Academic journal article Generations

Beyond the "Haves" and "Have Nots"

Academic journal article Generations

Beyond the "Haves" and "Have Nots"

Article excerpt

From the beginnings of gerontology, scholarship and research has been framed by a "normal aging" paradigm that sees aging as a set of universal, organismically based processes that create uniformities and common patterns of change over the life course and across multiple domains of experience (i.e., health, functioning, lifestyle, and relationships). Despite frequent critiques, the normal aging paradigm continues to be influential.

Yet, despite its enduring resilience, over recent decades this traditional approach has been challenged, or at least balanced, by a growing emphasis on the diversity of older people, as scholars and practitioners have observed that older people are remarkably heterogeneous, perhaps more so than any age group (Bass, TorresGil, and Kutza, 1990; Stone et al., 2017). Many gerontologists welcomed this emphasis on diversity as a corrective to the rigid and static view implied by the original aging paradigm. But also diversity was welcomed as a challenge to negative stereotypes of old age and oversimplified responses to older people's needs, whether in medical diagnosis or in policy recommendations.

Initially, few seemed to note the logical disconnect between the focus on "normal" or "normative" aging (and the concomitant reliance on central tendency measures), and acknowledgment of the heterogeneity of the older population. As a topic, diversity was typically limited to incidental and generally upbeat comments (offered to counter negative images of age), was used to advance notions of "successful aging" (Rowe and Kahn, 1987), or was used to celebrate individual uniqueness (e.g., Shirahase, 2015). It was not generally acknowledged as a phenomenon in need of explanation and analysis in its own right.

But for those of us concerned about heterogeneity as a robust phenomenon needing analysis and explanation, it quickly became clear that a great deal of what passed for diversity of older people stemmed not from the uniqueness of individual personalities or volitional choices, but rather reflected inequality among older peo^ABSTRACT ple in terms of socioeconomic resources (Crystal and Waehrer, 1996; Dannefer and Sell, 1988) and health (Kelley-Moore and Ferraro, 2004; Mirowsky and Ross, 2008).

Researchers soon recognized that although older adults' diversity can be something to celebrate, it is equally or more important to note persistent patterns of inequality and how they are amplified through social processes that tend to cumulate advantage and disadvantage among age peers, operating over the collective life course of each succeeding cohort (Dannefer, 1987). Such findings have been independently verified and replicated in other analyses of both cross-sectional (Easterlin, Macunovich, and Crimmins, 1993) and longitudinal (Crystal and Waehrer, 1996) data, suggesting that a pattern of cumulative dis/advantage is a regular feature of cohort aging.

Inequality at the Macro, Meso, and Micro Levels

As has been shown elsewhere (Dannefer, 1987; forthcoming), this phenomenon has its source in inequality-generating mechanisms, broadly referred to as cumulative dis/advantage processes that are inherent in social life and experienced over the entire life course. A common misconception about cumulative dis/advantage is that it is embedded solely in macro-level structures (i.e., social structures and institutions) where gross sorting occurs (e.g., in policies that generate social inequality, such as residential redlining). This perspective allows consideration of macro-structural inequalities, but may yield to individualized explanations (e.g., individual agency or psychological dispositions, like resilience) at the meso level (i.e., organizations) or micro level (i.e., interpersonal interaction). Yet, an essential aspect of cumulative dis/advantage is its multi-leveled, systemic character: the mechanisms that underlie it operate at the macro, meso, and micro levels of social process.

Macro-Level analysis

At the macro level, trajectories of increasing intra-cohort inequality with age in the United States are robust across cohorts (Crystal and Waehrer, 1996; Dannefer and Sell, 1988), with each successive cohort displaying a similar trajectory of inequality, reflecting the large-scale social regulation of economic factors, and the intersection of basic mechanisms of social stratification with the aging of each cohort. …

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