Age Stratification and Methods of Social Networking
Old Age and Interpersonal Relationships
As the baby boomer generation ages, America becomes increasingly a senior nation. This has caused an increasing degree of scrutiny to be directed at the process of aging, and the effects which it has upon the social fabric of the nation. Only a few decades ago, as Grant McCracken puts it, old people were "expected to remove themselves from the public stage, to relinquish positions of influence and usefulness, to retire their claims to a place at the center of things." (2004) Whether they were locked away in nursing homes or the back bedrooms of their own children's homes or quaint little apartments and retirement facilities, the elderly were generally like ideal children seen and not heard or noticed. However, increasingly middle aged and senior individuals are beginning to appear as vibrant actors in society and culture, boosted both by the demographic change in the nation and the significant advances in gerontology which has so lengthened the silver years of life. The question which begins to arise, is as to whether people moving from middle age to old age reduce their number of interpersonal relationships and contacts with society in general, or whether old age can be consistent with an active participation in the creation of society.
The question is more complicated than it may seem, because it could theoretically be answered either way. On the one hand, it seems probable that a younger professional in his or her early middle age, possibly still with children at home, would have a vast social network of which they were a part. Employment-based social groups would combine with neighborhoods bound together by the interlacing friendships of their children and their common interests. It is commonly understood that in middle age, parents of older teens may be experiencing great freedom. From this point in life, it seems that retirement would sever the social connections of the workplace, and that aging would isolate one from the community. Should divorce or death split the nuclear family, one is left alone and retired and old. So it might seem probably that social interaction decreases with age. However, on the other hand, a busy work and family schedule could preclude social development, while a luxurious retirement promoted the growth of cultural and social connections, and the eventual move into a retirement community actually represented the creation of a true community of seniors, with all the interpersonal relationships and contacts that implies. So one could suggest that the relationship between age and socialization went either direction -- that age dampened social responses, or heightened them.
The focus of this work must be to determine whether people moving from middle age to old age consistently loose friendships, or whether aging becomes a growing experience revered by all those involved.
It would be absurd to suggest that aging follows the same processes in all cultures, or that it is even sociologically similar in various subcultures. The experience of a native man or woman growing into an elder of a tribal society is surely vastly different than the experience of an third-world industrial worker becoming elderly, which in turn is different than the experiences of our postmodern elderly in the information society that rules America. So this work will limit itself to discussing the phenomena of aging within mainstream American culture. Yet even within mainstream America, it appears that there are at least two distinct sorts of senior cultures, with distinct styles of aging.
According to Grant McCracken (Ph.D) of the University of Chicago, there exists a sort of "Plenitude" within society, in which within many formerly distinct social groups (such as seniors, or adolescents) a variety of distinctive and unique life patterns have emerged, fragmenting this solid groups into distinctive segments. Among older people, he distinguished two aging styles which divided the populace. One is based on "a quiet revolution among the elderly...throwing off stereotypes" (McCracken, 2004) and choosing to live a very active and often very social life well past the general age of retirement from both employment and society. The other sort of aging is "still warehoused in old folks homes, those who have bowed before the cultural rules." (McCracken, 2004)
While the old who allow themselves to be warehoused fade away, the reinvented elderly take life in extreme ways, involving themselves in radical politics or even sports, building very active and diverse lives. He reports that despite the fact that many people disagree on the exact implications of the current senior movements, all sources agree that today "seniors are engaging in the reinvention of who they are and how they will live." (McCracken, 2004) In short, McCracken speaks of two sorts of seniors: those who approach these as the last years of their life, and subsequently spend them preparing for death, and those who attempt to use the last years of their life to take advantage of being alive. While vital seniors are often mocked in the news and by peers, they are a vibrant part of society.
This split in the fundamental nature of American aging is evident to some degree in the statistics regarding marriage, divorce, and dating among seniors. "Of the 97 million Americans who are 45 or older, almost 40% -- 36.2 million -- are on the loose [i.e. single], according to the U.S. Census Bureau."(Mahoney, 2003) A further study performed by the AARP showed that regarding singles between the age of 40-69, "43% didn't have one first date last year. We'd like to think that many of them already have a steady partner, but that's not the case." (Mahoney, 2003) Not only does this mean that the majority of middle age and senior adults are not dating, it also means that many of them are not having much physical contact (even the non-romantic sort) in their daily lives. "Thirty-six percent of those in their 50s admitted they hadn't been kissed or hugged even once in the last six months." (Mahoney, 2003) The AARP article that highlighted these sad realities focused on the need for the older generations to seek physical contact, love, and the dating scene. It seemed to be an exhortation from the active seniors to those stay-at-home sorts to get on the ball.
Of course, there may be more at work determining the way in which seniors react to aging than merely their individual propensities. One of the unfortunate truths about aging is that it is often filled with declining physical abilities, illness leading to disability, and even death. Any of these can contribute to a withdrawal from the social community. One major issue is the frequently encountered issue of age-induced hearing loss. An older person with hearing loss does not merge into the signing and lip-reading "deaf community" the way a younger person would, and may find it difficult to interact with people in the hearing world. "The older person with a hearing loss... may desperately want human contact, but not know how to achieve it. The extrovert may, in behavior, become the introvert. As a result, life may become confined to only a few one-on-one social visits with close friends or family, and may eventually end in solitude." (Smith & Kampfe, 1997, 15) Other disabilities that preclude full mobility can have a similar effect.
At the same time that disability may prevent or interrupt social relationships, it appears that social relationships may help prevent disability! A growing body of evidence suggests that social interaction and the network which emerges from it lengthens the productive life span and helps ward off senility and illness. "In a recent study of 2,800 people 65 and older... those who had more friends were less likely to become disabled and more likely to recover if they did suffer a period of disability. In an earlier study...those with no ties to others were two to three times as likely to die...Other studies have found that... people with more social contacts are less likely to suffer cognitive decline." (Navon & Sieger, 2000, S1) So it appears that more social older adults are also likely to be more mobile and more healthy than their retiring peers.
It appears that there may be two distinct answers as to whether the amount of social contact increases or decreases as individuals age, based on the health and inclination of the individual, and whether they follow a traditional or more active model of seniority. Studies which ignore this difference and draw from only one pool may then inaccurately report trends among older adults. The testable hypothesis presented as a response to this scenario would be as follows: Unhealthy and inactive elderly individuals (such as those at a nursing home) will report a steady reduction in interpersonal relationships and contacts with society in general beginning when they were in early middle age, while more healthy and active elderly people (such as those at a senior social function) will not report the same reduction.