Sincronía Spring 2009


Pelin Önder Erol

Ege University, Faculty of Letters, Department of Sociology




Old age as a life stage is a socially constructed phenomenon though it is determined biologically as it is pointing out people who are 65 and over. A socially constructed world is not only performed by actors who are actively constructing their own worlds and but also by those who have influence upon those worlds through other social interventions. Social agents construct their own identities through the identity of others; hence in this case old age is constructed through being young; youth also construct the knowledge of old age.  In this regard, an emprical study to grasp the breadths and limits concerning the old age which is constructed by young people is carried out in order to illustrate the case in Turkey. The study includes conducting questionnaires on 156 university students (N=156) at all grades who conceive of old age fairly different from each other. The conclusions drawn from this quantitative research foster our argument in which a social constructionist approach is drawn on.



People construct all kind of knowledge about the social world both through getting involved in it and being the other for it. In construction of an object of knowledge, otherness is more powerful, yet based more on perception. Therefore, young people construct old age not by experiencing it, however as an other within this phenomenon, they produce this knowledge through their perceptions. They perceive what has been produced, and then reproduce it. As a matter of fact, according to Haim Hazan (1994) a study of socially constructed old age consists of two parts: handling old age as a socio-cultural object among the non-old and how old people construct their own world.  In this point, this paper examines this process in which young people contribute to the creation of old age in Turkey and how this social construction embodies itself among Turkish university students.

In societies, the cultures of which are neither modern nor traditional but positioned somewhere in between, the status of old people are conceived in a wide variety of ways. Turkish culture is a good examplar for it, elderly are respected in traditional Turkish culture; yet they are seen as unproductive especially where capitalist modes of production prevail, such as Turkish metropolises.

Turkish society was an overwhelmingly agrarian one; in this kind of society wisdom and experience which are gained through living for long years are precious. However as it is industrialized rapidly, elderly lost their power since specialization, regardless of the number of years lived,  which is attained through education gained importance in modern societies. As a result, old people in Turkey interestingly turned out to be symbolic objects who are respected and mostly cared by their children, if needed; on the other hand not recognized as social agents.

Turkish youth inherently contains both this traditionality and modernity when approaching the old age issue. University students, like other sub-groups in society, are differentiated among themselves mostly on the basis of their positioning in this sort of transitional period. Turkish society has been experiencing this transional period since 1980’s, mostly under the effects of globalization. However they constitute a generation who are not only subject to external impositions through all kind of means of media, but also experience the transformation most rapidly thus far. This kind of imposition inevitably brings about cultural transformation, which means many long-established values get increasingly weaker. This transformation is most appearant among youth, so in this study the quantitative data was drawn from questionnaires that are conducted among university students at all grades. Firstly how they conceive of old age both in terms of today’s elderly and their own future, secondly how they contribute to the perception that is created by the whole society and, lastly whether the capitalist discourse which imposes that elderly are unproductive and inefficient is embodied among them would be analyzed.



Social world is a semantic area which is constructed through language. Therefore literature on old age has a significant influence upon the ways old age is constructed. Being under the effect of functionalist theory, which dominated the scientific paradigm in the late first half of 20th century in America, many conventional gerontological theories arised. Disengagement Theory, which is firstly developed by Cumming and Henry (1961), claims that both old people and society disengage from each other, which serves for the common good. On the other hand Activity Theory, which is developed against Disengagement Theory, briefly argues that the more active the elderly are, the more they satisfy. As it is obvious, it still has a discourse which subordinates the old people through pointing out that they consist of a segregated group which has special needs, such as being active. As Hazan (1994:18) notes; “The notion of the aged as a problem rests on the fundamental assumption that there is an unbridgeable gap between the ‘aged’ and ‘society’…This distinction rests, in turn, on the assumption that the aged and the non-aged constitute two distinct categories of human beings”.

Critical gerontology, which has been rising for the last few decades, has been born as a necessary response especially to the scientific discourse which produces and reproduces the depressed and dependent status of old people. To illustate, “old age dependency ratio” has deep connotations beneath. In order to make this demographic formula clearer; it is the ratio of elderly population, namely 65 and over, to economically productive population, namely population aged between 15 to 64. The formula indicates the number of old people who need to be taken care of by each person who is actively working. One further step here is the economical discourse which indicates elderly as a burden. Here, it is obvious that old people are categorized as unproductive; however the point which needs to be paid attention is the fact that it is science who recognizes people over a fixed age as out of productive roles. The ideological reading of old age dependency ratio is the idea of us versus them. To claim that something is constructed socially is to deconstruct it;  hence it is argued that old age phenomenon needs to be deconstructed and the inherent meanings, for instance what old age dependency ratio ideologically means should be revealed. In fact, Walker (1981:89) states that, the dependency in old age is not determined by chronological age, but it is created by the social construction of the age. 

In this regard, political economy of aging reveals the inteweaving relationships between dependent status of elderly and mode of production. As McMullin (2000:520) notes “studies in political economy of aging consider the socially constructed nature of aging, old age and dependency”. “That the aged is no longer in the productive sector of the economy is precisely the point of examination which is critical to political economy approach” (Estes et al,1982:156). Hence, the perspective of political economy of aging is of great importance to demonstrate why and how old people are recognized as people having lower status in societies where capitalist modes of production dominates their economy.

Old age has “not only changed over time but has also varied among different cultures” (Hareven, 2005: 119). This is the strongest indicator which explains why old age should be seen as a reality which is socially constructed instead of a natural phenomenon. According to Berger and Luckman (1967), reality, in general, is constructed through three stages; externalization, objectification and internalization. The child internalizes the world of his own significant others in the way his parents form it (Berger and Luckman, 1967:154). That is why the family in which one is born has important effects upon how he conceives of ageing. The differences among respondents’ views about old age and ageing can be explained by means of their primary socialization period in which child externalizes, objectifies and internalizes the reality of old age for the first time; and by means of their secondary socialization which instutional-based internalization is performed. As they noted: “The periodization of biography is symbolized at each stage with reference to the totality of human meanings. To be a child, to be an adolescent, to be an adult, and so forth- each of these biographical phases is legitimated as a mode of being in the symbolic universe…[A]s he projects himself into the future, he may conceive of his biography as unfolding within a universe whose ultimate coordinates are known” (Berger and Luckman, 1967:117-118).

Discontinuties throughout the whole life course are resulted from the enterings into new periods. These transitional moments in the lives of people open up the doors of distinct stages within the life course. Drawing back from active working life designates a kind of rite of passage in the context of capitalist society. Being excluded from productive roles, in capitalist sense, old people are seen as passive and inefficient subjects. In fact, retirement is of great importance for the perspective of political economy of aging. Social devaluation is accompanied with superannuation, because people who are retired are devalued not only economically but also socially. In Hazan’s (1994:42) words “work roles are of enormous significance in terms of self-image, sense of place in the world, and social interaction and identity. Upon retirement, the work role dissipates or changes, and the aged face the loss former sources of power, respect, opporunities for advancement and social rewards”. However, many old people who still have a potential to be productive both in economical and social terms, are forced to withdraw from life. For long years people get educated or trained for working life, and then they get employed and ultimately they retire. It is clearly indicated here that in contemporary work society, life stages are determined by work. However, at the end of these evolutionary stages people who had worked for long years begin to live in a closed enviroment. This makes one feels that he is useless, and most importantly the person begins to question his social status within himself, and after a while these imaginations become deeply embedded and ossified at a societal level. As Walker (1981:88) writes, “the tyranny of age-barrier retirement provides the motivating force underlying a more general devaluation of the worth of elderly people in capitalist societies”.

Those people who lose their agency over their lives in micro and macro scales, immediately find themselves while standing at “the waiting hall of death”. This is a disagency process which is implemented by the society as a whole.  So is it a righteous cause to treat old people as if they are living deads having no social intervention and capacity to transform the social structure? Since “older people interact with their environment in a reflexive way to create their own social reality” (Walker,2000:304), the ways non-aged people conceive of old people determines how old age constructed socially and how those non-aged people contribute to this socially constructed phenomenon.



The ways younger generations conceive of old age is rather valuable data firstly because these generations will become old in the future. Hence, in order to make projections about how old age phenomenon will look like after about 50 years, it is effacious to take the considerations of younger people seriously. In addition, among non-aged generations today’s university age generation is of great importance because of a feature it has; this generation is heavily imposed by all kind of means of globalization. Therefore they reflect the realities which are constructed in a sort of transitional period from traditionality to modernity, and partly to postmodernity under the impact of globalization.

The questions in the questionnaire are organized in order to grasp the constructed realities about ageing and old age among university students. Moreover, it is also significant to keep in mind that people construct their own identities as the others see us. Thus, it is claimed in this paper that old age identity is constructed through the identity of other, namely young. It is the exact reason why young people’s perception is so important in regard to this issue. “Aging is an intergenerational enterprise which takes place in an intergenerational space” (Biggs,2008:119). Also parallel with this view, Hazan (1994:33) states; “According to the concept of the ‘looking glass self’, we see ourselves as we imagine others see us, and therefore the behaviour of older people and their attitudes towards themselves are shaped and reinforced by society’s prevailing images of them. By adopting these images, the elderly in turn confirm and strengthen them”.

On the other hand, young people, none of whom had no way to have already experienced the old are before, are too far to the idea of being old. In fact, a significant number of the respondents have stated that they had never imagined themselves as old. “De Beauvoir’s (1970) observation that when we are young, we can hardly conceive of what it is like to be old, yet the way a society behaves toward its old people reveals often carefully hidden truths about its principles and aims” (Biggs,2008:118). However, the research which looks at how young people contribute to construction of old age and how this social construct is reflected to the responses of these youth provides a meaningful data.

Average age to be old  It is considered that attaining a data about the age when old age begins is a valuable one. Drawing on the responses, the mean age found is 59, which means that university students are assuming that people become “old” at about their 59. This is meaningful when life expectancy at birth, which is 71,5[*] in Turkey, is taken into account, noting that it is not known whether the students responded so by knowing life expectancy at birth, or not.

Life arrangements of the grandparents The changing profile of family life in Turkey is an outcome of multiple reasons, the most effective of which is industrialization. In this period, the traditional extended family is shifted to nuclear family as a modern way of life. Mostly due to the migration within the country which has been the case since 1950’s, the number of family members becomes fewer. In fact this leads to a significant transformation in familial patterns. The responses to the question whether any of their grandparents live with their family are good evidence for this argument. 86% of the students responded as their grandparents do not live with their family.

The age until which the respondents wish to live is also an important indicator about how old age is perceived. The mean age until which the students wish to live is 76. However, the reason why they would like to live until those ages is as important as the age they specified. Interestingly, the reason why the biggest percentage of the students (42.2%) would like to live until the ages they specified; but not longer, is that they do not want to disturb people around them because of self-insufficiency and ill-health conditions in later life. Another group (34,7%)  responded as they would like to get wiser and see more in life until the ages they specified. In addition, another group of students (5,4 %) addressed to productivity issues as reasons for not living longer; they responded that they would like to live as far as they remain productive.

Consumption patterns of old people Unlike social theorists who argue that status of old people is based on their position in production which is closely relevant with work society, some claim that old people are integrated to the rest of the society to the extent they consume. In modern culture emphasis is on productivity, whereas in postmodern culture premium is put on consumptivity. Bauman (2006:92-93) analyzes the individual as an actor in consumer society. According to him, the contemporary society forms its members in a way it is ordered by the mission of playing consumer’s role. Moreover consumers are consist of all people regardless of their age, “years of childhood, adolescence, retirement and elderhood are all expected to be parts of a human life course in which people consume actively” (Ritzer, 2000:220).

Specifically in old age issue, consumer society itself produces a negative image of old age. As Powell and Longino (2002:222) states “…consumer society tends to reinforce negative language and images of later life”. Because only through this way can it encourage old people to behave in the same way young people do. In this context, it is questioned whether students consider Turkish elderly as having snowbird or golden age lifestyles or not. They are asked to mark a number between 1 and 5, where 1 indicates the lowest and 5 indicates the highest degree of agreement in a Likert type scale. In the statement concerning the matter of consumption, the level of agreement is found as 1,92 at average. It can be inferred from here that old Turkish people today are not conceived as active consumers, unlike their European or American counterparts.

Age-appropriate behaviour, “We are seeing an erosion of the cultural boundaries that separate youth, adulthood and old age, and we have entered a period in which norms for age-appropriate behaviour are in flux. This new ethos reflects the spirit of postmodern culture…” (Moody, 1993:xx). When it is asked for Turkish students to mention their degree of agreement to the statement “Old people should behave according to their old age identity”, the average degree is found as 3,03 out 5. When this outcome is anayzed in context of Moody’s perspective in which he focuses on norms for age-appropriate behaviour in postmodern culture, it can be concluded that in a society which has not been fully modernized yet, this outcome is not surprising.

A romantic wish for seeing grandchildren 14 out of 156 students, which points out a substantial number, indicated that they would like to see their grandchildren and have the opportunity to transfer their knowledge to next generations. Although “(t)he traditionalist project of finding meaning in family role or tribal membership stands in contrast to entire modern Western Project of individuality through self-creation” (Moody, 1993:xxvii), many students perceive grandparenting so meaningful that they would like to wait until it becomes real. If it is paid attention to what a 22-year-old female student says, it would be inferred that wisdom and ease are closely associated. “I would like to go on my life in ease and tell my life experiences to my grandchildren in a more peaceful life, after I get retired”. As 21-year-old male student states that he would like to live long; “[t]o witness that my grandchild grew, to bring him to parks by holding his hands”.

Living fully It is meaningful to point out to an old age perception in which the things to be done do not end until the life itself ends. It is embodied in a 24-year-old female student’s words; “But, I believe that one has many things to do till the last moment in her life; in other words I am opposed to the idea of ‘sequestering from the world”. A 21-year-old male student mentions that “I would like to live until my 120. Because I don’t think that I would lose my brain activity. There are many scientific developments to learn”.

Exploring the later life Some students mentioned that they would like to live too long since they want to see more in life. “We ought to go beyond 110.  In fact a couple of centuries maybe… Why? To explore”. This 24-year-old female student is eager to live for centuries to explore those times. Similarly, a 21-year-old female student mentions that she would like to reach her 100 and adds “It is maybe to have an idea about different stages of life, to expand life experience”.

Resisting to be old Another perception of old age is concerning with image of body. A 21-year-old female student states; “I would like to live until 65. Because I don’t want to get very old. I mean, seeing myself in mirror as very old, with a face that is decayed and wrinkled with age, would make me sorrowful, that is why, at the first place, I don’t want to see myself and I don’t want other people to see me like that”. This statement reminds us that how young people are imposed by negative images of old bodies and how those young people recreate those images by their attitudes and discourses. Another young female student who is at the age of 22 states: “In fact, I would like to live just until I feel I become old. I prefer dying over living as old”. The category of old age as a social construct is reflected by an 18-year-old student's words; “I would like to live until my 85 at most. Because, I would not like to live for a long time after I am categorized as old”.

Fear about old age and death as unknown phenomena. Some touched upon their fears about old age and death. “Currently, ageing has turned out to be rather fearful. I disagree to the idea that every age has a beauty in it” says a 23-year-old female student. In addition, a female student at 19 gives voice to her fear about death which is generally associated with old age. She mentions “I would like to live as long as a person can live. Because I am afraid of death”.

     These statements all provide some hidden truths about how young people consider the phenomenon of old age. They do not only reflect some common views about ageing, but also contribute to those views which in fact are social constructs.




In contemporary capitalist societies where the premium is put on production, old people who are compelled to withdraw from productive spheres are not seen as agentic selves. Although sometimes it is not their own decisions to retire, they are treated as dependent people and also as economic and social burdens. This is the most common image concerning with old age; in fact the responses get from univesity students prove this claim. That a significant ratio of respondents pointed out the “dependency matter” when their reason to live until the age they specified is asked, is an important indicator that they see old age period as a dependent life stage. “That the aged are segregated, constrained and transformed into dependent human beings is not the consequence of objective difficulties in functioning but the result of fundamental dilemmas concerning the perception of the aged and the acquision of knowledge about them” (Hazan, 1994: 82). “ [T]he stereotype of the elderly as a homogenous group with special needs has exerted a considerable influence on both public attitudes and social policies towards this group”. (Walker,1983:389)

However, knowledge is produced and reproduced both by the people who are directly involved in those spheres and by those who contribute to this production as an “other”. However, not only common sense but also scientific knowledge have tremendous effects upon the ways in which the realities are constructed. “The result of knowledge-building without a critical spirit serves to perpetuate structures of domination” (Moody, 1993:xvi). In this point, social theorists should approach the phenomenon in a critical way that they contribute to emancipation of old people through gerontological literature. “A great deal of influential research in social gerontology has tended to treat elderly people as a detached minority, independent from economic and political systems…”(Walker, 1981:88). This has been the case because most of the early works in social gerontology drew on functionalist theory which has a tendency to attribute old people’s dependency to their chronological ages and make biological-based explanations.

“Today the old and young, members of different historical cohorts, know less and less about each other and share little of each other’s cultural worlds” (Moody, 1993:xxviii). In this paper, it is mainly aimed to assess the degree to which young people have an idea about old people’s worlds. In addition, young people contribute to social construction of old age phenomenon by participating to this construction as other; but they inherently know that they are potentially old. Differentiation between young and old is perhaps the only one in which people of privileged side know that they will turn out to be the unprivileged one day. However, “a basic, structurally necessary relationship of imagined intergenerational continuity and support is in decline” (Greenberg & Muehlebach,2007:199). 

Moreover, how university students as today’s young, but futures’s old people perceive old age and ageing process is of great importance in foreseeing how ageing will be experienced. “How humans conceive of their worlds affects profoundly how they anticipate and create their future” (Atchley, 1993:4). “[F]uture population of older people will be more culturally and socially diverse than past cohorts of older people, as well as better educated and in better health, more inclined to maintain active lifestyles, and less inclined to accept uniform and stereotypical notions of what it means to be old” (Polivka, 2009: 562). The anticipations about elderly in future are so crucial for developing social polices in regard to meet the needs of old people.





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•Berger P. L. and Luckman T., 1967, The Social Construction of Reality, Allen Lane The Penguin Press: London


•Biggs, S. 2008, “Aging in a Critical World: The Search for Generational Intelligence”, Journal of Aging Studies, 22: 115-119


•Estes et al,1982, “Dominant and Competing Paradigms in Gerontology: Towards a Political Economy of Ageing”, Ageing and Society, 2:151-164


•Greenberg J. & Muehlebach A., 2007, “The Old World and Its New Economy: Notes on the ‘Third Age’ in Western Europe Today”, Cole J & Durham D. (ed.) Generations and Globalization, Indiana University Press: Bloomington


•Hareven, T. K., 2005, “Changing Images of Aging and the Social Construction of the Life Course”, Featherstone, M. And Wernick A. (ed.) Images of Aging: Cultural Representations of Later Life, Routledge: London


•Hazan H., 1994, Old Age: Constructions and Deconstructions, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge


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•Moody, H.,1993, “ Overview: What is Critical Gerontology and Why Is It Important?”, Cole, T. R. et al (ed), Voices and Visions of Aging: Toward a Critical Gerontology, Springer Publishing Company: New York


•Walker , A., 1981, “Towards a Political Economy of Old Age”, Ageing and Society, 1:73-94


•Walker, A.,1983, “The Social Production of Old Age”, Ageing and Society, 3:387-395


•Walker A., 2000,“Public Policy and the Construction of Old Age in Europe”, The Gerontologist, Vol.40, No.3, pp.304-308


•Polivka L., 2009, “Gerontology for the 21st Century”. The Gerontologist, Aug 2006; 46:4, pp.558-563


•Powell J. L. and Longino, Jr., C. F., 2002, “Postmodernism Versus Modernism: Rethinking Theoretical Tensions in Social Gerontology”, Journal of Aging and Identity, Vol.7, No.4, December 2002


•Ritzer, G., 2000, Büyüsü Bozulmus Dünyayi Büyülemek: Tüketim Araçlarinin Devrimcilestirilmesi, Ayrinti Yayinlari, Istanbul

Sincronía Spring 2009