Sociology of Old Age


The different roles assigned to individuals based on their gender have been under scrutiny for a long time. Research has shown that gender roles can be classified according to three theories, which define and expound on the same. The first states that in society, men are supposed to occupy more dominant positions and women are supposed to occupy subordinate positions; this theory manifest itself in the workplace and in households. For example, in the workplace, managerial teams usually have more men than women, while subordinate roles such as personal assistant and secretary are usually occupied by women. In most households, men are usually the head of the house while the women play a supportive role. The second theory is that woman’s behavior is supposed to be exhibit domesticity and femininity while men are supposed to be tough, manly and less emotional. Thus, if a man takes up domesticated roles such as being a househusband or a nurse, he is frowned upon by society. At the same time, if a woman is emotionally unexpressive and domineering, she is criticized for being manly. The essay analyzes gender roles, while demystifying the factors influencing ideations governing the same in any given society.

Roles According to Gender

               The social theories of old age are, disengagement theory, activity theory and life course theory. The disengagement theory states that old people should gradually disengage themselves from social and work roles for the benefit of themselves and the society. This theory was advanced by Cumming and Henry (1961). Withdrawing from social and economic activities as one ages is important because it gives the younger generation an opportunity to take up higher societal roles and gives this older generation time for reflection and relaxation. It has been found that disengagement differs by gender, as women tend to disengage earlier than men do. This is mainly attributed to health factors and inequality of economic resources between the genders. Women tend to have more health problems as they age and therefore are forced by this ailments and conditions to withdraw from active life earlier than men are. The economic welfare disparity between older men and older women also leads to women living a less active life than old men do, because they may not have sufficient financial resources.
               Activity theory is the opposite of the disengagement theory. It proposes that old people should remain active in the society even after retirement in order to derive satisfaction from life even in old age. The theory proposes that old people should constantly seek to replace their former roles in society with new ones in order to maintain an active lifestyle that will contribute to their physical and mental well-being. This theory is however not equally applicable by both genders. A 1995 study by the UN revealed that among the older population 42% of the men remained economically active while only 16% of the women were economically active. This can be attributed to the fact that throughout their lives, these women did not play a significant role in the labor force; therefore, in old age it is even harder for them to be economically active. The fact that many women have less financial resources or are dependent on family members restricts their participation in social activities as they get older.
               The life course theory suggests that ageing occurs in a series of stages, and at each stage, the individual faces a dilemma that he should work out in order to move to the next stage. The dilemmas are; adjustment to deterioration of health, adjustment to retirement, adjustment to the death of a spouse, family members or friends, adjustment to different lifestyles and living arrangements and lastly adjusting to the ageing process. Women generally tend to live longer than men do and are therefore more likely to experience the events and stages of the life course theory more and for longer. This theory is also applicable to women more than men because women tend to be more outgoing and communicative than men. Therefore, it is easier for women to adapt and adjust to this stages faster and better as they are more expressive of their feelings, which is a crucial step for adjustment.

The economic differences between men and women in old age arise from a combination of factors that take place from an early age. Men also accumulate more income than women do over their lifetime than women because the labor market is usually more biased towards men. Men are stereotyped as being hardworking, talented and intelligent than women; therefore, employers usually opt to employ a man over a woman. However, this stereotype is slowly being faded out and there is now more equality and gender balance in the workplace. The older generation was however not spared from this stereotype; this led to men becoming more financially stable. Gender roles also played a crucial part in this eventuality as they dictated that women were supposed to be caretakers and men were supposed to be the family’s income-earner. This has contributed to the income differences between the sexes even in old age.

Social roles are usually deeply embedded in an individual’s personality; and affect his or her behavior throughout the course of their life. Society dictates that women and men are also supposed to take on different occupational roles; men are generally supposed to take on the ‘tougher’ and more analytical jobs, while women are supposed to take up the easier roles, “for example in the hospitality and service industry” (Svallfors S 2006, p. 16). Even in households, men usually do the masculine chores such as fixing furniture while their female counterparts are left to do those chores considered as related to nurturing or looking after their families. These gender assumptions influence the behavior, roles and positions that men and women occupy throughout a person’s life even to old age. This is evidenced by the fact that in society, women are sometimes expected to abandon their careers in order to take care of their families and households. As a result, the income and savings they are able to accumulate is lower than for men; this is where the income disparity between men and women arises.

In most societies, men play the lead role while women play lower ‘assistant; roles. For instance, in many cultures it is taboo for women to claim an inheritance or own property; women are supposed to play second fiddle even in economic issues. As a result, there is inequality in the allocation of financial and economic resources between older men and women. This means, there are more male than female homeowners and as a result the population of older women living in institutions for old people or in relatives’ households is usually higher than that of men.

Women earn lower incomes over their lifetime than men do as they generally take more career breaks than men. Women take this career breaks due to factors such as, maternity leave and  taking care of their families and households. This works to their disadvantage in old age as they eventually accumulate lower pensions, hence the economic disparity between men and women even in old age. Another reason for the income disparities based on gender is that with age, women are more prone to health risks that render them unfit for breadwinning activities.


Better medical facilities, lower mortality rates at younger ages and higher awareness on nutrition and health awareness have all led to the increased life expectancy in the world. Women generally tend to live longer than men but are the more disadvantaged gender as a result of oppressive and unjust societal norms and expectations that they encounter throughout their lives. For both men and women to enjoy the ageing process equally, it is important for society to adjust its concepts about gender. This will enhance the quality of life for both men and women even in their old age.


Arber, S, Davidson, K & Ginn, J 2003, Gender and ageing: changing roles and relationships, McGraw-Hill International, New York

Calasanti, TM & Slevin, KF 2006, Age matters: realigning feminist thinking, CRC Press, Florida

Dixon, M & Margo, J 2006, Population Politics, Texas, US: Institute for Public Policy Research.

McCarthy, H & Thomas, G 2004, Home alone: combating isolation with older housebound people, Demos, New York

Svallfors, S 2006, Analyzing Inequality: Life Chances and Social Mobility in Comparative, Stanford University Press, UK

Schwartz, MA & Scott, BM 2003, Marriages and families: diversity and change, Prentice Hall, Ohio

Taylor, S & Field, D 2007, Sociology of Health and Health Care, Wiley-Blackwell, Massachusetts

Wahl, H, Tesch-Römer, C & Hoff, A, 2007, New dynamics in old age: individual, environmental, and societal perspectives, Baywood Publishers, New York

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