Academic journal article Annual Review of Gerontology & Geriatrics

Subjective Aging and New Complexities of the Life Course

Academic journal article Annual Review of Gerontology & Geriatrics

Subjective Aging and New Complexities of the Life Course

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

How individuals evaluate their aging must be understood within a context of structural and cultural forces that transformed the human life course over the last century. This chapter applies social science perspectives to explore how structural and cultural dynamics shape the contour and content of aging and affect individual expectations and evaluations. The starting assumption is that subjective aging is largely intersubjective: How human beings experience aging is shaped by shared meanings, accumulated through lifelong socialization and feedback from persons around them. The chapter examines how subjective aging is connected to societal change in demographic and epidemiological conditions, the cultural shift toward individualization, and complex contingencies related to social relationships in contemporary life. It examines markers of becoming and being old and the degree to which subjective aging is similar or different for women and men. It closes with a discussion of how social factors can better be brought into research on subjective aging, and of how gerontologists are resistant participant observers in their own aging process and their communication about aging.

INTRODUCTION

Questions about how individuals understand and evaluate their aging present researchers with difficult conceptual and empirical challenges. These individual experiences must be understood within a context of structural and cultural forces that transformed the human life course over the last century. In this chapter, we apply social science perspectives, mostly from life course sociology, to explore how structural and cultural dynamics shape the contour and content of aging and affect individual expectations and evaluations. We hope to offer an important complement to the psychological perspectives that have been central to the evolution of inquiry into subjective aging since the 1960s.

Our starting assumption is that subjective aging is largely intersubjective: It is shaped by shared meanings, accumulated through lifelong socialization and feedback from other persons and interpreted in the particular social contexts in which we exist. Put simply, lives are embedded in social experiences. Our perspective builds, in part, on the "symbolic interaction" tradition in sociology and social psychology with central concepts such as Charles Horton Cooley's (1902) "looking glass self' or George Herbert Mead's (1913) concepts of the "I," "me," and the "generalized other," among other classical theorists and ideas associated with this tradition.

We begin by considering how subjective aging is connected to societal change in demographic and epidemiological conditions, the cultural shift toward individualization, and complicated contingencies related to social relationships in contemporary life. We entertain some markers of becoming and being old and the degree to which subjective aging is gendered. We end with a discussion of how social factors can better be brought into research on subjective aging, and why gerontologists need to be "reflexive," to use Bourdieu's (1992) term, about their own experiences with and communication about subjective aging.

THE IMPACT OF DEMOGRAPHIC AND EPIDEMIOLOGICAL CONDITIONS ON SUBJECTIVE AGING

The last century saw significant declines in mortality, morbidity, and fertility. These demographic changes created aging societies and transformed the aging experiences of individuals and families. Demographic change initially gave rise to the very concept of the life course when it became statistically normal to survive to a mature age (Kohli, 2007). Subsequently, demographic shifts permitted the reorganization of the life course and the reconfiguration of education, work, and family. Individuals can now generally count on surviving eight decades, with much of this time lived jointly with others. The unprecedented duration of relationships today is particularly striking in the family realm. …

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