for the job. This is partially why we see so much stratification
among older Americans. They’re much more vulnerable to poverty, with 8.8%
of Americans over the age of 65 living in poverty. Retirement from the labor force is, of course,
voluntary for many people in high-income countries,
and for some it’s a welcome break from the workforce. But for others, it’s a difficult transition
for both financial and cultural reasons. While many wealthier countries provide
some kind of income support for the elderly,
like Social Security in the US, retirement is generally only feasible for those
who save enough during their working years to
live comfortably after they’ve stopped working. In economic downturns like the Great Recession,
the value of people’s retirement savings will often
plummet, forcing people to work further into
old age than they intended to. But even for those who are able to retire,
retirement can still be a difficult life transition. Especially in the US, many feel that their identity
and self-worth is tied up with their profession. After all, what’s the first question that
you ask someone when you meet them at a party? “So what do you do?” When work plays such a central role in society,
retiring can result in less social prestige as well
as a loss of purpose. For some retired people, work in the labor market
ends up being replaced with caregiving work. Caregiving here refers to informal, unpaid
care provided to a dependent by family members,
other relatives, or friends. About 42% of caregivers to the elderly are a spouse – more likely a wife taking care of a husband than the other way around, partially due to women’s longer lifespans. Caregiving is a demanding job and can contribute
to the social isolation that many older members
of society feel. Limited time due to caregiving, lower mobility
due to the aging process or chronic health problems, and the loss of aging friends and family
members, are all reasons that older Americans
cite for feeling lonely or isolated as they age. Death is a bit of a grim note to end our
discussion of aging on, but just as aging plays
a specific cultural role, so does death. And as the saying goes, nothing is certain
in life except death and taxes. Observing how death plays out in a society helps
us understand the values and beliefs of a society. What is considered a “good” death? Death in modern society tends to be culturally
removed from our day-to-day life, partially due
to our longer life spans. Nowadays, rather than dying at home
surrounded by families and friends, many people
die in healthcare settings like hospitals. The ethics of how doctors and patients navigate
medical choices as someone nears the end of their
life is a topic that’s fraught with difficulty. Some patients leave living wills that explicitly
state their preferences for treatment. But oftentimes these decisions end up in the
hands of family members and doctors who may
disagree on the best decision to make. How do people react to nearing the end of their
lives – or to the death of the people that they love? You might have heard of the fives stages of grief:
denial, anger, negotiation, resignation, and acceptance. Though psychologist Elizabeth Kubler Ross
originally developed this as a model for how
people confront their own death, it has come to be seen as a model for how people
deal with the death of those they love as well. Understanding how we as people process death and aging will only take on more importance in coming years, as the number of older people in society increases. Today we learned about the changing age patterns
of the world. We discussed the biological, psychological,
and cultural aspects of aging. And finally, we ended with a discussion of
some of the difficulties faced by older individuals, including economic instability, retirement,
caregiving, social isolation, and navigating
medical decisions as they near the end of life. Crash Course Sociology is filmed in the Dr. Cheryl
C. Kinney Studio in Missoula, MT, and it’s made
with the help of all of these nice people. Our animation team is Thought Cafe and Crash
Course is made with Adobe Creative Cloud. If you’d like to keep Crash Course free for everyone,
forever, you can support the series at Patreon,
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