Aging in Society

Learning Outcomes

  • Describe senior age groups and the study of the elderly population

Who Are the Elderly?

A tall man flanked by two elderly women on his right and two elderly men on his left. The elderly people are all wearing blue T-shirts that read, “Keep Social Security Strong: A A R P.” A banner in the background can also be seen, reading “Social Security Benefits America.”

Figure 1. As senior citizens begin to make up a larger percentage of the United States, the organizations supporting them grow stronger. (Photo courtesy of Congressman George Miller/flickr)

What does it mean to be elderly? Some define it as an issue of physical health, while others simply define it by chronological age. The U.S. government, for example, typically classifies people aged sixty-five years old as elderly, at which point citizens are eligible for federal benefits such as Social Security and Medicare. The World Health Organization has no standard, other than noting that sixty-five years old is the commonly accepted definition in most core nations, but it suggests a cut-off somewhere between fifty and fifty-five years old for semi-peripheral nations, such as those in Africa (World Health Organization 2012).

AARP (formerly the American Association of Retired Persons) cites fifty as the eligible age of membership. It is interesting to note AARP’s name change; by taking the word “retired” out of its name, the organization can broaden its base to any older people in the United States, not just retirees. This is especially important now that many people are working to age seventy and beyond. There is an element of social construction, both local and global, in the way individuals and nations define who is elderly; that is, the shared meaning of the concept of elderly is created through interactions among people in society. This is exemplified by the truism that you are only as old as you feel.

Supercentenarians are people living to 110 years or more. In August 2014, there were seventy-five verified supercentenarians worldwide—seventy-three women and two men. These are people whose age has been carefully documented, but there are almost certainly others who have not been identified. The Gerontology Research Group (2014) estimates there are between 300 and 450 people worldwide who are at least 110 years of age.

Madame Jeanne Calment of France was the world’s oldest living person until she died at 122 years old; there are currently six women in the world whose ages are well documented as 115 years or older (Diebel 2014). As of April 2019, the Guinness Book of World Records recognizes supercentenarian Tanaka Kane as the world’s oldest living person. She was born in Japan on January 2, 1903. While living in Japan, Tanaka worked selling rice cakes with her husband and later moved to the United States after her husband’s death. At the age of 103, Tanaka survived colon cancer and even at age 116, was still enjoying calligraphy and the board game Othello in a nursing home in Fukuoka, Japan. Tanaka credits sleep, family and hope for her long life.

Centenarians are people living to be 100 years old, and they are approximately 1,000 times more common than supercentenarians. According to the United States Census, in 2016 there were approximately 53,364 centenarians in the United States down from 80,0000 in 2010.[1] They make up one of the fastest-growing segments of the population (Boston University School of Medicine 2014).

The aging of the U.S. population has significant ramifications for social institutions such as business, education, the healthcare industry, and the family, as well as for the many cultural norms and traditions that focus on interactions with and social roles for older people. “Old” is a socially defined concept, and the way we think about aging is likely to change as the population ages.

We generally classify the elderly as the population above age 65. About 15.2 percent of the U.S. population or 49.2 million Americans are 65 and older.[2] This number is expected to grow to 98.2 million by the year 2060, at which time people in this age group will comprise nearly one in four U.S. residents. Of this number, 19.7 million will be age 85 or older. Developmental changes vary considerably among this population, so it is further divided into categories of 65 plus, 85 plus, and centenarians for comparison by the census.[3]

Studying the Elderly

A photo of an old man sitting on a couch eating an ice cream cone with a walker next to him

Figure 2. Society’s view of the elderly is likely to change as the population ages. (Photo courtesy of sima dimitric/flickr)

Gerontology is a field of science that seeks to understand the process of aging and the challenges encountered as seniors grow older. Gerontologists investigate age, aging, and the aged. Gerontologists study what it is like to be an older adult in a society and the ways that aging affects members of a society. As a multidisciplinary field, gerontology includes the work of medical and biological scientists, social scientists, and even financial and economic scholars.

Social gerontology refers to a specialized field of gerontology that examines the social (and sociological) aspects of aging. Researchers focus on developing a broad understanding of the experiences of people at specific ages, such as mental and physical well being, plus age-specific concerns such as the process of dying. Social gerontologists work as social researchers, counselors, community organizers, and service providers for older adults. Because of their specialization, social gerontologists are in a strong position to advocate for older adults.

Scholars in these disciplines have learned that “aging” reflects not only the physiological process of growing older but also our attitudes and beliefs about the aging process. You’ve likely seen online calculators that promise to determine your “real age” as opposed to your chronological age. These ads target the notion that people may “feel” a different age than their actual years. Some sixty-year-olds feel frail and elderly, while some eighty-year-olds feel sprightly.[4]

Equally revealing is that as people grow older they define “old age” in terms of greater years than their current age (Logan 1992). Many people want to postpone old age and regard it as a phase that will never arrive.For example, many older Americans keep working well past what people consider retirement age, due to financial pressures or in order to remain, in their eyes, useful. Some older adults even succumb to stereotyping their own age group (Rothbaum 1983).

In the United States, the experience of being elderly has changed greatly over the past century. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, many U.S. households were home to multigenerational families, and the experiences and wisdom of elders was respected. They offered wisdom and support to their children and often helped raise their grandchildren (Sweetser 1984).

Multigenerational U.S. families began to decline after World War II, and their numbers reached a low point around 1980, but they are on the rise again. In fact, a 2016 Pew Research Center analysis of census data found that multigenerational families in the United States have now reached a record high.  Up from 49 million in 2008, 64 million people, or 20% of the U.S. population are living in multigenerational homes—defined as two or more adult generations living in the home or a home that includes grandparents and grandchildren under the age of 25.[5]

Attitudes toward the elderly have also been affected by large societal changes that have happened over the past 100 years. Researchers believe industrialization and modernization have contributed greatly to lowering the power, influence, and prestige the elderly once held. On the other hand, the sheer numbers of elderly people in certain societies can have other effects, such as older people’s influence on policies and politics based on their voting influence.

The elderly have both benefited and suffered from these rapid social changes. In modern societies, a strong economy created new levels of prosperity for many people. Healthcare has become more widely accessible, and medicine has advanced, which allows the elderly to live longer. However, older people are not as essential to the economic survival of their families and communities as they were in the past.

Studying Aging Populations

Since its creation in 1790, the U.S. Census Bureau has been tracking age in the population. Age is an important factor to analyze alongside other demographic figures, such as income and health. The population chart below shows projected age distribution patterns for the next several decades.

A graph shows four age groups and their population size from the years 1900 to 2060. (The portion from 2020 through 2060 is projected, not actual.) Between 2020 and 2060, the number of older adults is projected to increase by 69 percent, from 56.0 million to 94.7 million. Although much smaller in total size, the number of people ages 85 and older is projected to nearly triple from 6.7 million in 2020 to 19.0 million by 2060.

Figure 4. This population chart shows the population size of people in different age groups. The youngest age group, at the bottom, remains largely static. The 18-64 age group has been growing and will continue to do so. But most notable is the increasing size of the third tier (orange) representing ages 65-84. As the chapter discusses, this group is growing significantly, shown by the increasing share of the overall graph it takes up. Also of note is the group at the very top, which is also growing in size. (For comparison, can you even detect the line representing 85+ on the left side of the graph, closer to the year 1900?) (Credit: US Census Bureau.)

Statisticians use data to calculate the median age of a population, that is, the number that marks the halfway point in a group’s age range. The median age in the United States has been continually rising. In 2016 the median age was 37.9. up from 35.3 in 2000 (U.S. Census Bureau 2017). That means that about half of the people in the United States are under 37.9 and half are over 37.9. This increased indicates the population as a whole is growing older.[6]

Two maps of the United States titled, "The Nation's Median Age Continues to Rise", The top map is based off of population data of US counties in 2000, with the median age being 35.3. The bottom map is based off of population data of US counties from 2016 with the median age is 37.9. When comparing the two graphs, it is seen that in most counties from 2000 to 2016, the median age increased.

Figure 5. These maps show that the median age is gradually rising.

A cohort is a group of people who share a statistical or demographic trait. People belonging to the same age cohort were born in the same time frame. Understanding a population’s age composition can point to certain social and cultural factors and help governments and societies plan for future social and economic challenges.

For instance, sociological studies on aging might help explain the difference between Native American age cohorts and the general population. While Native American societies have a strong tradition of revering their elders, they also have a lower life expectancy because of lack of access to healthcare and high levels of mercury in fish, which is a traditional part of their diet.

Try It

Phases of Aging: The Young-Old, Middle-Old, and Old-Old

An older woman with white hair and glasses is shown looking out a window, across a body of water.

Figure 6. How old is this woman? In modern U.S. society, appearance is not a reliable indicator of age. In addition to genetic differences, health habits, hair dyes, Botox, and the like make traditional signs of aging increasingly unreliable. (Photo courtesy of the Sean and Lauren Spectacular/flickr)

In the United States, all people over eighteen years old are considered adults, but there is a substantial difference between a person who is twenty-one years old and a person who is forty-five years old. More specific categorical breakdowns, such as “young adult” and “middle-aged adult,” are helpful. In the same way, groupings are helpful in understanding the elderly. The elderly are often lumped together to include everyone over the age of sixty-five. But a sixty-five-year-old’s experience of life is much different from a ninety-year-old’s.

The United States’ older adult population can be divided into three life-stage subgroups: the young-old (approximately sixty-five to seventy-four years old), the middle-old (ages seventy-five to eighty-four years old), and the old-old (over age eighty-five). Today’s young-old age group is generally happier, healthier, and financially better off than the young-old of previous generations. In the United States, people are better able to prepare for aging because resources are more widely available.

Also, many people are making proactive quality-of-life decisions about their old age while they are still young. In the past, family members made care decisions when an elderly person reached a health crisis, often leaving the elderly person with little choice about what would happen. The elderly are now able to choose housing, for example, that allows them some independence while still providing care when it is needed. Living wills, retirement planning, and medical power of attorney are other concerns that are increasingly handled in advance.

Further Research

Gregory Bator founded the television show Graceful Aging and then developed a web site offering short video clips from the show. The purpose of Graceful Aging is to both inform and entertain, with clips on topics such as sleep, driving, health, safety, and legal issues. This website if for seniors, as well as people responsible for caring for an elderly person.  Bator, a lawyer, works on counseling seniors about their legal needs. Look at the Graceful Aging website for a visual understanding of aging.

Think It Over

  • What social issues involve age disaggregation (breakdowns into groups) of a population? What impact does this age stratification have on the social institutions? What kind of sociological studies would consider age an important factor?
  • Conduct a mini-census by counting the members of your extended family and include each person’s age. Try to include three or four generations, if possible. Create a table and include total population plus percentages of each generation. Next, begin to analyze age patterns in your family. What issues are important and specific to each group? What trends can you predict about your own family over the next ten years based on this census? For example, how will family members’ needs and interests and relationships change the family dynamic?


a group of people who share a statistical or demographic trait
a field of science that seeks to understand the process of aging and the challenges encountered as seniors grow older
life expectancy:
the number of years a newborn is expected to live
social gerontology:
a specialized field of gerontology that examines the social (and sociological) aspects of aging

  1. US Census Bureau. (2018, August 03). Older Americans Month: May 2017. Retrieved from
  2. US Census Bureau. (2018, April 10). The Nation's Older Population Is Still Growing, Census Bureau Reports. Retrieved from
  3. US Census Bureau. (2018, August 03). Newsroom. Retrieved from
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  5. Cohn, D., Passel, J. S., Cohn, D., & Passel, J. S. (2018, April 05). Record 64 million Americans live in multigenerational households. Retrieved from
  6. US Census Bureau. (2018, October 01). From Pyramid to Pillar: A Century of Change, Population of the U.S. Retrieved from