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Age-Based Stratification

By Rowan Wolf, PhD. September 2005

Social Stratification by age is the most fundamental of stratification systems. One could argue that the way a society structures itself and its cultural ideology around age is indicative of how it constructs other forms of stratification. For example, one of the primary ways of "putting people in their place" is tone of voice. Higher status groups are generally talked to in a "respectful" tone of voice. Those with lower status are often "talked down" to - or talked to as if they were children. This early socialization into age status rules and roles is often reflected in the way other status group rules operate.

Age stratification is similar to other forms of stratification with the distinctions between strata being drawn by age groups. What those groups are and how they are layered varies widely across cultures. The most basic strata are infants, children, adults, elders. How many strata there are, where the transitions are, and the social structuring and roles of each group is truly a societal issue.

In societies where infant mortality is high (including the U.S. prior to the 1900's) infants are frequently not considered "people" or even given names for a period of time after their birth - usually three days to three months. Children have been seen as "expendable" in some societies
(Western Europe prior to the 1600s) through what we now call "toddlers." In hard times, the youngest children might be literally pitched out so the rest of the family could survive.

Like other forms of stratification, age systems divide resources, privileges, and responsibilities to the different strata. Sometimes special rights, or even laws apply to some groups but not to others. For example, in the U.S. we have various laws that are status based. Most of the remaining "status offenses" apply to those who are not yet adults; however, this has not always
been the case. The age-based status offenses cover activities for which it is legal for adults to engage in (drinking, being out after a certain time, reading certain materials, etc.), but are illegal when engaged in by a "minor." Adults can "run away" from home legally; children cannot. One of the remaining status differences among US citizens is that opposite sex couples can legally
marry, (so far) same sex couples cannot.

In many societies (and some cultures outside mainstream U.S. society) age stratification shows a clear progression across the age structure. Children have the lowest status, followed
by adults, followed by elders. A number of factors have influenced how age stratification actually works in mainstream society in the United States. Below we will explore some of the social forces that have influenced the "natural order" of age stratification.

It appears that for much of the history of human society, there has not really been the concept of
"childhood" as we know it today. Once a child was able to speak and eat on its own, it was essentially considered a miniature adult capable of participating in a limited way in the survival of the family. Once "children" hit puberty, they were considered adults, though they might not take on adult roles until they formed their own family. There was no concept of adolescence. For
many places in the world, this is still largely the case. To a large extent, the invention of both childhood and adolescence are a function of increasing agricultural production and industrialization.

In agricultural societies, including the U.S. during the agricultural period, the family was the primary economic unit rather than the individual. As soon as children could contribute in any way (pulling weeds, gathering eggs, hauling water, etc.) they were contributors to the economic unit. While public education was an early feature in the United States, it was extremely limited and structured to fit around agricultural schedules (as it still is today). School was not mandatory, and focused almost totally on reading and writing. As the industrial revolution progressed and became institutionalized business owners required higher levels of skill from their workers.

Slowly, the amount of education offered, the skills needed, and finally mandatory education created a longer and longer period of dependency for children. This changed their status from being economically productive members of their families to ongoing dependents. As we advance towards the middle of the twentieth century, mandatory education expands through high school, and we invent adolescence. Adolescence is that period of time from the onset of puberty, to "legal" age. - basically, 21 years old.

What we see happening here is that the concept of age is changing as social conditions and economic demands change. It is interesting when we look at the roles and expectations that we have of various age groups. Children went from "miniature adults" expected to act like adults but without the rights of adults, to a carefree, dependent period of exploration and learning. When we look at the expectations of "teenagers," we define this as a rebellious period of individuation. We simultaneously expect adolescents to act like adults and rebel from them at the same time. This is a period where people are sexually mature, but socially and economically dependent.

There does finally come a time when people reach adulthood (as it is currently constructed), but even that is in flux. The expectation, and necessity, of education beyond high school has many "adults" ending up in an extended adolescence either living with their parents or being supported by them as they continue their education. Rapidly increasing costs of living combined with stagnant or falling wages also send "adults" back into their parent's homes. People can find themselves in the situation where they are legally adults, but trapped socially in childhood.

Childhood in the U.S. also has another interesting effect in that children are essentially "property." The laws of child custody and care largely follow property law. Anyone who has been adopted (or is familiar with adoption) will know this very well. You are property that is removed from one owner (your parents) into the ownership of the state, who then confers "title" to you to the adoptive parents. This property relationship is apparent in other aspects of life. Parents are not simply responsible for the care of their children, but for their actions. Parents are esponsible for paying for the damage their children cause (such as breaking a window) the same way they are if other property causes damage (say your dog bites someone).

Let's explore the other end of the spectrum - the elderly. Just to put things in context, in the United States in 1820, only 2% of the population was over 65 and virtually none were over 85 years old. Fifty-eight percent of the population was under twenty. By 1950, eight percent of the population was over 65, 34% were under 20, and still virtually none were over 85. By 2050, it is expected that 4.8% of the population will be over 85, 21% over 65, and 25 % under 20 (U.S. Census Bureau). Social Security was implemented in 1935 by President Roosevelt. The driving force in implementing a paid "retirement" was to move older workers out of the labor force to make jobs available for younger workers.

This is where one of the problems with stereotypes of the elderly came into play. We live in a society that has become increasingly centralized on the economy as the center of life. Working, and the work one does, becomes central to our concepts of ourselves and how others see us. Think about introducing yourself to someone. What is generally within the first three questions that get asked? "What do you do?" Paid labor makes us not only able to function in society, but has come to define who is a "productive" member and who is not. What mandatory retirement did was to force people out of "productivity." They were no longer "useful" to society. They were dependent upon others for their survival (even if they had savings of their own). Because of the central place of "work" in this society, non-workers are of lower status. When a policy is implemented that essentially makes an age group economically dependent, then they lose "value" within the conceptualization of the society. Hence, we get all the negative stereotypes of the elderly.

There is another interesting twist at play within the U.S. construction of age. That is an idealization of "youth." Now it is hard to say what "youth" is but it appears to span the late teens to the mid-twenties. It is this age group that is seen as being vibrant and "attractive." However, this is also an age group that is seen as not being particularly "mature" and "responsible." All of this serves to create a conflict that on one hand elevates the status of this group, while those falling beyond that age are seen as increasingly less socially desirable. We can see this emphasis on "youth" as desirable at the other end of the spectrum - children. Increasingly, even very young children are dressed and decorated to look like "little adults" - more mature, and certainly more sexually mature, than they are.

The Affects of Age Stratification in
Our Lives

It is difficult to overstate the impacts of age stratification in our society and our day-to-day lives. From the role expectations of various age strata, to the stereotypes, to the segregation of age groups, to social policies developed, age impacts us all of our lives. Children are expected to be obedient and carefree. Teens are expected to be rebellious and destructive. Adults are expected to be "contributing, law abiding" members of society. The elderly are portrayed as largely feeble of mind and body, backwards and stuck in their ways, and drains on the society personally and economically. Children are segregated into schools, and within that into narrow age groups. Adults are in the world of work. Many elderly are ultimately institutionalized, or left alone in a shrinking world of friends and family. Both physical and social isolation reinforce our cultural perception of age and the people who populate them.

Social class and race play tremendous roles in the actual impacts of the age stratification system. Those across the population who lack economic resources suffer disproportionately. If we focus on the issue of age (and there are many aspects that go beyond age) in relationship to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans we see that the poor elderly, and disabled seemed most trapped and most likely to die in the disaster. Those without resources - in general - were not able to leave the city. They had neither the transportation or economic resources to leave. Those who had a choice (in other words were free and able to leave their homes) could go to the Super Dome or the Convention Center. There was not food, water, medical supplies, or backup generators at either location. Of those who did not, or could not, go to these "shelters of last resort" many were elderly and/or disabled. Many of these lived alone or in nursing homes. Some were in hospitals, and the public/charity hospitals were not evacuated until days after the storm.
By and large, they were left behind and left to die.  In one case, residents of a nursing home were strapped to their beds and left to drown in the rising waters. At the time of this writing, the owners of the nursing home are facing charges for 34 deaths (International Herald Tribune). As of (9/13/05) over 1600 children evacuated from New Orleans and the surrounding area are still either orphaned or separated from their parents.

Generally, those who had the economic resources were able to evacuate before the storm. This included residents in more expensive nursing homes and independent living centers, and those in the private hospitals. The primary difference between escaping or not, between living or dying, for the elderly and disabled was their social class. Disproportionately this meant that those who escaped and lived were white, while those who did not were people of color. President Bush stated: ""The storm didn't discriminate, and neither will the recovery effort," ( CBS 5.com, 9/13/05)  but neither the preparation for disaster, or the efforts afterward were able to overcome the institutionalized racism, classism, or ageism of out society.


Age plays a basic role in our social structuring and institutions. It is important to realize that age, while an ascriptive status, is socially structured and transforms across time and society. Our basic introduction into the roles and rules of status occur in our early socialization as children. The foundation of how we interact across status groups - including age groups - are located in those early lessons.

Not all societies or cultures have the same age systems and meanings as mainstream U.S. society. However, in terms of the age status groups within mainstream society in the United States, children and the elderly vie for the lowest status while adults have higher status. There is a cultural discrepancy on whether "youth" or "adults" have higher status within this system. On one hand, "youth" is presented as being socially desirable, but "adult" is seen as being economically more stable and responsible. On the whole, "adults" have higher status than youth. This is a dramatic contrast to many other societies (and even cultures within the United States) where elders clearly have the highest status and are valued for their wisdom.

To Explore Further

The History of Childhood : a Powerpoint presentation from California State University. examining the concept of childhood in Western Europe from 500-1550.

The Philosophy of Childhood from Stanford University discusses the concept of childhood and how it has changed over time.

The History of American Education links to articles covering different periods in the development of education in the United States.

History of
American Childhood
- this is a detailed course description, but it contains some interesting discussion about the development of childhood.

The Invention of Adolescence - Psychology Today article on the invention of adolescence. It looks at both the cultural and physical changes that have occurred from the 1600s forward.

Explore a Century of Teen Life to Uncover Chicago's Past  This is an interesting examination of "teen" life over the last 100 years in Chicago. It offers an excellent comparison of the vast differences in what we think of "teens" now and what their role in society was a hundred years ago.

Social Security History This is an exploration of the implementation of social security as a program from 1935 to the present.